Going against the grain

Scientists – and economists – should avoid being prisoners of present knowledge, says former FAO agricultural economist Andrew MacMillan.

Andrew MacMillan

It is strange how many good ideas, when they are first advanced, are ridiculed and dismissed by the establishment but somehow eventually gain respectability and enter mainstream thinking. 

This is essentially what happened when people questioned the wisdom of frequent ploughing in arable farming and started to experiment with sowing crops without ploughing in the 1970s. They showed that zero tillage improved infiltration and retention of rainfall, raised soil organic matter content, reduced water and wind erosion and sustained crop yields while cutting labour and farm machinery operating costs.

More recently, with rising concerns over climate change, it is found that zero tillage raises soil carbon levels and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

No need to plough: maize grown in rotation with wheat, zero tillage on left; maize grown without rotation, with conventional tillage right.

Not surprisingly, given the role the plough has played for at least two millennia in increasing the productivity of farm labour and extending cropped areas, the idea that crops could be successfully sown without soil inversion triggered much scepticism. Research institutes distanced themselves from the concept and it was left to farmers, NGOs and a few scientists to show that it could work.

Farmers in the driving seat

Conservation Agriculture (CA), as zero tillage is widely called, is now applied worldwide on well over 100 million hectares. Some of the credit for this is due to three indefatigable British pioneers and promoters, Francis Shaxson, John Landers and Amir Kassam whose achievements have been recognised by OBEs by the UK Honours system. Belatedly, most self-respecting agricultural research institutes now implement CA-related studies!

SRI pioneer Fr. Henri de Laulanié championed his technique on the face of opposition.

The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) has followed an equally tortuous path. Experimental work was started in Madagascar in the 1980s by Father Henri de Laulanié, who turned conventional approaches to intensive rice growing on their head. He obtained massive increases in rice yields through combining low density planting of very young seedlings, intermittent watering (rather than puddling), use of organic manures and composts, and good weeding.

After testing  by local farmers in the 1990s, SRI has spread around the world and been taken up enthusiastically by millions of farmers in over 50 countries, largely because of the personal commitment and enthusiasm of Norman Uphoff, a political scientist at Cornell University.

Farmers have improved the technology and adapted it to many different ecologies. Impartial evaluations show average yield increases of 50% over conventional rice systems, 25-50% savings in water use and 80% cuts in seed volumes. In this case the scientific establishment – most notably the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) – did their best to belittle and discredit SRI, only signalling a change in their negative stance in 2014 when evidence of its success was overwhelming.

Similarly, the most far-sighted study of the future of agriculture, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), ran into a vehement barrage of opposition when published in 2009. Six years later, in spite of the persistent defence of its contributing authors (including Hans Herren, its Co-chair) it is still being discredited by its detractors.

I suspect, however, that the successful practical application by farmers, regardless of the fray, of many IAASTD recommendations on sustainable agro-ecology based systems, will confirm the wisdom of its advice and that its proposals will eventually slip into the mainstream like CA and SRI.

Free thinking

Reflecting on the SRI experience, Norman Uphoff concluded that “scientists should avoid being prisoners of their present knowledge, captives of prevailing paradigms”.

Moving from farming to economics, we are seeing a similar questioning of prevailing paradigms. We now find the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – the rich countries’ club – claiming that rising inequality of wealth is bad for economic growth.  And, when the rich and powerful gathered in Davos earlier this month, there was much soul-searching over how to react to this finding!

Avoiding a Centennial Slump session (feeding people will help) at the Annual Meeting 2015 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

In the same vein, another recent OECD report finds that, contrary to conventional wisdom, tightening of environmental standards does not necessarily reduce economic growth. It is surprising that it has taken them so long to wake up to the fact that more stringent environmental standards are bound to raise resource use efficiency, spur investments in technological innovation, and create  employment opportunities in industries that produce the needed hardware.

They could well have gone on to admit  that GDP estimates are flawed because they fail to account for the depletion of natural capital as a result of ‘development’, for instance in relation to the impact of  expanding food production, using high intensity systems, on soils, water and biodiversity.

The right choices

My main interest, however, is in making a better argument for urgent action to eradicate hunger. I believe strongly that it should be a perfectly normal function of any self-respecting government to ensure that all of its people can eat well and so enjoy a dignified, healthy, more productive and longer life.

It is easy to say that this is justified on moral grounds and is an obligation for any government that has  ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

But I very much hope that, just as the OECD is waking up to the potential negative impact of inequality on growth and admitting that environmental stringency may be good for economies, we shall soon see them acknowledging that ending hunger is a high return investment.

A Malawian farmer in a fieldCIMMYT on Flickr via CC 2.0
Double maize yields for Malawian farmer with conservation agriculture.

That there has been a  historical link between good nutrition and economic growth in Britain has been convincingly demonstrated by Nobel Prize-winning economist R.W. Fogel.

Assuring good nutrition enables people to move from being a burden on society to become well educated and productive. It only takes food worth about US$3.00 per month to enable a chronically hungry person to rise above the hunger threshold. Hopefully, as they awake to reality, OECD’s economists will see that investing in ending hunger is not merely ’welfare‘, but that it also makes a lot of economic sense!

Perhaps the world would then have the courage to tackle the greatest – yet most easily resolved – injustice perpetrated by us on over 800 million fellow humans.

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About Andrew MacMillan

Andrew MacMillan is an agricultural economist specialised in tropical agriculture, and former Director of the FAO ’s Field Operations Division. He recently co-authored a book with Ignacio Trueba entitled How to End Hunger in Times of Crises – Let’s Start Now, by Fastprint Publishing.

5 thoughts on “Going against the grain

  1. Dear Rebecca,
    Yes, 7 men, 4 scratching their chins and 3 scratching other parts. At least the presence of a few women might have got them to sit up straight and improve their body Language. It would certainly have raised the chances of them coming up with valid ideas (if they hadn’t just emerged from what must have been a heavy lunch)!

    By the way, Arran deserves the credit for selecting this photo which says more about the way the world is run that the 1,000 words that I wrote.

  2. Developing new technologies that are productive, more environment friendly and accessible to poor farmers (i.e that do not require cash but knowledge to be applied) is key to solving the food and hunger issue sustainably. But the tide is indeed going the other way and research (mostly private) is now mostly geared to developing more sophisticated and capital intensive techniques. This points to the need for a larger share of public resources to be devoted to research on productive, accessible and sustainable technologies,
    Many thanks to Andrew MacMillan for showing that developing such technologies is possible!

  3. Thank you Andrew – so good to read your wise and courageous words – and to know that we are still working to achieve the same caring and responsible outcomes

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