In the past, agriculture has played an important role in the maintenance of genetic diversity. The substitution of a large quantity of species for only a few and the adoption of high yielding and uniform varieties from a genetic point of view, has caused a significant reduction in the genetic inheritance of cultivated species. Many agricultural species, varieties and breeds which have played an important role in the human diet and traditional cultures have practically disappeared over the last century.
In the last decade, the adoption of organic agriculture has indirectly established a rescue process of species, varieties and breeds threatened by under-use or extinction. Stronger collaboration has been evident among movements aiming to defend biodiversity (such as the Slow Food Movement) and the organic agriculture movement. This is especially the case now that there is interest in traditional, speciality and organic products. For the rescue of varieties threatened by extinction, the development of a market is fundamental and it is here that organic agriculture plays an important role as the price premium gives an additional value to the product.
As illustrated by the case studies below, the restoration and enhancement of under-utilized species and varieties has been motivated by a food demand concerned with health and culinary traditions. The first two cases illustrate the discovery of the nutritional value of the gluten-free quinoa in Peru and Saraceno grain in Italy. The case of rice in Indonesia shows the role of local varieties in traditional diets and cultures. Consumer demand for speciality products such as the Garfagnana spelt in Italy, has re-established this product economic viability. In all these cases, organic agriculture has allowed the maintenance and improvement of species and varieties that otherwise would suffer strong genetic erosion or extinction. Although not illustrated under this heading, similar examples exist for animal breeds and races.
Since at least 3000 BC, if not longer, the seed of the plant Chenopodium quinua has been a vital part of the Andean diet, used as a grain in baking, as well as being served in numerous dishes prepared by Aymara, Quechua and other indigenous peoples throughout the Andean region. Yet, in spite of its nutritious value and hearty growth, the arrival of the Spanish, led to change. Farmers were sent into the mines of Peru and Bolivia and non-native crops were introduced for Spanish consumption. During the colonial period, quinoa use was associated strictly with native populations, leading to an undesirable perception of the seed as belonging to the lower class. In the last ten years, however, there has been an increasing interest in quinoa. The absence of gluten makes it ideal for sufferers of Celiacs disease.
In 1994, following the new interest in quinoa production, a group of farmers from La Unión, the northern part of the department of Arequipa, Peru, decided on a scheme for the promotion of farming within the Province, adjusting their activities to the requirements of the international market. One of the initial strengths was considered to be that of agricultural production without the use of synthetic organic chemicals, following the rich cultural tradition.
The Association of Organic Crop Growers (APCO) was then formed in 1996. Its social objective was to promote and develop organic agricultural production among the farmers of La Unión and encourage the conservation of biodiversity, research, commercialisation and other activities that would permit an improvement in the productivity and quality of the produce. By the end of 2001, there were 238 farmers belonging to the Association and 350 enrolments were being processed for inclusion in the 2001-2002 agricultural campaign.
The territory coincides approximately with the Cotahuasi River Basin. With valleys between 2 400 and 3 400 meters above sea level, organic farmers produce quinoa associated with maize, in a wide rotation that includes alfalfa, potatoes, peas, wheat and other crops depending on the altitude of the farm. Land is fertilized directly through bovines that are allowed to graze on the crop residues or pastures. Control of pests and diseases is carried out through modifications in the sowing season and through other agro-ecological practices. An Internal Control System Committee ensures, with the participation of the farmers, that the norms of organic production are followed. APCO organizes the certification of its produce with the certification agency, Biolatina.
With the help of the Specialised Sustainable Development Association (AEDES), a development NGO that advises the local government and the population of La Unión Province, awareness has been raised amongst the APCO members to the role of organic crop production as a method of conserving and protecting the environment and biodiversity of the Cotahuasi Basin. This has included the creation of a micro-regional rural development plan integrating within the management of the Cotahuasi river valley, the local knowledge of the Andean cultures, in order to achieve sustainable management of biodiversity. This has been carried out within the guidelines of the local Agenda 21 and has improved the socio-economic conditions for the farmers of the valleys.
In 1996, the International Slow Food Movement (an association of some 80 000 gourmets worldwide, with the objectives ranging from the gastronomic education of consumers to the promotion of biodiversity for food and agriculture) launched the idea of an Ark of Taste. The objective of this project is to document, catalogue and safeguard small and quality agricultural diversity threatened, or potentially threatened, by extinction. The products chosen to be safeguarded include plant species, varieties and ecotypes as well as autochthonous or well-adapted animal populations in a specific territory.
