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Vetiver powers agriculture


Monday, November 16, 2009

You will recall that in a recent Blog headed Fight, Fight, Fight I referred to the death of Nobel Peace Laureate Norman Borlaug. Noel Vietmeyer’s second volume of Borlaug’s biography has just been published – it is truly a great story of sheer grit and vision under very difficult conditions. The book can be purchased online at: I highly recommend it.
During the 15 years that Norman Borlaug was developing rust resistant and high yielding wheats that would eventually spread across the world he learned a number of very important lessons. These same lessons could and should be applied to the development and promotion of the Vetiver System. I lift these lessons out of his biography- “Borlaug Volume 2”.
Lesson One: Feed Everyone: Opt to feed the whole population, not just the hungry. That way every citizen has a stake in overcoming the inevitable obstacles. The Vetiver System should be developed and promoted for large and small farmers; for other sectors as well as agriculture; for government, non-government, and private sector users; and in every country where VS has application potential. By doing this stakeholder involvement and number is hugely expanded.
Lesson two: Policy Matters: Governments policy should be sensible, supportive and never hinder the farmer’s will to produce more. Government support is very important for new technology to take root and expand. We find many government policies that are contrary to farmer or other user need, often this includes government either willfully or ignorantly promoting inappropriate technologies. This problem is often encountered when VS is being introduced as an alternative and superior technology.
Lesson three: Feed the plants: To feed the people first feed the soils, make them capable of supporting high production plants. In this instance Borlaug was referring to raising soil fertility through increased fertilizer use (frequently under irrigated conditions). In the case of VS the technology provides the means of improving soil moisture and the retention of plant nutrients. At this time of climate change and increased pressure on land the need for better soil moisture management, retention of rainfall, and optimizing fertilizer impact on crop yields is essential and requires technologies such as VS to be widely used and accepted.
Lesson four: Demonstrate, Demonstrate, Demonstrate: Work where everyone can see your results and judge for themselves. Farmers do not need to be told … but they do need to see. Essential for whatever application VS is to be used for, but particularly important for farmers. Demonstrations need to be properly laid out, using the correct application method (quality plant material, spacing, timing, fertilizer), and located at accessible and easily observed sites.
Lesson Five: Make a Profit: When something makes a profit people will adopt change. To succeed on a grand scale a plant should be profitable enough to double the family income. This is true among the hungry and especially among the poor. This is as true for Vetiver as it was for Norman Borlaug’s improved wheat. Although difficult to double incomes Vetiver has expanded on large scale in western Ethiopia because it has lifted crop yields significantly; in some cases of drought conditions crops would have not survived without Vetiver hedgerows. The private sector Vetiver use for non agricultural applications is accelerating because VS is PROFITABLE. Interestingly in Mexico, one of the prime marketers of Borlaug’s improved wheats were the fertilizer companies who wanted to sell more fertilizer. We should consider using fertilizer companies and small rural retailers as a means to promote Vetiver to farmers; since better soil protection and improved soil moisture would result in better plant response to fertilizer and more reliable and less risky crop production in drought years, resulting in higher demand and profit for both farmers and fertilizer salesmen.
Lesson Six: Circumvent Entrenched Interests: Recruit farmers and young scientists to the cause, then leave it to them to battle apathy, anger and umbrage, among their own officials. Aroused rural awareness is a force more powerful than foreign scientists or even local functionaries. Borlaug used poorly educated teenagers to scare the birds away, then he trained them to carry out the intricate and delicate task of hand pollinating wheat, not just a few but thousands of plants. He would not have achieved the results that he did without these young and “untrained” boys. We have seen the same in the East Bali Poverty Project where David Booth’s school children are leading the introduction of VS to their communities. We see farmers in India and Ethiopia whose VS knowledge and enthusiasm eclipse that of trained graduates and other government functionaries. The whole VS program today would probably not exist if a decision at a very early stage had not been taken to move forward without formal sanction from national research institutions in the belief that the latter would slow down the program, and that an unfettered expansion would eventually attract scientific research out of curiosity – which it did.
These are all important lessons, and, as I have attempted to demonstrate, are applicable to the promotion and development of the Vetiver System
Based on Norman Borlaug’s own experience, he gave, as Chairman of a National Academy committee that reviewed Vetiver (see Vetiver Grass - A Thin Green Line Against Erosion - available at Bracing Books), the heads up for us (the World Bank at that time) to move ahead with Vetiver and its development.
Thank you Norman!


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