Apr 26, 2009

Scientific Alliance newsletter 24th April 2009

Cambridge Network - Cambridge,UK

Making the most of agricultural technology

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, set up to use the couple's personal wealth for the benefit of the world's poor, takes a hard-headed, business-oriented approach to screening projects put forward for funding. Unlike the majority of development charities, the Gates Foundation is not afraid to include cutting edge technologies to address pressing problems. This is not to say that there is not a place for small-scale improvements to current farming practices. Better cultivation techniques and improved irrigation have a role to play, but so does a search for more radical solutions to malnourishment and the lack of food security.

This approach starts from the principle that healthy, well-fed people are able to move on from subsistence farming and lift themselves out of poverty. Regular crop surpluses and the scope to grow cash crops not only makes the lives of whole families better, but enable children to go to school, which greatly improves their prospects as adults.

With this as an overall objective, nothing is then ruled out. There is no philosophical reliance on indigenous knowledge and keeping small farmers on the land for generations to come. If a more radical solution has the potential to improve people's lives, then there is no reason not to explore it. The net result would not necessarily be good for everyone in the short term. There would be losers as well as winners as the pattern of farming changed and young people moved to the cities.

But these are the sort of social upheavals which European countries have gone through in the past. From the comfort of our lives in today's advanced societies, how many of us would really argue that populations would be better off working the land for the basic necessities of life? Then we have to consider why the development sector effectively wants to condemn the world's current population of poor farmers to a similar future.

This attitude is encapsulated in the report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, published in 2008. Set up as an authoritative, multi-stakeholder study, it became dominated by the received wisdom of NGOs and development agencies, and effectively dismissed the tools available to developed country farmers as inappropriate to the needs of the developing world. No wonder that the representatives of the private sector agricultural supply industry withdrew from participation before the report was published.

But published it was, and the dismissal of agricultural biotechnology as a development tool is now regularly trotted out as the authoritative consensus view of 400 scientists and development experts. Not only is it difficult to see how this can be a balanced view if the owners of the technology have effectively been excluded, but it is also a pity that no-one seems to have asked poor farmers in Africa, Asia or Latin America whether they would like to see the best available technologies used to improve crops which will help them produce bigger and more valuable harvests.

Fortunately, the Gates Foundation is not so blinkered. It has, for example, very publicly funded a project whose aim is to breed a "super cassava" using genetic modification technology (Biocassava plus). Cassava is the fall-back staple food of many in sub-Saharan Africa, but has a low nutritional value and requires considerable preparation to make it safe to eat, as it contains significant levels of cyanide. The goal is to increase the protein, vitamin and mineral content, reduce or eliminate cyanide and increase disease resistance. Field trials of a variety with high levels of beta-carotene have been approved in Nigeria.

But genetic modification is only one of the tools used, where it is appropriate. More recently, the Foundation has made grants of $48 million to two bodies – the World Cocoa Foundation and the German development organisation GTZ – to improve the incomes of cocoa and cashew farmers in Africa. These are integrated, multi-faceted programmes which aim to improve farmer knowledge, crop yields and quality and access to market.

Will such initiatives work? Doubtless some will be more successful than others, but full marks are due to the Gates Foundation and their partners for making genuine efforts to improve the lot of the poor through its agriculture initiative and for being open-minded to the possibilities offered by modern technology.

A worthy winner, for the wrong reasons

The FT has recently announced the winner of its Climate Change Challenge, which "sought to find and publicise the most innovative and scalable solution to the effects of climate change." A solar-powered cardboard cooker called the Kyoto Box has won the $75,000 prize.

This is a simple, cheap and ingenious device which can be used to boil water by harnessing heat from the sun. This Sun's rays enter an inner box through an acrylic panel, and heat is trapped via a combination of insulation, black paint and foil, sufficient to boil 10 litres of water in two hours when placed on top of the panel. And all for a likely cost of $5. The judging panel included the Financial Times, Sir Richard Branson and Dr Rajendra Pachauri.

John Bohmer, the cooker's inventor, thinks that its use will reduce a family's carbon dioxide emissions by about two tonnes a year, by eliminating the use of firewood. The other suggested benefit is disease reduction because water can be boiled before drinking. Strangely, the report fails to mention the most significant benefit of all: a likely big improvement in health because of reduced use of indoor wood stoves. The smoke from these fires is a major cause of respiratory disease, particularly among women and children.

If the Kyoto Box could be used for the majority of cooking, respiratory disease would be reduced and the daily search for firewood could be eliminated. These are two big gains, and make the prize winner a worthy one. But to see it as making a significant contribution to reduction of carbon emissions is misleading. While the rural poor might use less firewood, their countries' governments will be investing in centralised power generation, the additional emissions from which will dwarf any savings.

An effective electricity grid – supplemented by local generation sources in many cases – is a prerequisite for a decent life for city dwellers and the development of viable industries. Whatever is done to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions associated with rural living, this will become increasingly irrelevant as the economy develops. Productive agriculture is only the first stage of development, and we should not be aiming to stop the process when subsistence farmers have enough to eat every year. Poor farmers already have a tiny carbon footprint compared to rich Europeans. But they also have much poorer health, and if the Kyoto Box can improve this, then it certainly deserves a prize.

The Scientific Alliance
St John's Innovation Centre, Cowley Road, Cambridge CB4 0WS
Tel: +44 1223 421242

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