Tag Archives: food security

Food security and the need to educate the public

In the May/June issue of Foreign Policy, Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute writes about The New Geopolitics of Food.

Brown’s launching pad:

Already in 2011, the U.N. Food Price Index has eclipsed its previous all-time global high; as of March it had climbed for eight consecutive months. With this year’s harvest predicted to fall short, with governments in the Middle East and Africa teetering as a result of the price spikes, and with anxious markets sustaining one shock after another, food has quickly become the hidden driver of world politics. And crises like these are going to become increasingly common. The new geopolitics of food looks a whole lot more volatile — and a whole lot more contentious — than it used to. Scarcity is the new norm.

The bottom line?  Consumers in the North will be the last to feel the impact of increasing commodity prices, while – as we know from food riots over the last few years – consumers in the South feel these impacts immediately.  Positioning the acquisition of agricultural land in Africa by countries like China, Saudi Arabia and South Korea, Brown argues persuasively that we have now entered an era in which the food supply, rather than oil, will be the key geopolitical driver of the global economy.

Food Ark (National Geographic, July 2011) addresses a more mainstream audience and approaches the same challenge.  Its tight focus is, however, on the increasing threats to biodiversity and on the key role of seed.

The headline for this comprehensible primer:

A crisis is looming: To feed our growing population, we’ll need to double food production. Yet crop yields aren’t increasing fast enough, and climate change and new diseases threaten the limited varieties we’ve come to depend on for food. Luckily we still have the seeds and breeds to ensure our future food supply—but we must take steps to save them.

What is of note is that both articles address non-scientific audiences and both explain the role of agricultural research, underlining the need for more of it.  As “food security” hits the mainstream, it seems important that consumers understand the issues and the critical role that research plays.  This may be a good time for the ag research community to get involved in further increasing public awareness.  It’s not just about money; an informed press and public can create an environment in which challenges to progress can be more easily navigated.  It’s called public relations.

Post written by Peter Bloch

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“How can Africa grow more food?”

The Guardian reports on, yes, more reports about food security in Africa, “How Can Africa Grow More Food?

I was struck by an observation about agricultural technology that nails one of the crucial challenges faced by the new, improved CGIAR:

One old hand in the field told me the other day that, on average, it takes 46 years for agricultural innovations to get from the laboratory to widespread use in the field in Africa; it’s not lack of technology that is the problem but effective means to disseminate practical solutions. Technology might be able to achieve quick fixes in health on the continent, but they might be elusive in agriculture because it entails much more complex issues of land rights and power.

The Guardian coverage was prompted by the publication of a new book, The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, a product of the Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project.

Reader comments at guardian.co.uk are passionate and well worth reading.  One blogger, pngahgita, ends a lengthy comment with an observation:

Now, he who controls the seed industry is master over life and death in the long run!

That reminded me why CAS made such an investment in trying to get the DoJ to broaden the scope of their enquiry into concentration in the seed industry to include developing countries.  Read the paper “Potential Impact of U.S.-Based Seed Company Competition on Access to Seed in the Developing Country Context”.

Post written by Peter Bloch

Challenges for Tanzanian seed sector

As part of our ongoing market development support for ICRISAT’s seed sector mission in Africa, over the last week I met with public and private sector actors in the Tanzanian seed sector.  Building a viable private sector presents a number of challenges and the situation is quite complex. This is intended only as an overview. After 30 years in power, Julius Nyere’s socialist regime collapsed in 1997, and the market-driven economy is still in the process of evolution.  Under the socialists there was no private seed sector.  A parastatal seed company – Tanseed – had a monopoly on seed production and distribution in Tanzania.

The remains of the old structures can be seen in ASA – the Agricultural Seed Agency – a government agency which promotes itself as “The Source of High Quality Agricultural Seeds”.  ASA’s mission is:

To produce, process and market sufficient high quality agricultural seeds for the local and international farming communities by using modern management and appropriate technologies to enhance food security.

