AG: Agriculture Department
AGA: Animal production/health
AGE: FAO/IAEA Joint Division
AGN: Nutrition and consumer protection
AGP: Plant production/protection
AGS: Infrastructure, agro-industries
COAG: Committee on Agriculture
Interview: James Cock
"Sustainability, profitability, employment: perhaps we're asking too much of agriculture..."
Dr James Cock
"I'm looking into the kinds of contracts producers make with the processing industry," he explains. "There's a growing trend toward contract farming around the world. It's not a solution to everything, but it's particularly important when a crop has to be processed relatively rapidly and near where it's produced. Rice or wheat can be milled thousands of miles away, but you can't do that with oil palm. No one would invest in a oil palm extraction plant without guaranteed suppliers..."
As a visiting scientist to the Agriculture Department's Crop and Grasslands Service (AGPC), Dr Cock will spend five months investigating supply contracts and working on several other projects: developing technology transfer methods for sugar cane producers, making entries on cassava and sugarcane for AGPC's Global Pest and Plant Information System, and helping IFAD put together a new global strategy for cassava.
His new office is somewhat smaller than his usual accommodation - the Director-general's suite at Cenicaña, Colombia's Sugar Cane Institute, with its breathtaking views over the Andes - but Dr Cock says he's never been "a size-of-office man". The important thing, he says, "is to make a change every 10 years, do something different, think creatively and develop ideas so you don't stagnate."
Dr Cock has been doing just that throughout his professional career. Before joining Cenicaña, he was a senior agriculturist at the World Bank. Before that, head of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture's cassava programme. And before that, a young plant physiologist designing more efficient plant types for semi-dwarf rice cultivars at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. From his unique perspective, Dr Cock talked to
about issues facing agriculture into the next century.
What's happening to rice yields? There are productivity declines in an increasing number of favourable rice growing areas in Asia
Rice crisis looms in Asia
"When I was working at IRRI 30 years ago, we were getting yields of nine tonnes on experimental plots. They don't get that any more. I suspect that after reaching very high yield levels in intensified systems, something's gone out of balance. When you go from one crop a year to two or three, you change the whole ecology, the soil, the pests... But it's common for plants to reach a yield plateau and decline, but many do take off again. For example, in sugar cane there was a great hoo-ha about declining yields in Australia, but it passed. What caused the decline was never really explained."
Will hybrid rice solve the problem?
"Hybrids are difficult and expensive to produce, although the cost is coming down and there's no reason they shouldn't work. Then there are lot of exciting new possibilities in biotechnology that will complement standard breeding - introducing genes related to yield from wild species, for example."
There's another piece in our Magazine this month
Tropical starches miss markets
which claims that not enough research has been done on developing crops - such as cassava - for industrial uses. As the man who led CIAT's cassava programme for 17 years, would you agree?
"If you go back far enough, to the post-war period, cassava was pretty competitive as a source of starch. But over the past 50 years, developed countries have made massive investments in research on maize starch, which has sent production rocketing and brought costs down. A lot of good work has been done on cassava, but not the same amount. It illustrates the fact that the competitive advantage of tropical crops in general has been eroded. The US and Europe have invested so much in research that, even without subsidies, they would still be highly competitive. Forty years ago, there was no way sugar beet could have competed with sugar cane, but today it does."
How can the developing countries recover their advantage?
"One way is more crop-based research. Today there isn't the same concentration of research on tropical crops as in the past. Once you had two strong programmes on cassava, at CIAT and IITA. Now research centres are not concentrating research on single crops any more, but on resource management and systems. But people buy crop products and that's what farmers sell. Basically, farmers want to know how to grow better crops and sell the products.
"But I think simple necessity is going to stimulate a lot more research. There is a growing concern about the demand for raw materials outstripping supply in the future. Once the developing countries were net exporters of food and agricultural products. Now most of them are importers. Many business people in developing countries see a supply crunch coming and they're looking more and more at using local raw materials, even if it costs more in the short term. They're scared that they'll become totally dependent on imported products, whose price may skyrocket any day - which is what happened with cereal prices a couple of years ago."
What role could contract farming play in agricultural development?
"Take the example of sugar cane and cassava. If cassava is considered a poor man's crop, sugar cane is probably a good example of a rich man's crop, one that brings wealth and development to the regions where it's grown. That's because there is normally a good system of contracts linking the farmer via processing to the market. This is what is needed in many other tropical crops. When the cassava farmer is linked to modern markets, look how things improve - Thailand went from almost zero to close to 20 million tons per year when processors and traders provided the links, and Thai small farmers got richer.
"In general, agricultural development depends on to getting income into the system, and you do that by linking the farmer to the modern economy, which wants products that meet quality standards and are easily processed. Developing countries can do it, but they need the right policies. Look at the case of Nigeria: after it devalued and made it impossible to import rice, within 10 years cassava production was up threefold. They've developed a strong cassava industry. Why? Because the cassava farmers had a market. Price is one factor, but you also need to develop processing and alternative uses."
You seem to put profitability and the market before other considerations. What about "sustainability"?
"I wonder whether we are asking too much of agriculture. We hang all sorts of demands on it - it has to produce food, and provide employment, and protect the environment, and conserve biodiversity. The simple fact is, there is no way agriculture can be sustainable unless it is profitable. When agriculture is profitable, the farmer can think in the longer-term and then it will also be sustainable.
"Again, in the case of sugar cane, most farmers burn it because it's easier to harvest and manage. But burning pollutes and you lose organic matter that's important to the soil. At Cenicaña, we're looking at ways of making it
to grow sugar cane without burning it - because unless you make a crop profitable, farmers won't grow it, no matter how environmentally friendly it is. Profitability is essential to the agricultural system. All farmers want their livelihood to be sustainable. No right-minded farmer would overexploit the soil if they had an alternative."
You've taken five months leave from Cenicaña to "develop new ideas". Why did you choose to come here to FAO?
"Because FAO has an important role to play in agriculture. It has lots of resource people, a tremendous body of knowledge. There's years of experience here, and a very good library. And FAO is about farmers. I think we should be thinking more about farmers than all the other things that are being attached to agriculture. If you can get the farmers going, get them connected to the market, they will respond. Just look at how the Nigerian farmers responded, look at what the Thai farmers have achieved. That's the way ahead for agriculture."
Published September 1998
© FAO, 1998