My take on Sir Gordon Conway's book: One billion hungry: can we feed the world? #ifadclimate

by Kevin Cleaver, IFAD Associate Vice-President Programmes

Gordon Conway is coming to Rome to launch his book entitled ONE BILLION HUNGRY;  CAN WE FEED THE WORLD?  (Cornell University, 2012).  It’s a good book, and an important book, well worth the read.  For those of you who are too busy doing other things, I will summarize what I believe are the most important points, and some issues.  After all, 430 pages is a lot of reading.

First Conway argues that the part of the food security debate which has been most ignored is nutrition.  Hunger has traditionally been measured by FAO as caloric intake.  But this is only part of the hunger story;  the quality and content of those calories is critical.  Food security equals access to food, its availability, the way it is utilized and its composition.  This is a more complex definition.  Simple concepts no longer suffice.

Similarly the success of the green revolution is partly questioned.  The evidence, which Conway reviews in great detail, is pretty compelling that the green revolution reduced poverty, at least in those places where it occurred.  It also stabilized rural employment earnings, reduced food prices, and moderated seasonal fluctuations in food availability.  For those of you who forgot what the green revolution was, it was not really very green.  It consisted of the introduction of high yield varieties of some crops, combined with investment in irrigation, fertilizer, a slightly better policy environment for agriculture, and literacy campaigns for farmers.  Good stuff; definitely resulting in production increases.  But, the evidence is also compelling that the impact on the poor was less than expected, rural inequality increased, environmental degradation accelerated, and there are diminishing returns (i.e. the productivity gains now are less than in the past).  These findings incidentally were the basis for my statement in the panel at the Governing Council that the benefits from project introduction of green revolution technology are diminishing, and we need to find (and are in fact finding) new ways to have high impact on small farmer incomes and wellbeing.  Conway goes on to develop the idea, which was originally his, of what he calls a doubly green revolution.  The idea is to pursue productivity gains in agriculture, as the original green revolution did, while conserving natural resources, focusing more on hunger reduction (remember the expanded definition of food security;  it is relevant here), focusing on equality of distribution of benefits, and with techniques and technologies resistant to shocks (climatic, environmental, economic, etc.).  And it needs to be sustainable.  This is a very tall order.  What does Conway suggest as a way of delivering such an ambitious set of objectives?

He has an answer;  you must decide if it is convincing.  First on the large farm small farm debate;  he argues that both are needed.  Small farmers tend to be more efficient per hectare (important as land constraints become more severe, especially for crops which do not require large on-farm investments).  But for crops which work in harmony with capital intensive processing investment (palm oil, rubber, sugar, cut flowers), large farms are generally more appropriate.  And of course the two can work together.  What does this have to do with a doubly green revolution?  I think that this was just the warm up to the meat of it which is that the new agriculture needs to be one which promotes ecological sustainability and social sustainability (sounds like IFAD mantra does it not?).  This means that in thinking about agriculture systems (or projects), the trade-offs between productivity (large farm or small), stability, resilience, and equitability (new word) must be considered.  The green revolution focussed on productivity, but sacrificed sustainability and equality.

What does ecological sustainability look like?  What does it mean?  Conway has specific examples which are interesting;  I will list them in order to save space.  I use buzz words here, but there is a lot of meat behind each:  intercropping, rotations, combine trees and grasslands with cropping, green manuring, conservation tillage, biological control, IPM…   Grainger-Jones;  you will love this stuff.  He argues that new technologies, (ICT, nanotechnology, biotechnology) need embracing (so he is not just an organic green;  he’s a bit of an iconoclast).  He wants a lot more innovation however, including in the public sector, the private sector, and in education.

He does not stop there.  We have learned that institutions and policy matters.  He does a good job at looking at the pros and cons of some of the policy orientations that accompany technology.  Coops for example can be good at enabling small farmers to reach economies of scale, but often leave the poorest farmers out.  Contract farming is great for connecting processors to farmers and ensuring better prices for farmers contracted.  But most farmers are excluded;  contracts go to the best farmers.  Fair trade provides farmers with premium prices, but benefits tiny numbers of farmers.  Food safety is great for consumers, but standards often cause small farmers to be dropped.  Conway states that organic produce is a great niche but organic crop yields are still 30% less than conventional farming yields, important in situations of land scarcity.  Crop insurance is tough to make work because damage is difficult to connect to an event;  risk is not easily quantifiable.  This is why crop insurance schemes, such as that of the USA, are so heavily subsidized by governments.

His chapter on livestock is intriguing.  Livestock are central to mixed farming systems which characterize most small holder farms.  The use of crop waste to feed animals, and animal waste to feed plants, livestock as the engines of early farm mechanization, makes sense.  Livestock provide draft power, generate employment (it is a lot of work to keep livestock), source of wealth, cultural significance, and source of food.  Let’s get one!  But, there are increasing environmental problems, greenhouse gas emissions from livestock are huge, and zoonotic diseases (remember avian flu?), are increasing, not decreasing problems.  No easy fix on this one.  Read the book for answers;  my sense is the livestock raising sends us into the world of the second best.  There is rapidly increasing demand for meat (faster than for crops), and the positives listed above remain, but there are very negative environmental consequences.  How to manage these negatives is the challenge.

I have done a shoddy job of summarizing a long and complicated book in a few words;  let’s jump to the conclusions.  There is a chapter of conclusions, that in a nutshell (really), goes like this:

  • Donors should meet their aid commitments (they rarely do)
  • The Doha round must be successful (freer agricultural trade and fewer subsidies) – fat chance
  • Governments need to have policies which create an enabling environment for private investment in agriculture and agro business (most do not)
  • Institutions need to be supportive (food safety, environmental regulation, etc);  most are not
  • Producers associations should be supported
  • Micro credit works
  • Push for sustainable agriculture technologies (such as those listed above)
  • Expand the technological horizon (including bio technology, nano technology, ICT)
  • Small scale irrigation rather than large government run schemes
  • Adaption to climate change (some good stuff on climate change-  come to his seminar this week at IFAD sponsored by Grainger jones on this)
  • Scale up
  • Private public partnerships
When I read the concluding chapter, I found myself wondering what’s new.  It reads pretty much like our own strategic framework.  Maybe this is why I liked the book so much.  It provides a very well referenced argument for the type of agriculture that I believe that IFAD is promoting.  For this reason, I am an enthusiast.  Despite the common sense nature of the recommendations, few governments actually practice any of it, and most of our societies are not very supportive in deeds.  Conway is an ally.  We don’t have as many allies as you might think;  each is precious.  Come to his lecture.