ASA is the sole source of public variety foundation seed.   There are failures, and our interviews revealed that:

  • ASA’s foundation seed production is unable to meet demand;
  • ASA’s certified seed production and marketing (which, according to ASA, is intended only to address orphan crops which are of no interest to the private sector) competes with the private sector;
  • As a result of financial constraints, there is only limited public sector breeding in Tanzania, and no maintenance breeding; this has resulted in the loss of a number of valuable public lines.
  • Foundation seed produced by ASA for both the public and private sector is of poor quality, which does not bode well for the future food security and economic development of Tanzania.
ASA farm in Arusha

From left to right: Paul Nandila (Workshop Manager), Bob Shuma (Executive Director, TASTA) and Zawadieli Mrinji (ASA farm manager) examining maize foundation seed at the ASA farm in Arusha

Bob Shuma
Bob Shuma with ASA maize foundation seed; true to type on left, defective on right.

Bob Shuma, Executive Director of TASTA (Tanzanian Seed Trade Assn.) estimates that only 15% of seed planted in Tanzania is certified.

With a land area of 947,000 sq. km. and four quite different farming ecologies few roads are suitable for trucking. Of the 79,000 km of roadways, less than 7,000 km are paved.[1] This exacerbates an already fragile distribution chain for certified seed by increasing retail prices to the point at which many farmers cannot afford to buy.  Conventional financing is not an option; with a banking sector that is risk averse, does not understand farming, and with interest rates in the 20%-25% range, even a medium sized and profitable regional company such as East Africa Seed finances expansion from retained earnings.

Drought is yet another factor and explains why the private sector has been unable to meet demand from farmers for certified seed, and is one factor in ASA’s inability to meet private sector demand for foundation seed.  The government is now investing in the installation of irrigation systems for the ASA seed farms, and this should enable an increase in output. All of the seed companies interviewed seemed highly aware of the need to establish and maintain a strong brand identity to distinguish themselves from competitors who, for the most part, are selling identical product (foundation seed provided by ASA and AVRDC is available to all buyers). The options for developing unique branding strategies are, however, limited and the common focus is on quality and reliability.  The disparity between supply and demand – no seed company has been able to satisfy demand – explains why marketing is not a critical issue for the private seed sector. Bob Shuma observes that:

When Tanzania’s seed laboratory is finally accredited to ISTA and OECD it will stimulate the availability of new varieties, new crops and new lines and export opportunities will open up; unfortunately budgetary restraints have slowed this process.  With all of these constraints, what will attract local investors and entrepreneurs to invest in private sector seed activity?  And how can farmers access improved technologies?  These are challenges to be addressed by Tanzania, its partners and by the development community.

Many thanks to Bob Shuma for his invaluable assistance on this trip, and to TASTA and Wageningen International for their support.

Post written by Peter Bloch, consultant to CAS-IP


[1] CIA Factbook; this data is at least five years old and paved roadway has probably increased by 20%.

CAS-IP submission to DoJ’s exploration of seed industry concentration

In August 2009, the US Department of Justice (DoJ), together with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a series of workshops intended to “explore competition and regulatory issues in the agriculture industry”. –  Agriculture and Antitrust Enforcement Issues in Our 21st Century Economy – will enquire into agriculture and into the dairy, poultry and livestock industries.  One of several workshops that has been scheduled will take place in Iowa and address “…seed technology, vertical integration, market transparency and buyer power”.

These hearings will ask if mergers and acquisitions have reduced competition in the US seed industry.  While this enquiry is US centric, CAS-IP, in its role to assist the CGIAR and its constituency of resource-poor farmers, argues that the availability of seed to poor farmers is critical to current and future food security.  This is no longer a national issue, and the food security of developing nations is of great concern to the US and to other developed nations.  By way of example, at the July, 2009 L’Aquila Summit President Obama made a powerful statement of support for agricultural development in developing countries:

“We have committed to investing $20 billion in food security — agricultural development programs to help fight world hunger.  This is in addition to the emergency humanitarian aid that we provide.  And I should just note…we had agreed to $15 billion; we exceeded that mark and obtained an additional $5 billion of hard commitments.  We do not view this assistance as an end in itself.  We believe that the purpose of aid must be to create the conditions where it’s no longer needed — to help people become self-sufficient, provide for their families, and lift their standards of living.”

Based on 2006 revenues the ETC Group estimates that the top ten global seed companies control 47% of the global proprietary seed market.  Of the top 10, three are US based and control 40% of the global proprietary seed market.  Any reduction of competition within the US will impact agriculture and, potentially, food security in the developing world.  Our submission to the DoJ argues, therefore, that the investigation be expanded and reference the impacts of reduced competition and the concentration of IP ownership within the US seed industry on developing countries.

