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06.04.2010 - 30.04.2010

Agricultural technologies and innovation; opportunities for making a difference

My name is Peter Steele and I am currently working with the FAO Regional Team responsible for servicing agricultural industries in North Africa and the Near East. The team in made up of about 100 technical specialists and service people. The subject for debate suggests professional niche – I am an ‘Agricultural Engineer’ with an ‘Agro-Industrial’ portfolio of interests.

Regional Challenges

Working out of the FAO Regional Office in Cairo, we service >330M people in 20 countries of whom estimated 40% are dependent upon agriculture. Small numbers by standards elsewhere, but this a highly vulnerable region with degraded natural resources, the lowest per capita water available on the planet, and 50% food dependent on imports. More than half the land in the region is not occupied – it has neither organics nor water.

The region spans the economic spectrum from the richest of the oil-producer states in the Gulf to the poverty, instability and intractable challenges of the Horn of Africa. Money in the bank is of little value if food markets are contracting; messages that were quickly learned in 2008, when the region faced severe hikes in price of food and the poor took to the streets. The rich contracted land in distance countries.

The region is at the forefront of climate change – whether cyclical or long-term remains open to conjecture – and others elsewhere may learn from the experience of what we may do here. Mobilized and organized, the region has the financial and intellectual resources to make a difference; planning will inevitably demand access to the latest in terra-enviro-agro-technologies to assist the decision-makers with choices. Technologies will dominate.

Herein is Question 1: We enjoy innovation and become increasingly dependent upon the latest idea, approach, system or device. Remember the time before mobile phones? More than four billion are in current use, and numbers are climbing. Wherein is the place for history, traditions, earlier practices and experience? What of communities that are unable to keep pace with change?
What can we learn from the past? What of the value of the older technologies?

Technologies in the service of people

Nature abhors a straight line and, apart from the effect of gravity on water, there are no straight lines in the natural world. Straight lines suggest ‘technologies of the engineering kind’. In reality, there are few pleasures greater than the view behind the combine harvester, standing up on the seat at the edge of a field of wheat and looking back over the tank with the grain still unloading. Not so much that straight line or the flow of grain, but the sense of being in control; the machine like a living being – wheels, belts, shafts and pulleys rotating, the dust rising from the header and the noise of the diesel engine muffled by the grain tank. There is a sense of power. This machine is responsible for feeding the world; graminae dominates the staples and it is only the humble, but highly versatile, potato that cannot be harvested with it.

Question 2: What happens if you cannot afford the equipment and its support systems – the skilled people, the markets that provide for reliable earnings, the services that keep the equipment working and, importantly, the way of life that a technology-driven system demands.
So, are agricultural technologies essential?

Scaling Down

The machine represents technologies in all their sophistication, complexity, cost and opportunity; and this is just one of many technologies that drive agricultural production. Consider others such as veterinary medicine, biochemistry, the science of soil management, the agro-chemicals that add nutrients or control unwanted plants, fungi and other pests, and shift this into the structures, control, electronics and more; and then too the livestock industries that provide foods that are increasingly in demand (but with risky conversion ratios of feed to produce). Then too, there are the technologies that provide the basis of socio-economic development; the modeling of people, finance, economics and more.

Question 3: How to shift from a traditional approach to land utilization to one that embraces the approach of the industrial production systems that dominate the world. Sure, more food is produced by the small-scale producer (and she may feed more people), but international trade in foods is dominated by industrial systems. No one wants to be a subsistent farmer; the attractions of the towns are too great.
How to scale technologies that they have value for the poorer less capable sectors of agricultural production?

Servicing Africa

Focus on the poorest international communities of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa and of the order one billion people do not have sufficient food to eat (living on <2,000 calories/day). Most of these are girls and women, and most live in rural communities. We have the ability and intension to do something about it; and much of this will be technologies driven. The Asian ‘Green Revolution’ has captured the imagination – and much more so as an approach into the next period, than it did 40-years ago. Food insecurity was pushed back on the basis of improved crop varieties allied to improved crop care – use of fertilizers, irrigation, agro-chemical protection and mechanization. Trade liberalization opened markets at home and overseas. The debit side could not have easily been foreseen – displaced people, depleted water tables, salination, degraded soils and so on. And the rise of the international agro-service mega-companies.

Question 4: Can the concept of revolutionary development be shifted into agro-production in Africa? Simplistically put: ‘Asia has continued to be successful with feeding expanding populations with the introduction and adaptation of the appropriate agricultural technologies’; and ‘Africa has not’.

This a highly complex debating subject with great variability, much of which will depend on where you are sitting and the enthusiasm that you may have for a subject that has been well debated before. Not that this should detract you from your opinion and one, moreover, that you may like to share. I used to be a farm manager with a patch of land in Northern Uganda just a stone’s throw from the Sudan border. I grew cotton, sorghum and millet. It was time when the issues of development seemed simplistic – technologies would provide. Older and not a lot wiser, the complexity of issues overwhelms.
In our inter-connected world with free flow of information – what do you think?

Peter Steele
FAO, Cairo

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