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Biodiversity & intercropping alternatives to GE biotech monoculture

by moth Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2004 at 11:09 AM

With genetically engineered biotech crops taking over sustainable intercropping subsistence farming, the lives of African people are in the hands of multinational biotech corporations and their genetically engineered monoculture seeds..

All info below is 4 public domain, please forward to anyone if it helps stop the biotech corporations and their genetically engineered domination of biodiversity..

African Traditional Farming and Native Plant Gathering

African people relied on traditional farming methods for thousands of years before European colonialism to ensure survival of crops and people. Intercropping is when several different plants are grown together in the same location, usually benefiting one another through symbiosis. Native food plants that were adapted to local climate and/or soil conditions were harvested and replanted also. Some of the most important plants for survival were yams, rice, groundnuts and maize. Traditional farming provides alternatives to the increasing pressure by multinational corporations and World Trade Organization (WTO) to introduce genetically engineered monoculture into Africa. The famine in many parts of Africa is a result of monoculture cash crops for export taking up land space and depleting soil by intensive overuse. By limiting export monoculture crops and restoring-maintaining traditional farming methods like intercropping, famine in Africa would be nearly eliminated.

Yams are traditional staple food crops in most of Africa. Yam tubers grow well in the tropical heat and intense sunlight near the equator. The yam was initially called nyami in most regions and has led to the English word yam. Yam’s early growth required protection from Africa’s intense sunlight. With the intercropping method, the yams were planted near the long flat leaves of the sisal plant for protection. Sisal’s fleshy leaves are often woven into baskets after they dry.

Chinua Achebe talks about yam planting in “Things Fall Apart”, “The young tendrils were protected from earth-heat with a ring of sisal leaves.”

Often stalk plants like maize were grown near the yams also, so yam’s vine tendrils can climb up the tall maize. Companion plants helping one another symbiotically are what make intercropping a reliable farming method throughout African history. This productive and efficient method of farming is being lost to monoculture from genetic engineered agribusiness corporations.

The loss of village farms to agribusiness corporations is part of the globalization pushed on post-colonial Africa by the World Bank and WTO. Multinational corporations that influence African governments direct these “free trade” organizations like WTO. Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) are mandates from the World Bank when the impoverished nations cannot repay loans. The mandates often permit a non-African multinational corporation to enter the nation and extract resources for export to wealthier nations like United States, France or Japan. This includes large agribusiness with monoculture crops like coffee or tobacco that replace traditional farms of rural areas.

Often the rural villages are emptied as people move to the city in hopes of finding work and money. The benefits of moving to cities also include more freedom for women from certain oppressive social traditions such as female genital mutilation (circumcision) and forced marriages. The result of people leaving their rural homes is loss of self-sufficiency in food production. People are now dependent on the agribusiness and their uncertain genetically engineered monoculture crop for food and survival.

Genetically engineered seeds contain the DNA to make the plant resistant to insects or a certain herbicide. The insects and weeds evolve a resistance to the pesticide or herbicide produced by the plants DNA over time. This results in the farmers needing to purchase new seeds with new pesticide-herbicide every few years, creating a cycle of dependency on multinational biotech corporations who make the seeds with engineered DNA.

The loss of traditional farming methods like intercropping means losing a balanced way of dealing with nature and the surrounding environment. Pest insect damage was minimized from intercropping’s increased biodiversity. When many different plants grow together, the pest insects will not destroy all of them. When compared to pure stand yields characteristic of monoculture, intercropping showed higher yields per unit of land. Monoculture is more susceptible to damage from insects due to lack of diversity. This is the main reason pesticides were applied to monoculture plantation export crops. Farmers using intercropping also recycle plant compost for fertilizer improving soil structure and decreasing erosion, thereby avoiding dependency on chemical fertilizers. (ICCR)

Lawrence Tsimese emphasizes the importance of maintaining Africa’s biodiversity;

“In Africa and other developing countries, farmers successfully control pests by encouraging biodiversity in their fields and encouraging beneficial insects and crops.”

