Script 28.2

Notes to broadcasters

Note:  This script is the first in a series stressing the importance to farmers of growing and conserving traditional crop varieties.  Package 29 will contain a script on collecting and saving seeds.

Content:  Growing a  number of traditional crop varieties makes your harvest more secure.  It also saves you money on seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.  And it protects valuable crops from disappearing forever.


Some of the crops you grow have probably been important in your region for generations. There are good reasons to keep on planting these traditional crops.

Traditional crops are adapted to local growing conditions. A crop does well in a particular region because it has qualities that help it survive the conditions it faces there. Over hundreds of years, crops that grow poorly disappear. Others change in order to survive, adapting to local growing conditions. So the crop varieties native to your area are suitable for local temperature, rainfall, and soil conditions. They also tolerate common local pests well.

Farmers also help breed crops for local needs. They save seeds from the varieties they like best. Farmers select crops for yield, pest tolerance, flavour, cooking quality, appearance, and nutrition.

So it is a smart idea to keep on growing the traditional crops that your parents and grandparents have been growing for years.

Grow many varieties of each crop:
Growing many different local varieties of the same crop is another smart idea. Different varieties have different special qualities. Some tolerate one pest, while some tolerate another. Some produce high yields, while others can survive even in years when there is very little rain. They also take different lengths of time to mature.

The more varieties of a crop you plant, the more chance there is that some will survive even if there are weather or pest problems. For example, suppose you plant two or three varieties of beans which mature at different times. If there is an early drought, the early variety may produce little. But the late variety will produce a good crop when the late rains fall.

Potatoes are a staple crop in the mountains of Peru. Farmers there often have many small fields at different elevations along the steep mountain slopes. They have noticed that different varieties of potatoes grow better at different elevations. One farmer may plant ten or more varieties of potatoes in different fields. In one village, there might be several hundred varieties of potatoes growing.

This diversity allows farmers to plant at each elevation the type of potato that grows best there. And if one variety of potato fails or produces poorly one year because of unusual weather or disease problems, the others still produce.

So growing many different varieties of traditional crops makes your food supply more secure.

Hybrid and improved varieties:
But many farmers now are starting to think that traditional crops are not as good as new crops from hybrid seeds, or from improved varieties they can buy. Hybrids and improved varieties often produce higher yields than traditional varieties. So it makes sense to experiment with growing them.

But not everything about the new varieties is good. For one thing, the only way to get seeds for hybrid crops is to buy them. Buying seeds is more expensive than collecting and saving them yourself. And you have to buy new seeds every season. No matter how good a crop you get, you should not plant seeds collected from hybrids because they will not produce high yields. Seeds collected from some hybrids do not grow at all.

Also, when you buy seeds, you can choose only from the seeds the company sells. And you have less control over your seed supply because it is in somebody else’s hands.

Another problem with hybrid crops is that they often depend on ideal growing conditions. Consider what happened to some farmers in Ethiopia.

They had a problem with low maize yields. So an aid organization bought expensive hybrid maize and distributed it to the farmers. Their idea was that the hybrid would produce more. But things became worse after the farmers started to plant the hybrid maize. During years with good rains, the new hybrid did well. But in years of little rain, the hybrid maize yielded almost nothing. Meanwhile, in those drought years, the local maize kept on producing. Lately, many of the farmers have stopped growing the hybrid maize because it made their situation worse in the long run. Instead, they have found a strong variety of local maize to grow. It produces more than the kind they used before, and it is dependable even in years of drought.

Since many hybrid and improved crops only do well under ideal growing conditions, they need chemical pesticides and fertilizers. And even if they do well under poor growing conditions, high‑ yielding crops take more nutrients out of the soil. As a result, you must use more fertilizer. So they may actually turn out to be more expensive to grow than traditional varieties.

Sometimes the new crops require different planting methods. For example, you may have to plant hybrids in wider rows than traditional crops. In that case, there will be more space for weeds to grow. So you will either have to spend more time weeding, or else use more herbicides.

If you do plant hybrids, make sure you do not plant them near traditional varieties of the same crop. If they are close together, they will cross‑pollinate and the traditional crop may suffer and you may get poor crops in the next seasons. For example, if you grow both hybrid and open pollinated maize, the plot or field of hybrid maize must be at least 150 metres away from the other maize. If there is bush or wooded land between the two plots or fields, they can be closer together‑‑50 metres distance is enough in that case. The bush or woods will act as a barrier between the two varieties so less pollen will be carried between them.

People around the world depend on farmers to keep different kinds of crops growing. Farmers protect the whole world’s food supply. They know about the special qualities of traditional crops. And they know better than anyone else how to look after them. If you and other farmers stop growing traditional crops, the special varieties of vegetables, grains and fruit which are so well-adapted to your growing conditions will be lost forever.

Remember: the traditional crops that have been grown in your region for generations are well‑adapted to your needs. And, if you plant many traditional crop varieties, you will reduce your risk of crop failure. Hybrids and improved varieties have some good qualities, but you should continue to grow traditional crops.

Information Sources

Harvey P. Harman, a farmer in North Carolina, USA.  Harvey was a community development worker in South Africa for several years.

Food From Dryland Gardens, by David A. Cleveland and Daniela Soleri, published by the Center for People, Food and Environment (with support from UNICEF), 344 South Third Avenue, Tucson, Arizona 85701, U.S.A., 1991.

Two previous Network scripts cover related topics:

“Hybrid and open pollinated maize,‑ Package 8, Script 4, and “Grow many different crops and crop varieties,”‑ Package 18, Script 5.