Sir Gordon Conway spoke on Monday night at Iowa State. He is a champion for integrated farming, when most people are blinded to at least half of the options. This was a sober account of the problems we face and the solutions that are needed. The silver lining, though, is that solutions are out there. If we focus our efforts, we can feed the hungry, protect the environment, respond to new and old challenges.
The talk was videotaped, and the link will likely be posted by the ISU Lectures Program here. I purchased The Doubly Green Revolution, and had it signed! I’m looking forward to reading it and sharing my thoughts. You can read parts of the book on Google Books.
There were so many topics that my notes from the talk don’t flow very well, so please bear with me. My comments are italicized, the rest is approximately what Sir Gordon had to say. I’ve added a few links, if you would like more information.
Speculators triggered the food price crisis but speculators were triggered by 1) Australian droughts, 2) increased 1st generation biofuel production, and 3) increased fertilizer prices that were in turn a result of increased oil prices due to a decline in the dollar. Cost of both of the main ingredients of diammonium phosphate fertilizer has increased. Oil is needed to produce ammonia, and sulfur is in short supply.
Additionally, long term trends were pushing up food prices beneath the spike. The long term increase Is due to increased pressure on the land to produce more animal protein. Demand across the world has increased. China’s demand for pork has particularly skyrocketed. The world would be better off if we all became vegetarians, but that’s isn’t likely. Those are his words, not mine. I can only say I heartily agree. If everyone chose to eat meat a few times less per week, pressure on land would decrease dramatically, and feeding everyone while preserving the environment would be much easier.
We need to assess why we would grow biofuels. There are many possible goals, and 1st generation biofuels are not meeting those goals. If we aren’t meeting those goals, we may reconsider whether or not to produce them. Movement to cellulosic ethanol will help, but 4th generation biofuels will be even better, including biodiesel from algae and bacteria. Fuel from algae can be produced in every little village that currently uses fossil fuels for generators. We will replace petroleum with plants. What a wonderful idea. Every family could have clean fuel to power lights so their children can study.
Yield gain in Africa is stagnant at about 1 bushel per hectare, which is what the British were getting under the Roman Empire.
All of these drivers created about 100 to 150 million more hungry people on top of the starving and malnourished people that already exist. Included among the malnourished are 400 million anemic women of childbearing age who are at increased risk of death, miscarriage, and birth defects. As you may know, anemia is one of my research foci. We need to give children the nutrients they need to develop healthy brains, so they can grow up to help their families and the world.
Some people have asked – if food prices are high, why don’t farmers in developing countries respond by increasing production? There are a number of barriers, not all of which are financial. They require seed, inputs, knowledge through extension, and more in order to respond to the world market. There is no one size fits all solution because all countries are different.
The Green Revolution caused a dramatic decrease in food prices. The oil crisis in the 1970s caused a temporary spike, but it didn’t last very long. The Green Revolution made it possible for India to feed themselves, benefiting the poor and the wealthy.
We can’t simply repeat the Green Revolution due to a few key reasons. High use of pesticides and fertilizers will not work in places that can not access them, and we need to decrease negative impacts of these inputs. Land in places that were not affected by the Green Revolution are highly variable, requiring many farming methods and diverse seed types. This is unlike India where land is relatively uniform. Ten years ago, I argued that we need to repeat the Green revolution but make it environmentally sustainable and equitable.
Sustainability is the intersection of high resilience, stability, productivity, and equity. I’ve been struggling with the definition of sustainability in two of my classes: Debating Science and Sustainable Agriculture Colloquium. This definition is the best I’ve seen, far far better than the sustainability stool of economy, environment, and community. Sustainability is the intersection of the highest levels of each, a system that can meet our needs in a changing world.
To achieve sustainability, we need to use appropriate technology. Traditional technology includes home gardens which have worked very well in some places. Intermediate technology includes modern approaches to traditional methods, such as using Striga to control Desmodium in cornfields.
Conventional technology includes pesticides and fertilizers, tools which may be improved through careful use such as slow release urea briquettes which reduce cost and nitrogen run off. Advanced technology is a diverse category including communication through cell phones, knowledge transfer over the internet, and biotechnology. We need a combination of every technology to get the job done, including new technologies developed to meet challenges of climate change.
Biotechnology is simply a method to tailor desired characteristics in seed or animals. Tissue culture is one example, such as the rice developed by Monty Jones for Africa. Use of genetic engineering is increasing, such as with new labs starting in Africa to improve native crops.
There are problems with GM. We haven’t been able to release GM crops, as with Golden Rice. Bt crops are good, but we need many more types of improvements. For example, cabbage that is resistant to diamondback moth. I wish he had covered the problems that GM has faced with public acceptance.
We need to evaluate GM and all biotech the same way as we must evaluate biofuels. Are they equitable, are they environmentally sustainable…? Also, what is the counterfactual? What will happen if we don’t use this technology? We, as a species, need to start developing crops now to deal with the challenges of the future, or face famine worse than we have ever seen. That’s the counterfactual.
Layering interventions is our best strategy to combat the problems we face. This technique was used successfully in Kenya by the Rockefeller Foundation. Ghana has also used layered interventions, and is the only country to reach their Millennium Development Goal.
These interventions need to include reactions to climate change. The biggest climate change impact will be in agriculture. Some said that there would be an increase in yields due to CO2, but that hasn’t proven true in field trials. Temperature increase is a problem, but far more important is water. We need to do all we can to combat drought. Irrigation in Africa isn’t likely, so we need to be innovative, developing drought tolerant crops and drought tolerant farming methods.
Climate change will cause a niche shift, meaning that traditional and improved varieties won’t work anymore. Floods and droughts will oscillate in some places, so people will need to diversify their livelihoods. In the West, a family typically means two people with one job each. In the developing world, there are many jobs per family, depending on the season, situation, etc. They must always have something to fall back on. They do whatever they can to educate their children so they can go to the city to earn for their family.
We need to coordinate organizations, form global partnerships to solve global problems with agriculture and food. The partnership of CIMMYT, AATF, the Gates Foundation, and Monsanto to produce roylaty free drought tolerant maize for Africa is one example of what we need.
Thomas Paine said “we have the power to build our world anew”.
Q: Will the EU continue to influence acceptance of GM in Africa?
A: Acceptance will be slowest in Africa, but will speed up as India and China develop new varieties. We need to remember that GM is just one weapon in the armory. Sir Gordon has always been a conscientious advocate of the role GM can serve in sustainable agricultre, even when it has been unpopular. I hope he can help people in England to understand their role.
Q: What about roads?
A: Connectivity is a major part of the solution. This includes roads and communication, so that farmers can get their goods to market.
Q: I go to a lot of sustainable agriculture seminars and they say things very differently from what you said. What about organic?
A: The key is integration. Organic is very exclusive and doesn’t work everywhere. There will be some pests that require pesticides, some soils that require fertilizer in places where organic fertilizer is not available. Now, we just have to get organic advocates to admit this. Perhaps they should try farming in red clay.
Q: You mentioned extension as one of many solutions. How can we get extension to people who need it most? This was my question, and I was thinking of Jeremy of agro.biodiver.se when I asked it.
A: Africa is a very complicated and diverse place. We really need to train the farmers, so they can be their own extension. We can educate small agrodealers to help solve problems in the field. They can be like pharmacists. Sometimes you don’t need a doctor, you just need to know what OTC remedy will help. Jeremy covered this topic breifly in A puzzle of African farming. If the agrodealers were the extension agents, it could be a way to get solutions to farmers with the knowledge they need to use it. However, there would have to be some safeguards to ensure that the dealers wouldn’t just provide the most expensive remedy!