Looking back to move agriculture forward

Research and innovation
Faculty of Law - Common Law Section

By Leah Geller

Writer, Freelance

Chidi Oguamanam
Photo: Peter Thornton
Small farmers and indigenous communities have practised sustainable agriculture for centuries. Chidi Oguamanam is working to ensure that traditional knowledge is recognized and shared equitably.

The kind of clean technology Chidi Oguamanam advocates looks a lot different from what many of us might imagine. No high-tech solar panels. No futuristic gizmos. No scientists in a lab.

Instead, the University of Ottawa law professor talks about the kinds of innovations that have evolved over centuries by small agricultural producers in places like Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria, the country where he was born.

“Local farmers in Nigeria grow a bean called the cowpea, which for a long time suffered from infestation by weevils,” explains Oguamanam. “The farmers noticed there were certain seeds that were insect- or weevil-resistant, so they selected those and grew them, over and over again. Eventually, they developed a traditional brand of naturally insect-resistant cowpea. But others came and claimed credit.”

Oguamanam says there are numerous practices among small farmers and indigenous communities that are exceptional examples of clean technology—meaning they don’t place significant pressures on the land, the environment or biological diversity.

For example, farmers strategically plant a wide variety of vegetables together, so pests are managed naturally and soil is renewed. Compare that to monocrops like corn grown in Ontario, which are dependent on pesticides that threaten bee populations and chemical fertilizers that destroy the land.

“We often think of advances in terms of modern laboratories,” he adds. “But we also need to consider the open field, where Ugandan mothers compare how their crops and animals are doing; where women in Ghana select hens that hatch all their eggs; where women share practical knowledge with one another to improve breeding. By careful observation, traditional farmers do their own kind of nature-driven genetic optimization.”

Unfortunately, these kinds of advances are rarely acknowledged by international bodies, notes Oguamanam. Conventional intellectual property frameworks under the auspices of global trade organizations ignore or treat indigenous and local community innovations as a peripheral aspect of knowledge production.

As a result, there is a growing threat of exploitation and “biopiracy,” where technologies developed by small farmers, such as improved seed or animal breeds, are hijacked by industry, patented and tolled, denying access to those who created the knowledge.

But Oguamanam wants to help change that. He is working with international networks, such as Open African Innovation Research, for new global rules that clearly recognize and protect the kinds of knowledge developed by small farmers and indigenous communities.

“We have pressured the environment to the point of climate crisis and change,” he adds. “It is a wake-up call. We need to practise agriculture in a way that has a smaller environmental footprint, is sustainable long-term and supports biodiversity. We need to embrace those practices that, over time, have been respectful to our environment.

“Technology goes on in these communities. It is a communal effort, a way of life. It is as meticulous as what goes on in a laboratory and is no less innovative.” For truly sustainable agriculture, says Oguamanam, that technology must be recognized, encouraged and shared equitably among all stakeholders.