Heliophage


Perennial wheat progress
October 8, 2009, 10:41 am
Filed under: Farming

Perennial wheat at the Land Institute

A week or so ago, Jeremy had an interesting post at the agricultural biodiversity blog on developments in the field of perennial wheat. Perennial wheat would be cheaper to farm than conventional wheat — less fertilizer, pesticides, sowing costs, tilling costs, etc. The advantages get even greater under some conditions when you look at factors such as increased soil moisture and soil carbon and reduced erosion. So perennialisation of wheat and other crops has lots of fans.

Those fans have to bear in mind, though, that being perennial and still being a proper crop is a hard trick to pull off, as Gary explained some while ago:

It takes great energy to live long and prosper. Stores must be set aside, stored in roots, during the salad days of the growing season. This leaves little energy for seed production since that is a very metabolically costly act. A plant that can do both is a super plant that can suck up water and nutrients with unprecedented skill, capture sunlight like no existing plants, convert sunlight to sugars with unprecedented efficiency, and so have the wealth to set seed in useful quantities while still having enough surplus to set aside energy stores for the lean season and so survive another year.

So you have to expect a trade off between grain yield, and possibly grain quality, and perennialisation.  The study Jeremy points us to, by Lindsay Bell of the University of Western Australia and colleagues, finds that if the perennial wheat is good quality stuff the savings on inputs mean that it could make sense to grow it even if the yield was only 60% of the yield in the annual wheat it was replacing (though obviously more would be nicer). But Jeremy also points to another benefit the research found for mixed farms — that of providing flexibility through growing something that can be used as forage as well as grain.

On a mixed farm that raises sheep as well as wheat, a dual-purpose perennial grain that offers forage, especially early in the growing season, can “greatly increase whole-farm profitability” according to the study. Even if grain yield is only 40% of annual wheat, a perennial wheat would be worth including on 12% of the farm area. The study points out that “this demonstrates that there is capacity to trade-off grain yield for forage production from a perennial cereal”.

Elsewhere in Australia (specifically, in Cowra, NSW, where the cherry-blossom festival just finished) they are embarking on some field trials to see if perennial wheat can actually make it through the summer in a useful way.

Image from wikimedia commons user Dehaan, under a creative commons licence



Revising and reprising the Green Revolution
September 17, 2009, 10:32 am
Filed under: Farming

Norman Borlaug in Africa (from Agbioworld)

Norman Borlaug in Africa (from AgBioWorld)

In the wake of Norman Borlaug’s death, Tyler Cowen posts a link to this fascinating piece of what I suppose should be called revisionist history, “Norman Borlaug’s Complicated Legacy” by Nick Cullather. Cullather’s interests seem to be in the broad field of diplomacy by other means, with one of those other means being food; this paper, available on line is a thought provoking history of the political and social meanings of the calorie.  In the Borlaug piece he is very interesting on what was actually going on in terms of food in Asia in the 1960s. For one thing, the bumper 1968 crop may have had a fair deal to do with climate (specifically ENSO) and increased wheat prices (following a dropping off of food aid to Asia, which had been suppressing them) as well as the introduction of dwarf wheat varieties. Also, he points out that it is possible that predictions of impending mass famine made in the 1960s and early 1970s were not accurate-for-the-world-they-were-made-in-but-confounded-by-the-subsequent-technological-improvements — the standard narrative — but rather would have been proved wrong anyway. Counterfactuals — whattcha gonna do? (According to Cullather, Borlaug himself had little time for the “doomsayers”.)

