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MAY 2009



World Food Crisis (Part III: New Technologies Tailored to Location)

Thomas R. DeGregori.
August 27, 2008

Over the past two days, I reviewed reasons for optimism and pessimism about food production. Today, let's take a closer look at how promising technological solutions to the current crisis must be tailored to the geographic regions that might benefit.

The history of outsiders' views of the tropics, particularly the humid tropics, has varied over time. Early contacts with forested areas in Africa and the Americas gave rise to myths of lush, dense tropical forces with massive undergrowth. This was reinforced by a number of Hollywood movies showing our heroes hacking their way through the dense "jungle." This of course was the view of outsiders who saw the rain forest from the rivers, with little sunlight seeming to poke through, and assumed this meant dense ground-level plant life rather than dense canopies above.

Other myths arose about, for example, it being possible in these regions to build a wooden fence and have the wooden poles start sprouting leaves within hours. Such myths were part and parcel of beliefs about the "lazy" natives who had little else to do but harvest the generous usufruct that the lush tropics provided. This latter belief was particularly prevalent about the Pacific Island "paradises" where the perfectly proportioned natives spent their time swimming in the lagoons, since the land effortlessly provided all that they needed except for what they caught in the ocean. This was yet another myth promoted by Hollywood. <cut>

What is required is investment in agriculture and infrastructure that allows for the evolutionary modification of current practices -- using higher-yielding agricultural practices that have been demonstrably successful elsewhere in raising peoples' income and nutrient levels and in facilitating economic development throughout the economy. In recent years, there has been a naive romantic cacophony from the ideological Northern NGOs (with no experience in agriculture) to promote local knowledge and bottom-up local practices. (These are some of the same NGOs that would use the slogan of "food miles" to ban or restrict food imports from Africa -- some friends they are to African farmers.) This is a prescription for continued low yields and increasing problems of famine, as climate change and population grow.

The Green Revolution Was Not Class Warfare
Let me add, from my experience in agriculture and in working with agriculture scientists of all kinds, that no competent agriculturalist makes any attempt to change agricultural practices in an area without first learning in as much detail as possible what the historic and current practices were and are. If expatriate, the agriculturalist will work with local scientists and with farmers to try to improve yields -- as was the case with the Green Revolution, which has made the vast majority of the population of Asia better fed than it has ever been. Often, it is the farmers who call in the scientists to help, as they may be losing their crop to insects or disease. This process was not top-down as often claimed. Rather it was both top-down and bottom-up, combining the best of both. (Anyone who learned about agriculture in developing countries anytime in the last fifty years would have cut their teeth on horror stories about the failures of top-down policies under colonialism but would not simply accept sometimes-unscientific local practices as-is.)

The alleged top-down model for agriculture could have never produced the extraordinary gains of the Green Revolution, particularly for the literally hundreds of millions of rice farmers. Farmers have to be and were involved in every step of the process except for the plant breeding at the research stations. Except for an emergency response to a disease or pest outbreak, farmers had to be shown the benefits of a new variety or the benefits of pesticides, fertilizer or new cultivation techniques. Demo plots are an essential feature of agricultural extension around the world, particularly in those countries participating in the Green Revolution.

For the decline in research spending there is blame enough go around and across the political spectrum. The NGOs may have led the opposition to modern agronomy but when the conservatives/neoliberals -- Thatcher/Reagan -- came to power looking for places in the budget to cut or agencies to privatize, agricultural research was an obvious target (see Robert Paarberg, Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa). As pressures from NGOs and others built for AID donors to take on new tasks on limited budgets, once again agricultural research became the obvious target of choice. This is true right down to the present, as President Bush just announced cuts in the U.S. contribution to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in the midst of the current food crisis (in which the need for increased agricultural research is widely recognized and accepted).

One of the continuing successes of the Green Revolution was the ability to provide new crop varieties with greater resistance to a particular insect or disease threat. As research budgets have been cut for the CGIAR institutions, their ability to respond to the bottom-up requests for improved varieties of stable crops has been severely hampered. Tomorrow, a look at African partnerships that could help fill the gap.

Thomas R. DeGregori, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at the University of Houston and an ACSH Trustee.