This contrasts with the monoculture of GE crops. The loss of plant diversity occurred more under industrial agriculture than any other reason. GE crops will increase biodiversity loss. (Tsimese)

Changes in unique forms of traditional agriculture occurred as a result of European colonialism. The Chamba people’s home is divided by the post-colonial border between Nigeria and Cameroon. In pre-colonial times bambara groundnuts (peanuts) were grown by the women and guinea corn was grown by the men. The seeds are compared to people, the small white corn seed resembles men, and the large red groundnut resembles women. This traditional relationship was disrupted when European colonialists arrived. Colonialism encouraged export of groundnuts for money. This resulted in woman and men both growing groundnuts in gender-segregated fields (Fardon, 125).

The Yeli Chamba beliefs parallel the life cycle of maize with human life cycle. When seeds are sown until the first shoot appears mirrors conception until birth. The cool and moist conditions required for a seedling to grow are like a child’s moist skin. When the maize tolerates hotter, drier conditions in adult life, this parallels the dryness of an older person’s skin. The lives of the Yeli Chamba and their guinea maize are interdependent. Removing their food source would disconnect them from seasonal cycles that sustained them for centuries (Fardon, 125). Yearly festivals are interwoven with the seasonal cycles also.

Traditional festivals encouraged co-operative labor during times of harvest. The Kofyar culture enjoyed millet beer at mar mous labor parties. Drumming and singing encouraged fun harvest time during this festival. Other seasonal festivals included yam field preparation of earthen bunga heaps towards end of rainy season. Smaller reciprocal labor groups could collect and spread ash as fertilizer. European missionary colonialists later outlawed the large mar mous labor parties, causing the group labor to decrease. This resulted in Kofyar farmers becoming isolated and growing individual export crops for the colonialists for wage labor. Modern day changes include restoration of the more effective mar mous labor parties instead of wage labor (Stone, 55).

Living in harmony with the forests is a way of ensuring long-term survival for future generations. Forest dwellers of Liberia’s foothills left many forested hillsides undisturbed from hunting, farming and timber harvesting. These areas of protected habitat enabled the forest plants and animals to eat and reproduce uninterrupted by human activity. By keeping these forest refuges intact they were able to ensure the health of native flora and fauna on which they depended on for food and medicine (Brooks, 25).

Near Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania the Chagga people continue a tradition of multistoried tree gardens called vihambas with much biodiversity. This tree garden intercropping consists of food plants grown amongst the native forest without any clear-cutting of the trees. Yams were shaded by the trees and wrapped their liana vines around the trunk for support. Queme squash is not shade tolerant and climbs high up the tree. Some trees in the vihambas included mkojosi, a variety of banana that tolerates dry soils and msesewe tree, with bark for fermentation of beer. By keeping the trees in place, the soil maintains stability and is replenished by tree leave’s natural fertilizer (Kuechli, 83).

This tradition continued until the colonialist Europeans coerced export crop cultivation by charging indigenous farmers tax on their huts. The economic conditions from taxation prevented subsistence farming and caused export cash crops to take their place. This made it difficult to survive with traditional vihamba gardening, as their energy and land space was all diverted to export crops (Kuechli, 83). Efforts are underway to restore the sustainable vihambas, though the current political climate of globalization under multinational corporations makes this difficult.

North of the Chamba near Mt. Kenya, Meru people are also grew food crops under canopy of trees. Miraa trees with medicinal bark are found growing wild in the northern drier forests and are included in the Meru garden. Meru ground crops include drought tolerant sorghum, many varieties of millet and other grains like cow peas. Cow peas were rotated by the Meru as nitrogen fixers, cycled between millet to restore soil fertility. Traditional Meru farming involved native miraa tree intercropping and nitrogen additions from cowpeas enabled the village to eat healthy with minimal environmental impact (Bernard, 55).

Native plants and trees were often gathered and replanted. In Ghana yellow and white yams were domesticated from native savanna plants that had water storing root tubers adapted to the dry climates. These drought tolerant yams still grow wild in the surrounding savannah and are available during times of famine (Anquandah, 37). By relying on food plants already adapted to the local environment, Ghana’s people could coexist with their surrounding environment. The tradition of gathering native plants continues today but is in danger of being lost to dependence on non-native monoculture genetic engineering crops.

