Thursday, 10 March 2011

Eco-farming unease

Humanosphere summarizes here some of the debates going on about the Gates Foundation's recent decision to invest in agriculture research in order to improve farming output in developing nations. The critical argument is that eco-farming is a much better way of improving the lot of small farmers. Two concerns:

1. Is improving the lot of small farmers really the appropriate goal*? 
Small farmers are great when you're growing something that is labour intensive. Malcolm Gladwell talks in one of his books (Outliers, I think) about how rice farming is such that increased effort (input = labour) produces increased output (rice) but this isn't true for a lot of other agricultural products. If you want to increase the productivity of a maize farming enterprise, investing in more labour may be counter-productive. Supporting farms small may be the answer in Asia but is it the way to grow productivity in Africa? And if not, should the focus be on helping small farmers keep farming (through programmes like fertilizer subsidies in Malawi) or should there be a move to diversify the economy and provide training for these individuals so that they can move into other sectors?

2. Balance between environmental concerns and urgent action needed to feed 1 billion hungry? 
A concern of many is that western farming damages the environment and relies on fossil fuels. In many, particularly African, economies, current farming methods, often on a small scale, do not necessarily produce enough food for people to have control of their food consumption. Either their small farms do not produce enough (thanks to drought, floods or simply being too small) or the sale of their labour and goods doesn't pay enough to buy food. Small farming has environmental costs, too, lest the environmentalists be allowed to get away with pretending that small farming is cost-free. Commercial farming may have a greater environmental costs** but these may be justified, especially given the current high global food prices, if commercial farming can produce enough food for the country as well as some for export, increasing the available capital in the economy and potentially contributing towards growth and jobs. Surely these nations should have some say in how their environmental resources are used?

Eco-farming sounds great, but using ducks to weed your rice paddies is not a useful suggestion in most of maize-staple Africa. Improved seed, fertilizer that is affordable and irrigation methods that use water effectively and cheaply are all probably more beneficial right now. And these immediate solutions may well be more feasible on a larger scale.

*It is explicitly a goal of the Gates Foundation
**excluding fossil fuels, because a lot of African economies are discovering that they have plenty of these and should, obviously, be allowed to use them as they choose for their own development. Also, the urgency in not using fossil fuels is probably outweighed by the need to use fossil fuels to feed people until fossil-fuel free, equally efficient and large-scale farming methodologies are developed.

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