In order to promote these products, guaranteeing them an economic and commercial future, preserving degraded territory and creating new employment opportunities, an organizational instrument called "Presidia" was created. These are formed by local producers and are backed by local public organizations. "Presidia" elaborate production regulations for each of the products that they intend to save. These take into consideration not only cultural-historical aspects and biodiversity, but also environmental problems and small-scale economies, proposing agronomic and livestock practices that are not aggressive to the natural environment. In some (but not all) cases the production regulations are explicitly of organic nature and prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides such is the case for Saraceno grain from Valtellina and the Zolfino bean from Pratomagno, Italy.
Saraceno grain (Fagopyrum sculentum) was one of the fundamental foods in the diet of the poor farmers from Valtellina (Piemonte Region, Italy) and of all the alpine region until the last century. It was used to make black polenta and "pizzoccheri", a type of homemade pasta made with flour from the Saraceno grain and wheat. However, its labour intensive and costly cultivation are both factors that have led to its decline. The Saraceno grain is now only cultivated on the slopes of the high valleys due to its rusticity and resistance to cold climates, and where it is lightly attacked by parasites. However, as the Saraceno grain does not contain gluten, the last few years have seen an increased interest in its cultivation as it is an ideal food for people affected by Celiacs disease.
The Slow Food Presidia, supported by the Municipality of Teglio (Piemonte) and by the Mountain Community of Valtellina de Tirano, proposed the reintroduction of the cultivation of the Saraceno grain using organic production techniques and has since elaborated production regulations that only allow organic fertilization and prohibit pesticides. The land used for Saraceno grain cultivation is put through a rotation of 2 or 3 years.
Another Presidia that has adopted organic regulations is that of the Zolfino bean, a dwarf variety (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) cultivated in an area of Pratomagno, Tuscany, Italy. It is characterized by some peculiar organoleptic qualities that make it especially suitable for some gastronomic preparations typical of the Tuscany cuisine.
This variety is particularly adapted to low-potential lands in the hills and mountain areas and is frequently cultivated on terraces in association with olives. The drastic reduction in the farming population that occurred in the region after the Second World War has caused the progressive abandonment in the cultivation of this bean11. It is only the patient work of a few farmers over the last few years that has allowed the Zolfino bean to avoid extinction, stimulating its revival and development.
Rice is the staple food of not only 95 percent of the Indonesian population, but of Asia as a whole. In 1967, paddy rice varieties in Indonesia were diverse, including over 7 000 varieties. However, in 1965, the planting of local rice varieties was prohibited, resulting in the near extinction of local rice varieties.
The changes in the Indonesian agricultural system over the past 25 years caused many deleterious effects. Among them are soil infertility, the appearance of new pests, the economic dislocation of many poor and food insecurity. After some years of adoption of modern farming techniques, the productivity of rice dropped, even though the use of fertilizers rose.
Due to the near extinction of many local rice varieties, in 1997, "Pusspaindo" (a private organization that focuses on biodiversity) launched a project for the recovery of local rice varieties. The main objective was to promote farmer's independence through the use of local varieties, using local wisdom and traditional production systems.
In cooperation with poor farmers and farmhands, one kilogram of a local rice variety was obtained. This was planted, multiplied and distributed amongst farmers. In 1997, several local rice varieties (e.g. Siyem Putih, Rajalele, Nongko Bosok), which are top "yielders" and resistant to pests, have been found in East Java and are being planted in East and Central Java.
Aside from the revival of local rice varieties, Pusspaindo is also promoting the production of rice using organic methods of pest control. Pusspaindo has carried out experiments proving that local rice varieties can achieve higher yields than the new introduced varieties. Yields of 10-14 tonnes per hectare have been achieved.
Indigenous agricultural knowledge, from land preparation to planting, harvest, processing, rituals and prayers and recipes for medicine has also been documented. Local rituals have been staged to make farmers realise the importance of local rice varieties.
Other activities carried out in relation to local rice varieties and the indigenous knowledge that accompanies them include: organization of farmers into groups; establishment of demonstration plots; production and dissemination of educational materials; organization of seminars and training workshops; opening of a consultation service; development of a marketing system; and establishment of a network and advocacy campaign.
According to Pusspaindo, local rice is superior compared to modern rice. It has a better flavour, higher production, is more nutritious, can be grown continuously throughout the year, is easier to plant and more economical, especially if grown organically. Some local varieties also have medicinal properties for common diseases such as stomachache, cough, metabolic acceleration, and others.