Over the last year, our System Dynamics Modeling team has been studying the seed sector in several African countries and prepared a case study of the seed sector in Malawi.  This analysis, which supports our contention that reduced competition may have negative impact on agriculture in developing countries, is an integral part of the CAS submission to DoJ.

With support from PIIPA, Pillsbury Law provided pro bono legal consultations on the preparation of the submission, which was delivered on December 31st.  The document can be downloaded at http://www.cas-ip.org/resources/publications/publications-impact-of-seed-company-competition-on-access/

The paper is authored by Guat Hong Teh, Sebastian Derwisch, Victoria Henson-Apollonio and Peter Bloch of the CGIAR Central Advisory Service on Intellectual Property (CAS-IP).  The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of Donna O. Perdue of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.

Post written by Peter Bloch, consultant to CAS-IP

“Can Biotech Food Cure World Hunger?”

Victoria Henson-Apollonio, the CAS-IP manager, sent me this link:

http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/26/can-biotech-food-cure-world-hunger/

For those of us who are involved in food security, this is extremely stimulating because a number of experts present their viewpoints on the question.  Here is a sampling:

Paul Collier: The debate over genetically modified crops and food has been contaminated by political and aesthetic prejudices: hostility to U.S. corporations, fear of big science and romanticism about local, organic production.

Vandana Shiva: Food security over the next two decades will have to be built on ecological security and climate resilience. We need the real green revolution, not a second “Green Revolution” based on genetic engineering.

Raj Patel: The U.S. leads the world in genetically modified agricultural technology, yet one in eight Americans is hungry. Last year, with bumper harvests, more than a billion people ate less than 1,900 calories per day. The cause of hunger today isn’t a shortage of food — it’s poverty.

Whatever we think about biotechnology, this NYTimes blog makes an even-handed effort to present a number of expert opinions in some depth.  One thing is for sure – everyone has strong views on the subject!

The CGIAR provides a perspective within the context of the Alliance mission at: http://www.cgiar.org/impact/agribiotech.html

This overview observes that:

As transgenics could offer important options for meeting food demand and environmental challenges, many scientists dedicated to reducing hunger and creating wealth among poor farmers consider such new technologies to be one part of the tool box of possible solutions.

Post written by Peter Bloch, consultant to CAS-IP

Further to this post I was sent a link (thanks Keith!) “Food: is Monsanto the answer or the problem?” where Reuters have mapped out where GM crops are cultivated and made comparisons between GM and non-GM.  It provides useful snapshot of information for the context of this post.

Oxfam and “The other green revolution”

Oxfam, the UK-based mega NGO, reports on its success in the Sahel where soil management, erosion control and tree planting have transformed the agricultural environment.
http://www.oxfamamerica.org/articles/the-other-green-revolution:

“African farmers have reclaimed farmland lost to drought in the Sahel, bringing hope for the future of this arid region and a model for fighting hunger worldwide”

On October 29th Oxfam hosted several panel discussions in Washington DC to enable the innovators to explain the history of the project and to engage with donors and other NGOs in a discussion about how to replicate this kind of success.

FRAME covered the event on Twitter and comments can be found at:
http://twitter.com/frameweb

FRAME observed that:

“After the devastating droughts of the 1970’s and 1980’s, African farmers in the Sahel region mobilized to reclaim their land from the encroaching desert. Thirty years later, their work has secured 13 million acres of farmland, fed 3 million people, recharged village wells, and supplied useful and valuable tree products. Despite growing populations and the threats of climate change, food security has improved in the Sahel region.”

As more land is lost to drought, this work may have far-reaching implications for food security in sub Saharan Africa.
Oxfam is far more visible in the UK than it is in North America.  They have played a signicant role in making England a big market for Fair Trade products.  Even chains like Tesco and Waitrose carry FT products in at least five categories, and Sainsburys has a partnership with Twin Trading about (the co-founder of Divine Chocolate) to develop FT products.

OxfamAmerica played a major role in building consumer support for Ethiopia’s coffee trademark initiative (click here for our blog posts on this subject); if you search http://www.oxfamamerica.org for “Ethiopian coffee” you’ll find a dozen links that describe the history of their involvement.

Oxfam understands branding better, probably, than any other NGO.  Check out their range of activities – which includes global warming, emergency aid and poverty in the UK – at:
http://www.oxfam.org.uk/oxfam_in_action/

Post written by Peter Bloch, consultant to CAS-IP