Sunday, November 29, 2009
In the November 21st issue of the Economist there are two interesting articles. The first, “Feeding the World”, the second, “Monsanto the parable of the sower” Both articles reflect changing attitudes, policies and technologies towards food supply; how increase demand is to be met; and ways that farmers may reap the benefits of this new demand. These articles specifically relate to the poorer and more risk prone countries of south Asia and Africa, where the future is further compounded by climate change (for the worse) and more than average population growth effecting hundreds of millions of rural people earning less than $2 per day. Many of these countries are making new investments in farm inputs (seeds and fertilizers), market infrastructure (roads, storage and markets), market communications, and farm credit. Nothing new about any of this, although for the past 20 years the leading world institutions conveniently put most on a back burner in favor of policy adjustment credits, that did not have the intended impact.
Norman Borlaug’s revolution in wheat production succeeded because he bred high yielding wheats that responded to fertilizer and irrigation over a wide range of climatic conditions and were resistant to rust. The same is true in the increases in rice yields – fertilizer, irrigation and new varieties.
Five years before India’s Green Revolution another crop revolution was taking place in southern Africa: “The 1960 development of the SR-52 maize hybrid, by a little-known research station in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, was "a miracle of sorts, one that transformed African landscapes, racial politics, and diets over the next forty years. ... By the end of the first decade of majority rule in Zimbabwe, virtually 100 percent of Zimbabwe's maize fields were planted with the hybrids developed in the 1960s, including the short-season triple-crosses suited to drought-prone areas. (Maize and Grace: Africa's Encounter with a New World Crop 1500-2000. James C. McCann)”. Today descendants of SR52 make up much of Malawi’s widely acclaimed surplus maize production and is widely accepted.
In Kenya the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) program under the management of Africa Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) is supported by Monsanto, the Bill and Melinda Gates, and William Buffet Foundations with the objective of developing high yielding drought tolerant maize varieties over the next five years. I wonder with all the funds and modern technology available whether they will do better than that small and little known research station in Rhodesia?
In the years since SR52 was introduced African farmland has significantly deteriorated due to soil and nutrient loss and increased farm intensity. New varieties of maize and other crops will, if they are high yielding, require high levels of fertilizer input, and whether drought tolerant or not will require effective water and soil moisture management. Borlaug’s Mexican wheats took off where there was sufficient water and fertilizer delivery. Borlaug relied on the commercial sector to supply the fertilizer, and in turn the fertilizer sales men took advantage of the new high yielding wheat varieties to sell more fertilizer.
Most of African and south Asian farmers do not have access to irrigation and depend on rainfall. There is plenty of evidence that the Vetiver System, if applied correctly, will greatly enhance soil moisture and the retention of nutrients. The new crop breeding initiatives through WEMA will besides fertilizer require better managed soil and water resources. This is a good time to start introducing such practices in anticipation of these new varieties. Even without them, as is the case in Ethiopia and Malawi very significant maize yield increases have been achieved in association with the introduction of Vetiver System practices.
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