Dictatorship and barley in Eritrea

What does Danish foreign aid have to do with the genetic diversity of barley in the Horn of Africa?

Published February 15, 2007 4:54PM (EST)

SciDev.Net reports that researchers have discovered barley with unprecedented levels of genetic diversity in Eritrea. Previously, scientists believed that barley had been domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, but the Eritrean barley is different enough from West Asian barley that "an independent domestication might have taken place at the Horn of Africa."

Pondering the ingenuity of those early experimenters in argicultural biotechnology is always fun, but according to lead researcher Ahmed Jahoor at the University of Copenhagen, the discovery of the genetically diverse barley in a farmer's field near Asmara has high relevance to today's plant biologists.


[Jahoor] says he observed that the barley grows under diverse levels of drought severity, which could be useful to plant breeders wishing to select the level of drought tolerance needed. He expects to find genetic variability for disease resistance as well.... They could be used as a new source of useful genes that have not previously been used in barley breeding programmes, and will be available for research purposes through common material transfer agreement procedures.

But there's a problem. Jahoor is worried that without proper conservation of the seeds in a gene bank, their genetic heritage could be lost. But since Denmark cut aid to Eritrea, beginning in 2002, there has been no available funding for such measures.

Denmark routinely gets rated as one of the top nations in the world in terms of the quantity and quality of its foreign aid. But the one-party dictatorial rule of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki led Denmark to shut off the spigot -- raising, once again, one of the gnarlier dilemmas of globalization. If Danish funding could help preserve barley genes that resulted in higher-yielding, drought-and-disease resistant barley, and that in turn improved the living standards of African farmers, would that make up for implicit support of a anti-democratic government? How exactly does that calculus work?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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