Native African Red Rice is grown in flooded regions of Africa also. This wild rice was found growing in river deltas and inland wetlands. Red rice was harvested in Central and Western Africa before the Asian rice imported to Eastern Africa made its way inland. Ogoni people live in Nigeria’s Niger River delta and continue to benefit from nature’s bounty of wild red rice. However in recent years their way of subsistence gathering of native rice has been polluted from Shell’s oil spills. The petroleum drilling of the Niger River delta by multinational oil corporations has led to a decline in native rice species that the Ogoni depended on for food (Achebe, Chidi Chiki). Restoration of the native rice of the Niger delta could be accomplished with money from the polluters (Shell) and an agreement to cease drilling of the delta for foreign oil interests. We need to put Ogoni people’s health and ecosystem biodiversity before corporate profits from petroleum.

Rice maize and yams have been made more edible through selective hybridization. Selective hybridization is harvesting and selecting preferred plants, the larger rice grain producing plants could be mated with one another. The seeds of larger variety plants are then collected and grown by native peoples. Selective hybridization like domestication of rice is very different from genetic engineered products that are being sold by biotech corporations. Selective hybridization occurs gradually over several generations of plants, allowing the ecosystem to adapt over time. Genetic engineered monoculture crops introduce a sudden change into the ecosystem, which can take surrounding plants and animals by surprise. Human beings are still in the test stage as how these products will effect our bodies. To quote MJ Rees, “Absence of evidence does not imply evidence of absence.” When the biotech corporations claim there is no danger in GE crops because they haven’t found any health risk, that does not mean that there is none.

There is an age old wisdom in African people’s methods of diverse intercropping and harvesting native food plants. While modern biotech scientists call traditional intercropping methods primitive and claim it as backwards, this linear thinking assumes that the opposite direction, forwards, means that genetic engineering is the only option to solve Africa’s famine. It would be encouraged to first look at the damages to ecosystems caused by export plantation monoculture crops like coffee, cacao, sugar, tobacco, bananas and other intensive crops that rely on petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers. The long term post colonial monoculture export crops have caused soil depletion and damaged ecosystems. By freeing and restoring the land currently depleted by export cash crops the land would be available for subsistence farming for people’s food. Diversity of intercropping method means more plants are likely to resist a particular disease or insect. Maybe when Africans can determine their own future and continue successful methods like intercropping and native food plants, famine will not be so much of a problem.

Organizations like GRAIN (Genetic Resources Action International) are working with local people to continue farming with native plant biodiversity and intercropping methods. They are also educating people about the benefits of intercropping and the risks of accepting genetic engineering monoculture. (


Anquandah, James 1982 “Rediscovering Ghana’s Past” Sedco Publishing

Bernard, Frank Edward 1972 “East of Mt. Kenya: Meru Agriculture in Transition” Weltforum Verlag

Brooks, George E. 1993 “Landlords and Strangers: Ecology, Society and Trade in Western Africa” Westview Press Inc.

Fardon, Richard 1990 “Between God, the Dead and the Wild” Smithsonian Institution Publishing

Kuechli, Christian 1997 “Forests of Hope: Stories of Regeneration” Earthscan publishing

Mavi, S. 1994 “Medicinal Plants and their uses in Zimbabwe” article from;

“Botanical Diversity in Southern Africa” edited by BJ Huntley Pretoria

Stone, Glenn Davis 1996 “Settlement Ecology: Social and Spatial Organization of Kofyar Agriculture” Un of AZ press

Internet Sources;

Congo cookbook -Yam

Congo cookbook - Rice

Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR)

Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods

“Biotechnology against food security: the choice for Africa”

by Lawrence Tsimese

The Niger River Delta: Environmental

and Health Implications of Oil Exploration

Chidi Chike Achebe MD

Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN)

Seedling Quarterly Magazine Oct 2003

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