Australia invests in wheat genes

You can’t keep a good man down. Dr Ken Street, who may or may not be the Indiana Jones of agriculture, has been explaining why Australia’s Grains and Development Corporation (GRDC) has given $5 million to the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Part of GRDC’s contribution is earmarked for Central Asia and the Caucasus, where wheat and other cereals were domesticated and where there are still valuable genetic resources. The Trust will help to conserve material collected in those regions, which Street says has already demonstrated resistance to three different kinds of wheat rust: leaf, yellow and stripe. GRDC is funded by a levy on Australian cereal farmers, and the genetic resources supported by the Trust will be freely available to all researchers. So, as Street neatly sums up: “the benefit to Australia is access to genes that could solve many current production constraints”.

More doom and gloom for agricultural research

I1 was encouraged to read a couple of interesting news stories on SciDevNet highlighting useful efforts to improve scientific capacity in developing countries, only to be disheartened by another article identifying important gaps and weaknesses in many Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) in this very area. PRSPs are the multi-year plans that developing countries now have to draw up and adopt as a pre-condition of support from funding agencies such as the World Bank. Not good news for agricultural research and researchers in these countries.

The article highlights a warning for the world’s poorest nations to place more emphasis on using scientific knowledge and technological innovation if they wish to escape growing unemployment and poverty. The warning is contained in a major report — “The Least Developed Countries Report 2007: Knowledge, Technology Learning and Innovation for Development” — published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

The PRSPs seek to reduce poverty through sustained economic growth, but fail to give importance to the role of scientific and technological change in achieving sustainable development. No wonder national budgets and donor aid for science, technology and innovation in general, and for agricultural research and extension and capacity-building in particular, are dwindling.2 While there are no easy solutions to this complex problem, the report does highlight strategies for donors and LDCs that can improve capacity for science, technology and innovation,

from encouraging “technological learning” in both “farms and firms”, to making better use of international legislation on intellectual property rights, and encouraging donors to increase support for what it describes as “knowledge aid”.

However, while it is important to make such high-minded pronouncements, let us not forget that individual scientists carrying out research in LCDs have much to offer on a day-to-day basis in terms of enhancing national scientific capacity. Such capacity-enhancing activities might involve providing training and mentoring to young scientists, helping young scientists and scientific groups to form networks, ensuring young local scientists are acknowledged and included as co-authors on scientific publications, and so forth. I am sure there are other, more innovative approaches to capacity-enhancing that have been used by scientists working in the field of agricultural biodiveristy. If so, I would love to learn about them.

  1. This article was sent in by Danny Hunter. []
  2. “…although agriculture remains the principal source of livelihood in LDCs, spending on agricultural research has fallen from 1.2 per cent of agricultural gross national product in the late 1980s to less than 0.5 per cent today.” []

An open letter to Kofi Annan

Dear Mr Annan

Congratulations on your appointment as Chair of the Board of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. In your inaugural lecture in Capetown you said categorically that the Alliance would “work with farmers using traditional seeds known to them”. I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “traditional seeds,” especially in view of Agra’s strong focus on breeding: “we will develop improved varieties for the full range of Africa’s important staple food crops,” it says on the Agra web site.

Maybe you just mean “not genetically engineered”. That might make sense, because the sentence before the one on “traditional seeds” reads: “We in the Alliance will not incorporate GMOs in our programmes.”

Continue reading “An open letter to Kofi Annan”

World Bank protects biodiversity

The International Finance Corporation (IFC) is the private sector arm of the World Bank. It “provides loans, equity, structured finance and risk management products, and advisory services to build the private sector in developing countries.” It has just launched, with support from the Global Environment Facility, a Biodiversity and Agricultural Commodities Program which will “seek to reduce … threats (to global biodiversity) by leveraging market forces at all levels of the value chain (of palm oil, cacao, soybeans, and sugarcane).”

The program will offer advisory services for projects involving the private sector that support adoption of better management practices at the production level, increase the demand for biodiversity-friendly products, and improve financial institutions’ ability to support adoption of biodiversity-friendly practices. The program will also support multistakeholder initiatives that create sustainable markets for agricultural commodities.

I just hope some of those “better management practices at the production level” include the conservation and deployment of agricultural biodiversity in farmers’ fields.

Subsidise this

There is plenty of analysis out there on the topic of agricultural subsidies and their actual or potential effect on things like growth of the farm sector, productivity, rural population levels and employment rates, farmers’ incomes and the number and average size of farms. But I haven’t seen much empirical data – or even theoretical discussion – of what subsidies (or the lack of them) mean for agrobiodiversity on farms. The data and discussion must be out there, it’s just that I don’t know the agricultural economics literature well enough to even know where to look.

So it was kind of interesting that I happened across two pieces of work in the past couple of weeks that shed some – albeit oblique – light on the subject. A 2003 article on The New Farm looks at what happened in New Zealand when agricultural subsidies were phased out: starting in 1984, the kiwis kept “a basic social security framework … funding for agricultural research, … and measures to keep agricultural pests from leaping around the world, and (did) away with the rest.” 

The New Zealand experience strongly suggests that most supposed objectives of agricultural subsidies and market protections – to maintain a traditional countryside, protect the environment, ensure food security, combat food scarcity, support family farms and slow corporate take-over of agriculture – are better achieved by their absence.

The paper suggests that the end of subsidies forced farmers to diversify, embrace organic methods, let marginal land revert to bush and innovate furiously, including by adopting new varieties. It’s hard to be entirely sure from the information presented, but on balance it would seem that (agricultural) biodiversity was better conserved and better used after subsidies ended.

I also came across a newly-released FAO paper entitled “Long Term Farming Trends. An Inquiry Using Agricultural Censuses,” a meta-analysis of 43 agricultural censuses across 17 countries. The authors look at differences among countries, and changes in the last 30 years or so, in things like land inequality and farm size, but also crop diversification, by which they basically mean the extent to which non-staple crops are being grown. They found, for example, that small farms tend to concentrate on staple crops more than bigger farms do, and that agricultural openness (i.e. lack of subsidies) “is correlated with diversification away from staple crops.” Though this relationship did not hold for countries with high population levels, the result concords with what happened in New Zealand.

You see what I mean when I said that the light being shed is at best oblique. Neither paper discusses diversity within crops much (or at all!), and their concept of “diversification” was somewhat crude. That wasn’t really their aim, so you can’t blame the authors. But with WTO members discussing the freeing up of agricultural markets (when they manage to discuss anything at all), I do wonder whether agricultural economists are devoting enough (or any) thinking to the possible effects on agricultural biodiversity. I look forward to being reassured by someone out there.