Most importantly, local rice is part of Indonesian culture. For thousands of years, Indonesians have been growing local varieties of rice, developing their own technique for the production of high yields, providing for their own needs as well as a surplus. This they did for thousand years without damaging the soil, at the same time developing and conserving their varieties. In fact, Java was previously known as Jawa Dwipa (Jawa meaning island and Dwipa meaning rice) and used to be famous for its tradition as an exporter of delicious rice.
In this context, many communities who care about the future of Indonesia, especially in terms of food security, have been bound together in the study of the traditional knowledge surrounding rice production and on the natural agricultural ecosystems, understanding that their futures could be dependent upon them.
Spelt wheat (diverse species from the genus Triticum and Spelta) is the oldest cereal known. It was first cultivated by the Babylonians and later by the Egyptians. It has been the staple food for centuries of Asian and Mediterranean populations. According to some studies, its centre of origin is in Palestine, from where it was spread by nomads. In Italy it has been cultivated since the Bronze Age and later spelt was one of the principle foods of the Romans. Its decline began in the Middle Ages when other cereal crops of greater yield and easier working started to be cultivated.
For these reasons, spelt wheat remained in limited marginal areas of altitude between 500 and 1500 meters above sea level. This includes the Garfagnana (an area of high hills and mountains in the Lucca Province, Tuscany) where the difficult geopedological and climatic conditions allow the plant, thanks to its rusticity, to vegetate and grow.
Spelt persistence in the Garfagnana area depends above all on its links with local traditions. It is the fundamental ingredient in some traditional dishes such as soups and savoury cake. Since the early 80s, spelt wheat has seen a return in various regions within the centre of Italy, as the healthy properties of this cereal attract consumers. Spelt wheat contains high levels of fibre and it is cultivated traditionally, without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.
Consumers' interest has been determining an increase in price of the cereal and consequently, the diffusion of its production to the plains. Here yields are higher, but cultivation practices do not always follow traditional methods, threatening the production on the hills that has been maintained for centuries.
In order to overcome this situation and give value to local production, the Mountain Community of Garfagnana applied for, and obtained, European recognition for Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) in 1996. The regulations drawn up for Garfagnana spelt common variety (Triticum dicoccum), and the description of the genotype that through the years has adapted to the local climate and terrain, prescribes agronomic practices for its production as "organic". These include rotations with meadows, the prohibition of the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers and the mandatory use of seeds coming from local populations. Compliance with these regulations is guaranteed by the activities carried out by the Italian Association for Organic Agriculture (AIAB), under the authorisation of the Ministry of Agriculture.
These measures have stimulated an increase in the production of Garfagnana spelt and in the value of the production. The area under cultivation has practically doubled in the last three years, reaching about 200 ha, the producers obtaining a price of between 25 and 30 percent higher that spelt without a geographical indication label.
The adoption of the PGI for Garfagnana spelt is important for the preservation of local varieties that have been selected throughout centuries. The "organic" regulations (including the prohibition of chemical pesticides and fertilizers) afford greater value to production and provide a guarantee to the consumer regarding their interest in food with decreased pesticide residues. Production also favours the local economy of Garafagnana which, like all mountain areas of Italy, has suffered a decrease in population over the last decades and a progressive socio-economic marginalization of its inhabitants.
9 Source: Jordan Erdos, 2002. Quinoa, Mother Grain of the Incas. In: Sacred Food of the Incas from the World's Deepest Valley. APCO /AEDES web site: www.aedes.com.pe
10 Sources: L'Arca, 2001. Il grano Saraceno della Valtellina. Quaderni dei Presidi Slow Food 2001;
Di Napoli Raffaela and Davide Marino, 2001. Biodiversità e sviluppo rurale.
11 In the Regional Register (Tuscany) of Autochthonous Genetic Resources LR 50/97 it is shown at risk of genetic erosion.
12 Source: Sismanto Joseph, 2002. Management of Diversity of Local Rice and Organic Agriculture for Strengthening Indonesia's Food Security. Centre of Study and Development of Indonesian Rice (Pusspaindo). Paper presented to the GRAIN International Workshop on the Local Management of Agricultural Biodiversity, Rio Branco, Brazil, 9-19 May 2002.
13 Sources: Rossi Asanella and Massimo Rovai, 1999. La valorizzazione dei prodotti tipici: un analisi secondo l'approccio di network. Rivista di Economia Agraria N° 3/1999, INEA;
Di Napoli Raffaela, Davide Marino and Paolo Foglia, 2001. Biodiversità e sviluppo rurale. Quaderno informativo INEA.