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 Editorial:
Farmers' participation
 
Keywords:  Participatory approaches; Genetic improvement (plants); Small-scale farming. 
Correct citation: nn. (1996), "Editorial: Farmers' participation." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 29, p. 2­3. 

Recently, a number of publications have focused on the benefits of participatory approaches in plant breeding and variety selection. From the article of John Witcombe in this Monitor issue, it is clear that these approaches entail potential advantages for both scientists and farmers in terms of efficiency and equity. The known examples are usually the initiatives of individual scientists engaged in different types of participation. Since the people involved in participatory approaches are still fighting for recognition, and the interest of formal research institution remains limited, critical analyses of the approaches are scarce. Such analyses are nevertheless essential to improve the approaches and to convince national and international research organizations to institutionalize participatory methods.

Participatory breeding is not just a new method of gathering information and distributing research results. If the approach is taken seriously, it will include a substantial redirection of the focus of agricultural research. Plant breeding has traditionally given priority to the more favourable environments and resource-richer farmers to obtain production increases more easily. Farmers' participation in agricultural research can enhance the agricultural development models including groups of farmers usually neglected. Such a change in focus might face opposition from people less concerned with marginal farmers, who focus more on food production for the urban population. Some examples suggest, however, that participatory approaches can be more cost-effective, especially if the R&D costs of the many unadopted varieties developed through conventional methods are taken into account.

Another interesting example of farmers' participation in relation to common interests is given by Mark Whalon and Deborah Norris in their article on the resistance management with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) crops. Resistance management is needed to prevent insects from building up resistance to Bt toxins, and thus helps to maintain the effectiveness of this transgenic characteristic and conventional Bt sprays. Resistance management will finally depend on farmers' field practices. Although resistance management is too important to leave to the individual farmer alone, it is also too important not to involve farmers as serious partners. Consequently, farmers' participation should not be limited to the adoption of final management practices, but farmers should also be involved in the design of suitable resistance management strategies.

What would a greater involvement of small-scale farmers in developing countries imply for the development of transgenic varieties? Let us skip the question as to whether they would be interested at all. Firstly, if small-scale farmers influence research agendas, it can be expected that their priorities will differ from current interpretation of farmers' needs by scientist. Secondly, applications are likely to become more diverse, since small-scale farmers can hardly be called a group. They represent different social-economic contexts in various environmental settings. Thirdly, to serve this need for variety, agricultural research should pay attention to the development of more unfinished technologies and expect farmers to adapt these technologies according to their specific requirements. Fourthly, safety requirements in the field, as the example of Bt crops shows, need to be reconsidered. Farmers' participation is likely to entail more risks and potentials in resistance management.



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