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article imageOp-Ed: Crop research budgets slashed as rice supply crash worsens

By Paul Wallis     May 19, 2008 in World
Trust some jerks with a sense of occasion to help screw up the global food supply a bit more. Some bright bastard got the idea that the world food supply situation was “solved”, and research has been starved like the people it was supposed to help.
This is a truly pitiful picture of the mentality that governs basic human needs in this world.
The New York Times article starts by using the brown plant hopper plague in Asia and elsewhere as an example of the effects of the budget cuts:
Researchers at the International Rice Research Institute here say that they know how to create rice varieties resistant to the insects but that budget cuts have prevented them from doing so.
This is a stark example of the many problems that are coming to light in the world’s agricultural system. Experts say that during the food surpluses of recent decades, governments and development agencies lost focus on the importance of helping poor countries improve their agriculture.
The budgets of institutions that delivered the world from famine in the 1970s, including the rice institute, have stagnated or fallen, even as the problems they were trying to solve became harder.
That sounds about right. Biafra, in the 70s, was the classic famine of the period, although there were others. Ethiopia was the first, in the 80s, to really make an impact. Since then, famine has been a more or less continuous process around the poorest countries on Earth.
Vital research programs have been slashed. At the rice institute, scientists have identified 14 genetic traits that could help rice plants survive the plant hopper, which sucks the juices out of young plants while infecting them with viruses. But the scientists have had no money to breed these traits into the world’s most widely used rice varieties.
The institute is the world’s main repository of rice seeds as well as genetic and other information about rice, the crop that feeds nearly half the world’s people.
But nowadays at the International Rice Research Institute, greenhouses have peeling paint and holes in their screens and walls. Hallways are dotted with empty offices. In the 1980s, the institute employed five entomologists, or insect experts, overseeing a staff of 200. Now it has one entomologist with a staff of eight.
“We’ve had an exodus here,” said Yvette Naredo, an assistant geneticist.
Similar troubles plague other centers in Asia, Africa and Latin America that work on crop productivity in poor countries. Agricultural experts have complained about the flagging efforts for years and warned of the risks
So there was nothing to deal with the new economics of a rapidly growing global population, let alone the change in demand with China and India coming into the food market.
Africa has had “stagnant” yields since the 1960s, according to the NYT. Apparently everyone’s favorite bank has had a hand in the process, too:
The biggest cutbacks have come in donations to agriculture in poor countries from the governments of wealthy countries and in loans from development institutions that the wealthy governments control, like the World Bank. Such projects include not only research on pests and crops but also programs to help farmers adopt improved methods in their fields.
There was a dichotomy back in the 60s. Some countries took up what was called the Green Revolution, developed modern production and irrigation methods, and prospered. China took on a policy of self sufficiency, which has more or less worked, until now.
Others took advantage of cheap foods on the market, particularly rice.
That’s the problem. The countries with low local production were left with a hopeless match of national income to food prices when the prices rose. Add the present problem with a severe undersupply, and prices impossibly high, even if they can buy, and it’s a mess of epic proportions.
Remember also that throughout the period all these countries have been getting advice and assistance with their policies from the West. Particularly the IMF and the World Bank, without whom the dazzlingly idiotic Third World loans crises could never have happened.
It’s not like citizens of the Third World have some neurotic need to be looking at Westerners in suits figuring out new ways to destroy their economies for generations at a time. They’ve had no choice but to do business with the World Bank and the IMF, and much good it’s done them. The entire global management culture changed, in terms of aid, adding the corporate brilliance of the 80s to situations which were already disastrous.
Adjusted for inflation, the World Bank cut its agricultural lending to $2 billion in 2004 from $7.7 billion in 1980.
Why these damn organizations still exist remains a mystery. Their influence on the Third World has never been anything less than murderous, both directly and indirectly, as policymakers. The donations have shrunk like that while populations grew, and countries became utterly dependent on the market.
This is why you still see on documentaries Third World agricultural production methods which people in the Bronze Age would have recognized. It's a matter of opinion if anyone in the financial world has any idea what "scientific research" is about, let alone how to use it and where it should be applied.
Since 1990 population growth has outstripped food supply growth. The donation situation, belatedly, has begun to change, (nearly 20 years later) with World Bank donations set to increase (ooh you virile little bankers, you) and the US and other wealthy countries upgrading their efforts.
Isn't that sweet.
Someone might, eventually, achieve something, which might, possible go some way to solving the problems.
How novel. Innovations simply drip from every orifice of global management these days.
When should we be awestruck, I wonder?
Meanwhile, the brown plant hopper has been happily thriving on the rice crops of Asia. No research, no pest control. These insects, which are said to be in the billions, are devastating the supply.
Ironically, new crop growing methods provided the rice-dependent insects with plenty of food, and their huge populations soon developed a resistance to the insecticide which had been controlling them.
The Rice Institute had been developing resistant strains of rice, but of course the lack of funding leg roped their efforts, and obviously still is preventing effective application of their research.
Just to make things interesting, even China is having trouble containing the insects. They’re capable of wiping out 20% of their affected crops, although the Chinese try to keep losses down to 5%.
So the story so far is that the Green Revolution needs some maintenance, (stunning revelation in any form of agriculture) and the rest of the world is attempting to progress into the Iron Age.
The mathematics could be done by a child.
The damage to crops, plus the undersupply, equals severe shortages. Add price increases to reduce availability, and you have the populations of Asia and Africa in real trouble. Add a water supply problem which is affecting the world, and rice is likely to become an endangered species.
The basic problems are antiquated methodologies which are utterly unrealistic under modern conditions.
Here's a few absolute basics:
1. Rice can be grown hydroponically, in sealed production areas, using a fraction of the water and recycling what it uses. This guarantees scales of production, and makes crop management a lot easier. It's about as difficult as putting up a tent with some plumbing. The paddy system can even be incorporated into it, and water loss from evaporation contained.
2. These basic technologies also create a much higher level of training for farmers in Third World countries. They can create a strong technical and knowledge base in the process
3. Farmers would also profit from adopting a cooperatives arrangement, for better representation, logistics and finance, as well as business risk reduction.
4. Pest control should be centralized using a coordinating body like the FAO or some other organization which hasn’t gone gaga to do the strategy and allocate resources appropriately and quickly.
5. Trade agreements, unlike the Doha singalong, must allow Third World countries access to markets to shore up their income and revenue bases, to ensure ability to obtain supplies.
Which, incidentally, is exactly what real economists, not well padded World Bank lickspittles and insular IMF imbeciles, have been saying for years.
An intellectually unpretentious chicken with a bit of spare time could put more cohesion into world food production than has been achieved so far.
But until we get some management of that demanding intellectual stature, we seem to be stuck with other kinds of birdbrain.
I wonder if global mis-managers can be charged with crimes against humanity?
Worth a thought.
More about Rice, Food crisis, Research funding
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