Selected Publications - Abstract

Cleveland, David A., Daniela Soleri, and Steven E. Smith. 1994. Do folk crop varieties have a role in sustainable agriculture? BioScience 44(11):740-751.



Incorporating folk varieties into the development of locally based agriculture may be the best approach for sustainable agriculture; farmer management of selection supports long-term yield stability adapted to local conditions and cultural values.


Current data and theory reviewed here suggest that farmer control and management of selection is the most practical and effective way of managing genetic resources that supports long-term yield stability, and is specifically adapted to the local environment, and to local farming systems including social organization and cultural values. If this hypothesis is supported by further research, existing folk varieties will have an important role to play in the development of sustainable agriculture as we have defined it here. This includes the improvement of some folk varieties by further farmer-managed selection, and new folk varieties developed by introducing new genetic resources, including those of modern varieties.

On the other hand, supporting diverse local farming systems and folk varieties as a basis for sustainable agriculture does not mean a return to an idealized, pristine indigenous agriculture. All small-scale, traditional systems cannot be assumed to have been sustainable in the past, and many may not be adapted to present or future conditions. This is because their social, biological, and physical environments have been so greatly changed by colonialism, international markets, population growth, environmental degradation, climate change, migration, and international conflict. This means that in working for indigenously-based sustainable agriculture, flexibility is essential, including adaptation to diverse local conditions, with a major focus on local experimentation. It also means using the most current information and techniques from Western scientific plant breeding and agriculture, without linking these to the profit-maximizing values and overall organization of industrial agriculture. Perhaps most important is the empowerment of local farmers and communities by supporting their control of their folk varieties, farming systems, and indigenous knowledge (Amanor et al. 1993, Cromwell et al. 1993).

Given the continuing threat to the conservation and use of folk varieties by indigenous and small-scale farmers, specific measures to safeguard these varieties for sustainable agriculture at the community level may be needed. Where appropriate such measures could include

  • documentation of folk varieties by farmers, in collaboration with outsiders where appropriate, including indigenous knowledge about their selection, cultivation and use, and genetic and agronomic characteristics
  • education of agronomists, formal plant breeders, local communities, and in some cases local farmers and students, concerning the contribution of folk varieties to food production, yield stability, natural resource conservation, nutrition, history and culture
  • increasing the availability and planting of folk variety seeds through encouraging seed exchange networks and seedbanks at the community level, and exploring opportunities for local commercial production of folk varieties for food and planting material
  • improving the maintenance and performance of folk varieties through collaboration with formal plant breeders; and
  • establishing control by farm communities over their folk varieties, and indigenous knowledge about them, through policies for seed collecting and use of folk variety seeds, food products, names, and knowledge by outsiders.

The incorporation of folk varieties into the development of locally-based and locally-controlled agriculture may be the best approach not only to conserving the genetic diversity in folk varieties and the farming systems that contain them, but to supporting sustainable farming systems grounded in local environments and cultural values.