Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How to feed world and least some strategic ideas

In a presentation I made at Washington University in St. Louis on the impact of the Green Revolucion, the CGIAR and agricultural biotechnologies (See presentation here) I indicated the progress gained by humanity after the Green Revolution that impacted rice, maize, and wheat production amongst other crops. We have been living basically from the aftermath of those investments in the Green Revolution technologies during the 1950s and 1960s. The food crisis of 2007 and 2008 showed that productivity gains are declining due to the different reasons (See a host of publications on this issue at IFPRI)

Major investments are being made by the World Bank and other multilateral donors(or investors as they are called nowadays) on safety-net programs for poor farmers and for non-farm persons living in rural areas. These safety nets are indispensable in addressing the needs of the most poor, but their impact will be limited if concurrently countries and donors do not develop robust agricultural markets in the country and abroad that will allow delivery of agricultural products to markets. Imperfect markets are perhaps one of the most serious limitations for agricultural development.

Building roads and other infrastructure, developing knowledge dissemination tools such as cell phone networks, addressing storage losses and addressing institutional issues such as access to credit or extension will be key in helping the agricultural development process. Understanding even better the agricultural sector itself in order to fine tune policies and interventions will be critical in this matter including understanding issues relating agriculture, gender, vulnerability, migration, and remittances will indeed improve how we deal with issues in rural, peri-urban and urban areas. Certainly, focusing efforts to solve specific problems will be a plus in this endeavor. A recommended reading is the book by William Easterly White Men's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good

One area where we need to increase significantly investments is agricultural technology of different sorts. Smart, efficient, sustainable and appropriate technologies. Here we are talking about drip irrigation, low or no till agriculture, integrated pest management, improved varieties, disease free materials for planting, and most importantly crops/animals that are more efficient in using available inputs such as fertilizers and water.  Water by the way, will be the most limiting input for agriculture globally.

Within improved varieties we do need to examine biotechnology and genetically modified crops and animals, which can be developed for drought tolerance or nitrogen and phosphorus efficiency. Additionally, this route, for example, can help use no-till and low-till production systems. Most importantly we need to break down many mental constructs and some commercial interests and figure out what works and what doesn't. Technology will not be the only solution to our poblems but will certainly be part of the solution.

In Honduras, the folks working for FINTRAC ( or ( have had quite a bit of success in building up high-value added agriculture with small farmers in Honduras. We need to build up on this type of project. We will not progress with subsistence agriculture and need to escape that mental and physical trap.

We need food security but we should not commit the grievous errors of the past where this goal translated into protectionism and subsidies. This is one of the reasons why we have such a mess in agriculture, especially with the heavy subsidies given to their farmers by the U.S. and the European Union.

Finally, we need to broaden our horizon and understand agriculture within its national and global context. This is the time to be innovators and try new alternatives,even if they go against the current understanding of reality. This is part of the challenge, where agriculture will adopt and become part of the knowledge economy and the the bio-economy. More details on my ideas of this in another posting.

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