Which is not to say that Borlaug did nothing, or that science did not provide far more high yielding crops in the 1960s and 70s (there’s a personal account of how that research was brought together into the CGIAR system in an article Lowell Hardin did for Nature a couple of years ago). What Cullather does in his piece (and presumably in his forthcoming book, which is called “The Hungry World” or “Parable of the Seeds” depending on the source you ask, and which I now eagerly await) is tease out what that meant in terms of changing the ways people thought and acted, personally and politically:

The Rockefeller and Ford foundations set out to change the mentality and politics of rural Asia.  Food was their tool.  “I’ve worked with wheat, but wheat is merely a catalyst,” Borlaug explained.  “I’m interested in the total economic development in all countries.”  Development meant installing progressive leaders, like military dictator Ayub Kahn, and the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos who ran for office on the slogan “progress is a grain of rice.”  By requiring imported fertilizer and fuel, the new grain production strategy broke India’s planned economy, forcing Gandhi to divert resources from industry and devalue the rupee.  Borlaug and President Lyndon Johnson saw this as a victory.  In retrospect it’s less clear.  China and India were evenly matched in 1966, but China continued its industrial drive without letup.

Borlaug believed the process of high-yield agriculture would change the mentality of farmers.  The dwarf wheats required cultivators to precisely regulate water and chemicals, to set aside beliefs in nature and custom and put trust in technology.  It made peasants into scientists.   He expected this new attitude to affect their relations with their leaders, each other, and their families.  They would follow the profit motive, and he hoped, have fewer children.  The link between the new seeds and state birth control and sterilization programs was so plain that in many countries it was rumored that the seeds caused impotence. “If only that were true,” Borlaug sighed.  “We would really merit the Nobel Peace Prize.”

At a time when farming was marginalized in his own country, Borlaug recognized that agriculture was intimately connected with human life, and consequently with every political act.  More than feed the world, he aimed to change it.  Asked if he considered himself an extension agent to the world, he shook his head.  “No,” he replied.  “We move governments.”

There’s a list (which I have left out in order further to encourage you to go and read the article) of unintended consequences, including Maoism in the Philippines and the secession of Bangladesh, which impressed me, though I should note that aspects of it are disputed in comments on the piece, and I’m not in a position to judge the merits.

It all makes you ask what we should be thinking about in terms of a second green revolution for Africa. It’s not enough to just say there’s a need for biotechnology (which there is), or that that need has to be looked at in the context of  “technical, agronomic and institutional factors” (which it does, as this review of Robert Paarlberg’s powerful and influential “Starved for Science” makes clear). Beyond that which such contexts do for agriculture is that which agriculture does for and to those greater contexts. What future changes are we looking for in how people think and believe, as well as how they farm — and what are they themselves looking for? How should we conceptualise personal changes in practice as political acts? And how deeply wrong will be in our expectations?

All that said, Borlaug’s contribution was immense, and he was a great presence to be in. I was deeply impressed when I heard him speak a few years back. The last word goes to my friend Anna, third-personified by her Facebook page:

Anna clip

Image from AgBioWorld, permission to use requested



The biochar backlash
March 30, 2009, 11:07 am
Filed under: Farming, Geoengineering, Interventions in the carbon/climate crisis

Interest in biochar has been building up in the UK recently. There was a cover story by Fiona Harvey in the FT a month ago with a familiar headline, Jim Lovelock and James Hansen have been extolling its virtues, it’s been on the Today Programme (text here on BBC News), there are new technologies being talked up and there’s an interesting looking workshop at the newly established UK Biochar Research Centre in Edinburgh on April 1st. And so of course there is also a backlash: last Monday George Monbiot, whose written on such subjects before,  delivered a stirring oppositional salvo in the Guardian (and here’s the link to the version on his own site, same text but with references — a good habit more newspaper columnists should take up):

This miracle solution has suckered people who ought to know better, including the earth systems scientist James Lovelock(3), the eminent climate scientist Jim Hansen(4), the author Chris Goodall and the climate campaigner Tim Flannery(5). At the UN climate negotiations beginning in Bonn on Sunday, several national governments will demand that biochar is eligible for carbon credits, providing the financial stimulus required to turn this into a global industry(6). Their proposal boils down to this: we must destroy the biosphere in order to save it.

In his otherwise excellent book, Ten Technologies to Save the Planet, Chris Goodall abandons his usual scepticism and proposes that we turn 200 million hectares of “forests, savannah and croplands” into biochar plantations. Thus we would increase carbon uptake, by grubbing up “wooded areas containing slow-growing trees” (that is, natural forest) and planting “faster-growing species”(7). This is environmentalism?

