Plant Genetic Resource for Food and Agriculture (PGRFA) and conservation will become increasingly important in the context of climate change.
This is especially given the potential of climate change in reversing the development efforts, particularly in the agricultural sector, says Agriculture, Water and Forestry minister, John Mutorwa. He last week stressed the importance of PGRFA when he officially launched Namibia’s own strategic Plant Genetic National Strategic Action Plan for 2016-2026.
Mutorwa says PGRFA is essential to sustaining livelihoods and providing food security for many people. Particularly in the northern cropping regions of the country, unique cultivars of staple crops have been selected and developed for hundreds of years, while many crop wild relatives and indigenous plants supplement diets provide alternate income-generating opportunities. Associated with these resources, is a rich heritage of traditional knowledge that is the key to discovering and developing new crops and new traits of agronomic importance. This is to enhance agricultural production in a country that needs to cope with erratic and unpredictable weather conditions. “With some foresight and as part of a SADC regional network in the early 1990s, Namibia developed a national programme for the conservation and use of plant genetic resources. The National Plant Genetic Resources Centre (NPGRC) within the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry (MAWF) is a section devoted to collecting, documenting, conserving and promoting the use of local germplasm. To date, the centre houses more than 4,000 accessions in the national ex situ collection.
These accessions represent major staples of pearl millet, sorghum, and maize, as well as legumes and melons that are important to the food security of local communities in the northern regions of Namibia. Through international support and linkages, several Namibians have received specialist post-graduate training. Namibia was an active participant in the negotiations that resulted in the International Treaty for PGRFA, and continues to serve energetically in its Governing Body, and is also a long-serving member in the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture of the FAO,” he notes.
Mutorwa says while conservation efforts have been sustained over 25 years, value addition to the conserved material still remains a challenge. The use of ex situ germplasm collections in developing countries, in general, is still limited by low capacity in plant breeding, and inadequate information on local germplasm available to be considered in crop improvement programmes. The MAWF has had some significant success in this regard. However, with the development and release of several cultivars of pearl millet, the most noteworthy being the Okashana varieties, developed in-house in the late 1990s, these drought-tolerant varieties have enjoyed wholesale uptake by farmers, which has strengthened household food security. But, ironically, and at the same time, it has also resulted in a steady decline in the broad range of local varieties, readily available to farmers.
“With the recent introduction of in situ conservation activities, and a growing acknowledgement of the historical and ongoing contribution of small-scale farmers, marrying the traditional approaches and scientific endeavour will have the potential to strengthen the capacity and contribution of such farmers to deal with household, regional and national food security. Our farmers are extremely knowledgeable and resourceful. Living close to the land, and through close observations of and responses to subtle and substantial changes, applying novel approaches, improved over many generations, these farmers would be important participants in developing new PGRFA innovations,” observes Mutorwa.
Provisions need to be made to both incorporate their inputs, as well as to give due recognition to customs and traditions that underpin these inputs, he says gratified that at national level, definite progress has been made in the enactment of legislation regarding the conservation and use of genetic resources and their associated traditional knowledge, while at the international level, recognition is being afforded the unique local customs and practices surrounding the use of PGRFA in Namibia. “UNESCO recently inscribed on its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage for Humanity, the first case for Namibia that relates to the traditional practices and customs associated with the use of marula (Oshituthishomagongo festival) – an indigenous tree species bearing edible fruit,” Mutorwa concludes.