Food is good

There’s an implicit pro-agricultural biodiversity message in a recent statement by the American Dietetic Association. These seem to be coming think and fast at the moment, by the way: we nibbled an earlier one a few weeks ago. The latest one, which I heard about — belatedly — via the Center for Consumer Freedom, takes a swipe at “pseudo-experts” that either demonize or anoint individual food items in their bully campaigns:

[N]o single food or type of food ensures good health, just as no single food or type of food is necessarily detrimental to health.

That’s why it is always sad when a food crop leaves the agricultural repertoire, and why it is important to find out why it did so.

What the first Green Revolution taught India

What would you say were the lessons of the first Green Revolution in India? That wealthier farmers on good land need even more help to boost their yields? Or that the smaller, poorer farmers by passed (or even actively harmed) by the Green Revolution should be the focus of attention now?

OK, so it’s an unfair question. Intensive farming does need continuing research and development to thrive and expand. And rural smallholders, while they could be assisted in their quest for food security, are not the answer to national problems. Nevertheless, I confess to being more than a little dismayed by the report of a recent speech by India’s new president Pratibha Patil to the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

“The structural weaknesses of the agriculture sector include low levels of public investment, exhaustion of the yield potential of new high yielding varieties of wheat and rice, unbalanced fertilizer use, low seeds replacement rate and low yield per unit area across almost all crops.”

Patil further said that the reasons for low agri-production are the diminishing size of land holdings, degradation in land quality and soil health due to improper nutrient application, the looming threats of global warming and climate change, and emergence of new pests and diseases.

Weak linkages between research and extension, limited credit access at reasonable rates of interest, non-remunerative prices, inadequate market access, poor rural infrastructure and insufficient post-harvest infrastructure such as warehousing, cold chains, and agro-processing facilities are other features plaguing our agricultural production environment, she added.

Many of the “reasons” Patil enumerated look from afar like the consequences of poor intensification rather than weaknesses not addressed by the Green Revolution.

Just the teeniest passing reference to the benefits of agricultural biodiversity, especially for the farmers who did not get much out of the Green Revolution, would have pleased me no end.

There’s more here: apparently Patil’s speech was a curtain-raiser for FAO Director General Jacques Diouf. But the Indian papers don’t seem to be recording what he said.

Examining the entrails

There’s an extremely long and detailed piece in Business Daily Africa about what Kofi Annan really said, what he meant, and what other people think he meant, and what should have said about the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and GMOs. It really does have the whiff of theologists discussing a papal pronouncement. One thing the article does is to draw attention to all the other things — roads, markets, communications — that Africa needs to become more food secure. But just as I’m guilty of treating Africa as a monolith, so the article, and the multitude of experts it cites, are guilty of treating crops and genetic engineering as monoliths. Instead of worrying about the fine nuances of words like “consider” — as in “the Alliance will not shy away from considering the potential of bio-technology in reducing hunger and poverty” — maybe the assembled experts could consider specific crops and specific biotechnologies.

China to protect biodiversity

China’s new National Strategy for Plant Conservation has just been launched, and Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) has a write-up about it. An introduction to the strategy is also available. Agricultural biodiversity gets quite a high profile, which is great, and unusual for such exercises. Here’s a few quotes to give you the flavour:

China is home to some of the world’s most important crop, medicinal and ornamental species, such as tea, rice, soy beans, ginseng, magnolias, camellias & peaches.

China is … keen to investigate novel methods of ‘eco-agriculture’, in a bid to introduce more sustainable land management practices to a country which is still largely agricultural.

The system known as the “3R Model” (Resources, Research, and Resolution) has recently produced a unique golden-fleshed kiwi fruit, bred from wild native kiwi vines that were conserved by the project.

A national Chinese seed bank (containing 340,000 accessions) and a network of regional seed banks ensures the long-term conservation of the genes of important crops, such as rice and soya beans.

Over 11,000 species are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Of the 600 plant species that are regularly used, sustainable cultivation systems have been developed for 200 species, thereby preventing their unsustainable harvesting from the wild.

One thing I didn’t understand, though. There’s a picture of a cultivated field in the introduction to the strategy, and also in the BGCI piece, with the following caption:

Fields of cultivated ‘wild’ barley, found only in the Chinese Himalayas, demonstrate the importance of local and ethnic crop varieties.

No doubt there are wild species of Hordeum in the Chinese Himalayas. But what does it mean to say that they are cultivated? Similarly, there is cultivated barley there. But what does it mean to say that it is “wild”?