But that’s just the start of it. Carbonscape, a company which hopes to be among the first to commercialise the technique, talks of planting 930 million hectares(8). The energy lecturer Peter Read proposes new biomass plantations of trees and sugar covering 1.4 billion ha(9).

In their book Pulping the South, Ricardo Carrere and Larry Lohmann show what has happened in the 100m ha of industrial plantations planted around the world so far(16). Aside from trashing biodiversity, tree plantations have dried up river catchments, caused soil erosion when the land is ploughed for planting (which means the loss of soil carbon), exhausted nutrients and required so many pesticides that in some places the run-off has poisoned marine fisheries.

In Brazil and South Africa, tens of thousands of people have been thrown off their lands, often by violent means, to create plantations. In Thailand the military government that came to power in 1991 sought to expel five million people. Forty thousand families were dispossessed before the junta was overthrown. In many cases plantations cause a net loss of employment. Working conditions are brutal, often involving debt peonage and repeated exposure to pesticides.

As Almuth Ernsting and Rachel Smolker of Biofuelwatch point out, many of the claims made for biochar don’t stand up(17). In some cases charcoal in the soil improves plant growth; in others it suppresses it. Just burying carbon bears little relationship to the complex farming techniques of the Amazon Indians who created terras pretas. Nor is there any guarantee that most of the buried carbon will stay in the soil. In some cases charcoal stimulates bacterial growth, causing carbon emissions from soils to rise. As for reducing deforestation, a stove that burns only part of the fuel is likely to increase, not decrease, demand for wood. There are plenty of other ways of eliminating household smoke which don’t involve turning the world’s forests to cinders.

This kicked off a whole week of biochar stuff in the Guardian. Various people criticised came back to say that they were really talking only about making biochar from crop waste: here’s Jim Lovelock’s benevolent response and here’s a slightly pricklier one from Hansen and Kharecha. Chris Goodall also came back in a let’s find common ground sort of way, and there were letters pro and con. Peter Read’s right-to-reply piece, by way of contrast, comes out fighting.

This degraded land [a large amount of land discussed in Read’s biofuel plans] is former forest that has been logged over and abandoned – not, as Monbiot says, “land occupied by subsistence farmers, pastoralists, hunters and gatherers”. Given the chance, impoverished people often opt for a waged income. Does Monbiot wish to keep them impoverished for ever?

In reality there is not the shortage of land Monbiot implies but a desperate shortage of investment in the land. His “global total” of 1.36bn hectares of arable land does not include 2.38bn of unused potential arable land reported by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, into which such investment, eg irrigation, might go. Moreover, the productivity of the 1.36bn could be raised with biochar pyrolysed from currently wasted agricultural residues, thus linking carbon removal with increased food supply and incomes.

Monbiot misses the point that the need for land-use improvements comes from the threat of climatic catastrophe. With too much carbon in the atmosphere and oceans, some of it has to be removed and put somewhere safer. Using the gift of nature – photosynthesis which enables green plants to use the sun’s energy to absorb atmospheric carbon – is the only economic way.

The remedy is not “an easy way out” but needs hard work and good policy resulting in, to quote last year’s Sustainable Biofuels Consensus, “a landscape that provides food, fodder, fibre, and energy; that offers opportunities for rural development; that diversifies energy supply, restores ecosystems, protects biodiversity, and sequesters carbon.”

George comes back in kind:

I wasn’t harsh enough about Peter Read. In his response column today he uses the kind of development rhetoric that I thought had died out with the Indonesian transmigration programme.

To him, people and land appear to be as fungible as counters in a board game. He makes the extraordinary assertion that “degraded land” – which he wants to cover with plantations – is uninhabited by subsistence farmers, pastoralists or hunters and gatherers. That must be news to all the subsistence farmers, pastoralists and hunters and gatherers I’ve met in such places. Then he repeats the ancient canard that, by denying such people the opportunity to have their land turned into a eucalyptus plantation/hydroelectric dam/opencast mine/nuclear test site/re-education camp or whatever project the latest swivel-eyed ideologue is trying to promote, we are keeping them in poverty.

