May 5, 2008

Discussion Continues

Update:  Mr. Collier's comment is drawing quite a bit of attention from a number of bloggers (the last one completely and snidely misses the point re: fertilizers)- much more attention than his previously linked and much more expansive piece in the Times.  The most helpful comments come from Chris Blattman, who tweaks Collier's call for an expansion of large scale commercial agriculture by suggesting a "hybrid between peasant and agri-business production" and the Economist who raises concerns similar to my own in regards to this business as usual approach to agriculture:
There are other points I wish Mr Collier had addressed. Fertiliser, which has enabled the world to generate enormous growth in agricultural output, is largely produced from petroleum. This seems to place a long-term constraint on food output, absent some new innovation.

One of the more difficult things for those outside of the agricultural world to come to terms with is the reality, that you can not draw infinite gains from a finite system (something we are slowly coming to realize with broader environmental issues as well)  Every farmer knows and understands this regardless of what methods they are practicing - be it reliance upon artificial, chemical inputs or dependence upon more traditional green/brown manures and cover crops - there is only so much of a crop that you can tease from the soil.  Production, production, production can not be the only card on the table for combatting long term global hunger.  We need much more creative solutions that deal with distribution of resources, conservation/restoration of arable land, local markets, food sovereignty, water catchment, and approaches to agriculture that are romantic only in the sense that they take advantage of the wholistic systems of food production that our planet was designed to sustain rather than propping up industries whose by-product, and certainly not their intent, is to feed others.  We must be more imaginative than to believe that "seeds in the ground" is anymore the one-stop answer for hunger than "boots on the ground" is for military conflict.  (I'll save you the points-in-case).  We need to keep talking, thinking and working.

Bart van Ark comments on Alex Cobham commenting on Paul Collier commenting on Martin Wolf:

The supply side of this crisis stems from much more – and potentially much more enduring – issues than such bad luck events as droughts. A strong focus for many years on development of manufacturing and services in many emerging economies, notably in Asia, has come at the cost of improving agricultural productivity. World production of rice and wheat has barely increased in the past 10 years, and agricultural productivity has severely slowed in several key producing countries in Asia, including China (2 percent per year from 1996-2003, compared to 4 percent from 1989-1996), India (around 1 percent from 1995-2005 compared to almost 2 percent from 1985-1995, and Indonesia (only 1 per cent from 1995-2004 compared to more than 3 percent in 1985-1995). The causes of this productivity slowdown include a relative neglect of agricultural R&D, low investment in rural extension services, and even a failure to extend infrastructure such as roads and irrigation to rural areas. There is enormous potential to increase both food supply and agricultural productivity in these countries, but it will take time to bring production back up to the levels needed to meet demand.


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