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Philip Pardey, a U professor of applied economics, is tackling the problem of world hunger with help from the Gates Foundation.
Open, sesame: finding the key to world food security
U professor Philip Pardey fights world hunger, with a little help from the Gates Foundation
By Deane Morrison
April 20, 2007; updated May 16, 2007
In many areas of the world, local agriculture leaves people with inadequate food or nutrition. Plenty of international organizations want to remedy the situation, but all the will in the world won't substitute for solid and specific data on local conditions like soil, rainfall, climate, social and economic structure. A lack of information on such factors can make investments in anti-hunger programs miss the mark, leaving poor, hungry people with little benefit. The need for specific data recently led the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to commit $3.7 million to a project to generate detailed, localized information on food production practices worldwide, but with specific emphasis on Africa and South Asia. The initiative, called HarvestChoice, is led by Philip Pardey, a University professor of applied economics; and Stanley Wood, a senior research fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based International Food Policy Research Institute. The grant will expand the Gates Foundation's attack on poverty and hunger, which already includes many programs to combat diseases and conditions that disproportionately afflict the developing world. "The thinking was that you can't just treat disease to improve health. Clearly, food and nutrition are important as well," says Pardey. "More than 300 million people in Africa are living on less than a dollar a day, and 70 percent of the sub-Saharan population are farmers or landless workers linked to agriculture--mainly providing labor on farms but also working off-farm in transporting or processing food." Pardey sees the project's primary role as "answering tough questions, strategic questions, to help the Gates Foundation and others make tough decisions" about how to target investments "to achieve the biggest poverty and hunger bang for the buck."
"In developing countries, agriculture consumes upwards of 85 percent of potable water," Pardey says. "Making agriculture more water efficient is something we're looking at, for example, by increasing drought resistance of crops or shortening the growing period."Much of the work will be analyses of data on income, food consumption, demographics and other characteristics gleaned from household surveys taken over the past five years by national statistical agencies, often with funding from the World Bank. The research may reveal, for example, new evidence on the link between poverty and hunger and the mix of crops (such as maize and cassava) that farmers grow in particular agro-ecosystems. If so, the next steps, says Pardey, would be to identify obstacles to improving the productivity of these crops, decide which obstacles can be overcome by technology, and make sure that the poor and hungry will benefit most. A basic problem in Africa is the fragmentation of farm land into ever smaller plots, leaving farmers with less room to grow crops. Another is that many agricultural areas tend to lack laborers at planting and harvest times, when labor is most needed. Water shortages, especially with rising populations and global warming, is a particularly thorny problem. "In developing countries, agriculture consumes upwards of 85 percent of potable water," Pardey says. "Making agriculture more water efficient is something we're looking at, for example, by increasing drought tolerance of crops or shortening the growing period." In the future, major areas of rice production in Asia will likely struggle to find enough water for flooding rice fields, as is now the common practice. A major reason for flooding is weed control, Pardey explains. But if the fields aren't flooded, then farmers must find other ways to deal with weeds. Solutions to this dilemma may be found through research in new varieties of rice and new management practices.
"In Africa, [the Program for African Seed Systems] aim to produce 200 master's degree and 50 Ph.D-level breeders to help build the local scientific capacity to help realize a sustainable Green Revolution for African agriculture," says Pardey.
Pardey, Wood, and their colleagues will also look for economic stumbling blocks on the road to agricultural development. Consider, for example, what could happen in many African countries if a crop breeder develops a new and improved variety of sorghum, a staple crop. If enough of this improved seed can be made available to seed suppliers or nongovernmental agencies like CARE, the seed and its attendant production benefits can be spread to a large number of farm households. But first there must be a network of skilled farmers who can multiply the small amounts of seed coming from the breeding programs by growing it up without contamination. "You could have both breeding and able distributors, but no intermediary system to multiply the number of seeds," Pardey explains. "The Gates Foundation is trying to identify those problems and see if they can be overcome. There are the beginnings of small-scale entrepreneurial seed production and distribution systems in Africa. The idea is to help them flourish." The Program for African Seed Systems, a joint project of the Gates and Rockefeller foundations, is putting more than $40 million into training crop breeders, Pardey says. "In Africa, they aim to produce 200 master's degree and 50 Ph.D-level breeders to help build the local scientific capacity to help realize a sustainable Green Revolution for African agriculture." Pardey and his colleagues systematically compile information on all kinds of agricultural constraints, in areas ranging from production and distribution systems to regulatory issues. "As economists, we think about the commercialization as well as production constraints. An explicit part of our evaluation is to do that," he says. The HarvestChoice grant will run for 39 months, ending Dec. 31, 2009. But the battle against hunger and malnutrition is only just being joined. "It will take decades for the full realization of the results of this research," Pardey says. "But the Gates Foundation is committed to staying the course so the science gets done and the new technologies find their way into farmers' fields."