Has he learnt nothing from the past 40 years of development studies? Does he not understand that development is something that people must choose, not something that can be imposed on them from on high by megalomaniacs?

It should be fairly obvious to everyone who’s not just in this for the aggro that there will be good biochar interventions and bad ones. Forcing biochar on people or soils that don’t want it or can’t prosper with it will not help; helping people to find systems that are biochar friendly could quite possibly provide the win-win prospects everyone wants to see. As usual, Gary has sensible things to say about this, with helpful comparisons to the use of manure and lime as soil additives — as might be expected from someone whose ideas are rooted in practice and who has been blogging on this topic a lot while remaining impressively self-critical.

My biggest worry about the technology is that its strengths could have within them a fatal flaw. The soil is an easily reached reservoir, and provides a multiplier effect that’s crucial to the efficacy of biochar: the carbon stored in biochar schemes is not just the carbon in the charcoal, it’s the increased organic carbon in the rest of the soil. But easily reached is also easily breached, and multipliers can work two ways. If people use biochar to store a lot of carbon in soil, but not enough to forestall significant warming (which is a not unlikely scenario in the world biochar enthusiasts imagine) then they’ll have provided an extra bolus of soil carbon to be respired back into the atmosphere by the warmer, and thus harder working, soil bacteria; they will have effectively traded emissions now for emissions later. So the carbon could quickly come right back out. If the microbial priming effect kicks in in this scenario — with the easily mobilised carbon providing enough energy for the bacteria to tackle more refractory carbon they would normally ignore —  you might end up with not just with the carbon you stored away leaking out, but also some of the carbon that was already there. This is a subject on which I’d like to see more research before squirelling away the odd gigatonne of carbon.

Further resources: International Biochar Initiative, CSIRO biochar report (pdf), Biofuelwatch

Image borrowed from www.vividaria.it, rights neither asserted not inquired into, happy to remove if owners object



My Ada Lovelace day post: Constance Hartt
March 24, 2009, 7:05 am
Filed under: Farming, Plant physiology, Warning: contains molecules

Sugar cane in Hawaii

Sugar cane in Hawai'i

Cheryl made me aware of the excellent idea of a synchronised posting about women in technology in honour  of Ada Lovelace (my image of whom, for what its worth, was set irevocably and doubtless unreliabley by Bruce Sterling and Bill Gibson in The Difference Engine). I said I’d join in, and my subject is Constance Hartt, about whom I know very little, but whose work is of fundamental importance to people trying to understand the evolution of photosynthesis over the past 30 million years or so, and also to opening up the possibility of radical improvements to various crops.

Hartt was a laboratory researcher at  the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association Experiment Station, and her assiduous work on the biochemistry of sugar cane in the 1930s and 1940s convinced her that, for that plant at least, the primary product of photosynthesis  is malate, a four carbon sugar. Later carbon-14 studies showed that she was right — and led to an interesting conundrum. Why did some plants — most plants, indeed, and almost all algae — make a three carbon sugar, phophoglycerate, while sugar cane and, it later became clear, various other grasses made a four-carbon sugar?

The answer lies in the process of photorespiration. The enzyme which fixes carbon into phosophglycerate, rubisco, is very ancient and rather easily confused — left to itself it will sometimes grab oxygen molecules rather than carbon dioxide molecules, and instead of making phosphoglycerate makes phosphoglycolate. This is no good to man nor beast nor, most tellingly, plant: recycling the phosphoglycolate made accidentally in this process of photorespiration into a form of carbon that can be used for further photosynthesis takes energy, and thus making less phosphoglycolate in the first place is a good thing. The malate-initiated photosynthesis that Hartt was instrumental in discovering is an evolutionary response to that problem: malate is part of a clever biochemical/physiological supercharger that concentrates a great deal more carbon dioxide into the cells where rubisco is doing its thing, thus making it less likely to commit that costly error with the oxygen.This supercharging system is known as C4 photosynthesis, the 4 denoting the number of carbons in malate; the regular sort of photsynthesis is called C3 in contrast.

