Celebrating the Life & Work of Dr Melaku Worede
“The foundation for regenerating traditional farming systems is to work with communities to revive their former seed diversity and related knowledge. Once this foundation is laid, scientists can add a little support to further enhance genetic and crop diversity and thereby productivity and climate change resilience.”
Dr Melaku Worede
It is with great sadness that Gaia and our global family of allies learnt of the passing of Dr Melaku Worede on Monday 31st July 2023. He was an unwavering champion of farmers as the true custodians of seed diversity, and a dear friend and mentor.
Ethiopian plant geneticist Dr Melaku Worede – or simply ‘Melaku’, as he was fondly known – had a huge influence on the work of Gaia and our partners across Africa and beyond. He is widely celebrated for establishing the first gene bank for seeds and plant materials in Africa – in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – and for his pioneering work bringing together traditional farmers and scientists. In 1989 he was awarded the prestigious Right Livelihood Award, for his efforts in “…preserving Ethiopia’s genetic wealth by building one of the finest seed conservation centres in the world.”
Gaia’s friendship with Melaku has its roots in the early 90’s, when we met him and his team of scientists and field officers with farmers in Ethiopia. They were leading the way in participatory, in-situ plant breeding which defied the elitist assumption that sophisticated plant breeding takes place only in the confines of the science lab. Dr Melaku and colleagues, including Dr Regassa Feyissa of Ethio-Organic Seed Action, knew that the most critical knowledge relating to seed and crop diversity came from the farmers, and that to breed for resilience alongside a great many household and community needs, the crops must remain in the field where they are locally adapted. They must remain, in the hands of farmers.
In an interview featured in the report Celebrating African Rural Women: Custodians of Seed, Food & Traditional Knowledge for Climate Change Resilience, Melaku described this rich cultural and ecological knowledge system and why it is so critical today:
“A common myth amongst scientists and exponents of industrial agriculture is that farmers are solely interested in yield, and this is simply not true. The extent to which a farmer selects for high yield is relatively modest, because they are interested in so many characteristics. Farmers’ needs are diverse and so their selection criteria is correspondingly high… for cooking qualities, for the short and longer term growing periods, for animal fodder, building materials, medicines and ceremonies. The list is endless.
The challenge is to increase productivity without jeopardising the gene pool of all of these other characteristics. Diversity is crucial for sustaining productivity, enriching the nutritional value of our foods, and meeting the other less explicit needs of the household and the community… This is ever more critical now with climate change.”
In 2012, Gaia joined GRAIN in convening a technical training in collaboration with Dr Melaku and MELCA-Ethiopia, on the use of genetics to further enhance farmers’ seed diversity. The training was designed for committed agro-ecologists, and many of those who attended have gone on to lead transformative work within their communities, with seed as central for restoring food sovereignty and indigenous knowledge systems. Dr Melaku’s modest guidance and rich insights and experience has inspired people working across Africa, and indeed globally.
In 2015, as a contribution to ensure his legacy lives on, we made the film Seeds of Justice: In the Hands of Farmers – to share the story of Melaku’s life’s work. Featuring interviews with our allies from MELCA Ethiopia, Ethio-Organic Seed Action, the African Biodiversity Network, USC Canada, the ETC Group and GRAIN, the film follows Melaku alongside his colleagues and dear friends Regassa and Hailu, and captures their inspirational work to restore seed diversity to the fields following Ethiopia’s infamous famine in the 80’s. The film challenges the flawed assumptions that science is superior to the deep rooted, ecological wisdom of the farmer.
From the plains of Ethiopia to the halls of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome, Melaku’s life work shows that leaving seeds in the hands of farmers makes our food system healthier, more resilient and more just. His commitment to protecting, reviving and enhancing seed diversity has influenced country-wide commitments to restoring seed sovereignty from Canada to the UK – including our Seed Sovereignty Programme for the UK & Ireland, inspired by his vision.
Melaku is loved and respected across the world – and will remain so – both because of the impact of his work and his wisdom, and because of his nature. He was a humble and passionate advocate for those who are all too often voiceless and an inspiring teacher for many.
Pat Mooney from the ETC group beautifully captures Melaku’s integrity and approach in his remarks in Seeds of Justice:
“He is the one who reached out from the scientific community to the farmers and said, let’s really work together as equals. He is the one who said that we need to maintain diversity in the fields, not for some scientific future for industrial systems, but we need to maintain it for the farmers themselves, for their future. And he was the one who talked about the need for farmers to exchange seed more. Not just between one farmer and another, or between one community and another, but even around the world. Those messages are absolutely vital for climate change.”
We will miss him dearly and we send our heartfelt condolences to Melaku’s family.
We leave you with his wisdom.
“The rich genetic diversity that we see across the planet didn’t just occur by chance. Farmers have played a key role in creating and maintaining this diversity by domesticating and breeding plants to adapt to the conditions under which they were farming. They breed within the context of varying landscapes and seasons, and with a multitude of characteristics and criteria to meet the needs of the family and the community. Traditional farmers know exactly what they are doing.”
Seeds of Justice: In the Hands of Farmers – Watch the Film
A celebration of Dr Melaku Worede, whose lifelong commitment to re-valorise farmers’ knowledge secured the protection of critical crop diversity across Africa and beyond. The film, narrated by former Channel 4 news anchor Jon Snow, forms part of a trilogy which can be viewed online: Seeds of Freedom, Seeds of Sovereignty, and Seeds of Justice. Dr Melaku’s story and a trailer to the film featured in The Guardian at the time of the launch of Seeds of Justice.
“Climate instability is a challenge for both traditional knowledge and biodiversity, because it is unpredictable. In order to increase capacity to respond, genetic and biological diversity needs to be enhanced. Traditional farmers already do this; they maximise genetic diversity in various ways… A respectful collaboration between traditional knowledge and practices and western science can help to enhance climate change resilience and productivity through increasing genetic and biological diversity.”
Dr. Melaku Worede, Ethiopia