Challenges in Marginal Agricultural Areas

In marginal agricultural areas, genetic erosion has been accelerated by abandonment of traditional crops in favor of new "improved" varieties, often imported from outside the marginal area, the push to substitute cash crops for traditional ones, deforestation and land clearance, overgrazing, war and civil strife and ecological reverses such as drought and flooding.

By concentrating on high input, high producing, genetically uniform varieties and the agricultural systems which support them, agricultural researchers have failed to strengthen smallholder agriculture in marginal areas. The complex, heterogeneous agricultural environments, crucial sources of genetic variation, are being weakened. As the farming systems in marginal environments are replaced, these traditional "cauldrons" of genetic diversity will no longer generate new combinations, leaving only what small portion of this diversity the formal breeding and genetic resources conservation institutions have been able to collect and maintain. This change is often compounded by the exclusion of minor crops or local staples, which are replaced by high yielding varieties of major crops developed outside the marginal agricultural zone.

Formal breeding often requires large economic returns through wide scale adoption under uniform conditions of the improved cultivars produced by breeders. The less favored agricultural environments have thus been bypassed by more formal breeding efforts. As the use of high yielding varieties of crops spreads into marginal areas, often through local governmental policy, farmers are often encouraged to adopt these varieties to the detriment of locally adapted traditional landraces. As these landraces fade, so does the traditional knowledge associated with them. Both may be irreplaceable. When communities are displaced or when smallholdings give way to large scale monocultures, there is often a migration of labor to growing urban areas. Those left in marginal areas to carry on agricultural activities are often older farmers, who may represent the last repositories of traditional knowledge about local plants. Agricultural researchers and formal breeding programs often do not consult with or address the needs and resources represented by these farmers, who in many marginal areas are predominantly women. The feminization and aging of the smallholder workforce present additional challenges for the formal sector's efforts in marginal areas.

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