C4 photsynthesis confers various advantages: in particular, it makes plants more efficient in their use of water. The mechanisms that concentrate carbon dioxide mean that the pores through which it is taken up, the plant’s stomata, don’t have to be as wide open as they would be otherwise, and thus less water is lost. C4 plants resist various sorts of stress better, including  direct sunlight and salty ground. The mechanism has evolved independently many, many times over the past 30 million years or so, mostly but not entirely in the grasses, which either have a propensity for the sorts of physiological re-design that is required or are particularly prone to finding themselves in the sort of niches where this approach helps, or both. Sugar cane is not the only domesticated or agriculturally relevant example — there’s also maize and sorghum, and for energy crops switch grass and miscanthus, among others. There is now considerable interest in building the pathway into some grasses that have not learned it naturally — most importantly rice. C4 rice, with higher water use efficiency and other extra hardiness, might have considerably higher yields than traditional varieties while needing less water (my colleague Emma wrote a little about this not so long ago, though her words are behind the Nature paywall).

This knowledge and potential all flows from the work of Hartt and her colleagues in Hawai’i. It was small scale stuff, and more or less by defintition the team was isolated form the mainstream. Their work was for some time almost forgotten, and may still not be as well remembered as it should be; the elucidation of the C4 pathways took place in Australia a decade or so later, and that work tended, afterwards, to eclipse the discovery work done in Hawai’i. The secondary sources that I have say little about Hartt, other than noting the devoted careful work she invested in the subject, and giving the impression that the team she worked in, led by a sweet sounding Quaker called Hugo Kortschak, was a friendly and happy one.

Do I think she is a great unsung scientist? Well unsung, yes. Great, probably not. But whenever one looks into the history of science — or indeed into the way it goes today — one sees that you do not need to be great to matter, to discover, to move the story on, or to fulfill yourself through it. She and her colleagues, tucked away far from the mainstream, trying to do some good, discovered something of profound importance for science, and perhaps, in time, for technology and humanity. What more is needed?

Many more Findingada posts to be found at this central site, or  via twitter, or by searching for AdaLovelaceDay09 on delicious or Technorati

Update: Gary has some wise words on the subtleties of C3 and C4. His point that C4 plants tend to be protein poor is a good one (though in a higher CO2 world that might even out a bit, as the rubisco content in C3 plants will drop whereas in C4 you’d expect it to stay the same, ceteris paribus) and reminds me of Arnold Bloom‘s idea that photorespiration might help with nitrate assimilation. His bigger point is that ceteris paribus is a poor way to see the world, and that to concentrate on any single factor, such as C3 v C4, is to overlook a great deal that you should probably be paying attention to. And that’s true.

Image from Flickr user _Wiedz, used under a creative commons licence



A couple more bits from Copenhagen
March 15, 2009, 10:00 am
Filed under: Farming

Some things I blogged over at Climate Feedback

Food Insecurity: A sobering presentation by Marshall Burke of Stanford on future agriculture. He and colleagues looked at historical climate and yield data for various crops in various parts of the world and projected the relationship they found into various future climates as found in the IPCC. As the IPCC itself reported, much of the tropics did badly in this analysis, and the worst performer was maize in southern Africa which was down in yield by about 30% by 2030. [Full post>

Who’s reporting?: I had a look this morning at a breakdown of the press registration at this conference by country. Clear winners are Denmark and the UK, with 40 or so people each. Both of those are inflated figures, because some third-country and international organisations are covering the meeting out of Copenhagen and London (Japanese TV stations are listed as UK, for example, as is Al Jazeera English). But still there is a lot of genuine UK interest: national papers and the BBC. And the locals are out in force. [Full post>

And for those interested in such things, here’s the twitterfeed from the plenary, though I suspect this is now the electronic equivalent of something in which to wrap up fish and chips.



Leaf albedo engineering
Lets brighten this up...

Let's brighten this up...

