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

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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.

The failure of many colonial agricultural schemes gave rise to a counter-myth that the tropical soils were barren and that if you cut down a forest, the land underneath would soon be exhausted. This perception continues to the present as we are continually told about the Amazon, where the forests have been cut, farmed for a few years, and then turned into scrub land to raise cattle (falsely) alleged to be destined for McDonald's hamburgers. Not mentioned is the fact that the land may have been exhausted for agricultural purposes by bad agronomic practices. Or that there are research stations that demonstrate the potential for continuous cultivation if proper care and maintenance of the soil is practiced, including, of course, replacing nutrients that cultivation has removed. I began writing on tropical agriculture over forty years ago, trying to explain why the colonial practices so often failed. It was often because they tried to transfer temperate-zone agricultural practices to the tropics rather than applying the underlying science of agronomy. (The Tanganyika groundnut scheme is a classic example of colossal failure.) The few successes are largely ignored.

A Middle Ground on Soil

We now have reason to take a middle position about such region's potential. Yes, tropical and sub-tropical soils tend to be nutrient-deficient, particularly where rainfall has leached the soils. Leached soils tend to be high in elements such as aluminum and boron, which are not readily leached but can be highly toxic/low-ph if overly abundant.

The history of agriculture is a history of humans adapting their agricultural practices and amending the soils to make them productive. In my classes, I give lectures, which I will not repeat here, on the movement of Mediterranean agriculture north of the Alps, its early failures, and the view of the Romans such as Columella (actually a Hispano-Roman) about the unproductive nature of the climate and soils of Northern Europe. I give similar lectures on the movement of agriculture across the U.S. and how Thomas Jefferson (in his Notes on Virginia) had to defend New World agriculture against the beliefs of European thinkers such as Buffon that American agriculture (and civilization) could never succeed because of the climate. May I add that as late as the 1920s and 1930s, agriculture was nearly impossible in many parts of Florida because the soils were deficient in trace elements? Amending these soils with small, even miniscule, amounts of these missing nutrients/trace elements (almost the equivalent of going over the land with a salt shaker) has made them the most productive in the U.S. in terms of value yield per acre (or hectare).

Turning back to the tropics, we have places like Java, which was once completely forested and which has now been farmed for millennia but remains highly productive. And over the last decade, we have seen the emergence in Africa of highly productive export agriculture that supplies the European market with flowers, tropical fruits, and winter vegetables. Let us be clear: I am not arguing for cutting down the remaining rainforests, since they can be made productive. On the contrary, I am seeking to save the rainforest from the pressures of population growth by realizing the potential of tropical agriculture to increase yields per crop dramatically -- and arguing for year-round cultivation where conditions warrant it.

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.