I wrote a little piece for Nature today today about a paper by Andy Ridgwell at Bristol and some of his colleagues on changing the albedo of crops. The gist as published:

Manipulating the waxiness of crops through traditional breeding techniques or genetic modification should raise their albedo by about 20%, from 0.2 to 0.24. On the basis of climate modelling they calculate that the planet would cool by a modest 0.11 ºC. “It’s very small on the global average,” says Ridgwell. But “what is more important is the summertime effect in specific regions”. The mid-latitudes of North America and Eurasia could cool by as much as 1 °C in June, July and August, according to the models. Ridgwell and his colleagues report their results in Current Biology.

The models also show pronounced cooling in the North Atlantic Ocean and the Barents Sea in the wintertime — which might have a positive effect on sea ice — but a drying out of the soil in some parts of the subtropics. Ridgwell points out that climate models do not predict future precipitation well on a regional basis and treats the latter results more as evidence that there might be effects far from the fields being changed than as a clear indication that there would be damaging consequences.

There are some interesting details and implications to this “bio-geoengineering” scheme. Though you might think that reflecting more light off the surfaces of leaves means less photosynthesis, according to the paper the evidence in the literature suggests not. This may be because more reflective leaves stay cooler and more efficient; another possibility is that the light is reflected mostly from leaves in direct sunlight (which are not constrained by a lack of light) and some of what is reflected ends up with leaves that are in shadow (which are constrained by lack of light). More detailed studies, of course, may show that in fact photosynthesis does go down.

Making the plants more reflective, if it proved a good idea at all, might well necessitate genetic engineering, which in some places is distrusted. That engineering might be more acceptable in energy crops than it is in food crops. It might make sense, if people are going to engineer energy crops for other purposes, to make them a little lighter too, all other things being equal.

Another point is that this is very small beer as geoengineering goes. A similar but more dramatic proposal along similar lines by Robert Hamwey (pdf)  has a radiative forcing of about 0.6 Wm-2, which is smallish by the standards of the CO2 forcing; I would guess if they expressed it in the same way the forcing in the Ridgwell et al scheme would be a good bit less than that. But it might still have some marginal utility. This is a trend I suspect we will be seeing more and more of in  geoengineering studies  over the next few years, a shift away from totalising projects such as sunshades for the whole earth and layers of aersosol all through the stratosphere towards smaller regional and semi regional ideas.

Talking about this trend Tim Lenton has suggested that we may be moving towards a discussion of geoengineering that has some similarities to Socolow’s “wedge” approach to decarbonization: breaking the big problem down into smaller lumps that feasible technologies could bite off and chew; as I report in the Nature piece, Tim and some colleagues are looking at setting up a unit to compare geoengineering schemes and their potential payoffs on this basis. I’m not sure this is necessarily a good development. Every geoengineering scheme has strange knock-ons and side effects around the edges, and it seems reasonable to suspect that the more such schemes you have, the more chance there is for one of the side effects to be unexpectedly serious  — or for two of them to interact with each other catastrophically. But that said, the fact that it is probably a lot easier to find little forcings than big ones suggests that the portfolio approach may be in the ascendant for a while.

Image from flickr user ecstacist under a creative commons licence



Paul Collier’s prescription
November 26, 2008, 12:48 pm
Filed under: Farming

Dawn, Brazil

While traveling last week I finally got round to reading Paul Collier‘s “Politics of Hunger” article in Foreign Affairs, and I recommend it. It lays out the basic driver of high food prices — fast income growth in Asia and an income elasticity for food of about 0.5, so that a 20% increase in earnings leads to a 10% increase in demand for food. But as he says, in a simple, logical way, “There need be no logical connection between the cause of a problem and appropriate or even just feasible solutions to it.” His solutions are

three politically challenging steps. First, contrary to the romantics, the world needs more commercial agriculture, not less. The Brazilian model of high-productivity large farms could readily be extended to areas where land is underused. Second, and again contrary to the romantics, the world needs more science: the European ban and the consequential African ban on genetically modified (GM) crops are slowing the pace of agricultural productivity growth in the face of accelerating growth in demand. Ending such restrictions could be part of a deal, a mutual de-escalation of folly, that would achieve the third step: in return for Europe’s lifting its self-damaging ban on GM products, the United States should lift its self-damaging subsidies supporting domestic biofuel.

He makes some other points, too: avoid export restrictions and don’t let the French use the crisis as a way of boosting the Common Agricultural Policy. But his three key points are the article’s theme, and they resolve into a short term, medium term and long term strategy. In the short term, the US ethanol subsidies can be rescinded, in principle, purely through legislation. To begin with, as he points out (and as others have too) they are indefensible in terms of their stated aim:

If the United States wants to run off of agrofuel instead of oil, then Brazilian sugar cane is the answer; it is a far more efficient source of energy than American grain. The killer evidence of political capture is the response of the U.S. government to this potential lifeline: it has actually restricted imports of Brazilian ethanol to protect American production. The sane goal of reducing dependence on Arab oil has been sacrificed to the self-serving goal of pumping yet more tax dollars into American agriculture.

Getting rid of the subsidy, Collier argues, would immediately lower food prices through two routes; it would reduce an artificially maintained competing demand, ad it would reduce the basis for price speculation. For the medium term, he puts his faith in policies that expand large scale commercial farming, in part because it is in a position to respond to increased prices by spending on the inputs needed for increased production, but also because he believes it is better placed to be innovative.

Innovation, especially, is hard to generate through peasant farming. Innovators create benefits for the local economy, and to the extent that these benefits are not fully captured by the innovators, innovation will be too slow. Large organizations can internalize the effects that in peasant agriculture are localized externalities — that is, benefits of actions that are not reflected in costs or profits — and so not adequately taken into account in decision-making. In the European agricultural revolution, innovations occurred on small farms as well as large, and today many peasant farmers, especially those who are better off and better educated, are keen to innovate. But agricultural innovation is highly sensitive to local conditions, especially in Africa, where the soils are complex and variable

A model of successful commercial agriculture is, indeed, staring the world in the face. In Brazil, large, technologically sophisticated agricultural companies have demonstrated how successfully food can be mass-produced. To give one remarkable example, the time between harvesting one crop and planting the next — the downtime for land — has been reduced to an astounding 30 minutes. Some have criticized the Brazilian model for displacing peoples and destroying rain forest, which has indeed happened in places where commercialism has gone unregulated. But in much of the poor world, the land is not primal forest; it is just badly farmed. Another benefit of the Brazilian model is that it can bring innovation to small farmers as well. In the “out-growing,” or “contract farming,” model, small farmers supply a central business. Depending on the details of crop production, sometimes this can be more efficient than wage employment.

His long term play is GM, over a 15-year plus timescale.

The GM-crop ban has had three adverse effects. Most obviously, it has retarded productivity growth in European agriculture. Prior to 1996, grain yields in Europe tracked those in the United States. Since 1996, they have fallen behind by 1-2 percent a year. European grain production could be increased by around 15 percent were the ban lifted. Europe is a major cereal producer, so this is a large loss. More subtly, because Europe is out of the market for GM-crop technology, the pace of research has slowed. GM-crop research takes a very long time to come to fruition, and its core benefit, the permanent reduction in food prices, cannot fully be captured through patents. Hence, there is a strong case for supplementing private research with public money. European governments should be funding this research, but instead research is entirely reliant on the private sector. And since private money for research depends on the prospect of sales, the European ban has also reduced private research.

However, the worst consequence of the European GM-crop ban is that it has terrified African governments into themselves banning GM crops, the only exception being South Africa. They fear that if they chose to grow GM crops, they would be permanently shut out of European markets. Now, because most of Africa has banned GM crops, there has been no market for discoveries pertinent to the crops that Africa grows, and so little research — which in turn has led to the critique that GM crops are irrelevant for Africa.

It seems to me an exceptionally well put together, thoughtful article, and well worth your attention.

Image of a Brazilian farm from Flickr user de Paula FJ, used under a creative commons licence. Pretty sure this isn’t a big high yielding commercial farm — but it is pretty…