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Every Link in the Food Chain

Juice boxes on store shelf in China (AP Images)

Juice packaged in boxes stays fresh because of the work of World Food Prize winner Dr. Philip Nelson.

Producing enough food to nourish populations of the future is among the most urgent and compelling problems facing humankind today. The World Food Prize is presented each year to an individual who has “advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world.” Launched in 1986, the prize has honored the work of diverse individuals whose achievements have focused on different aspects of agriculture, such as the development of stronger plants or techniques to make fallow land productive. World Food Prize laureates are among the most qualified people to find ways to meet food demands of the future. Two of these scientists offer their views on these pages.

Dr. M. Vijaya Gupta of India won the 2005 World Food Prize as a leader of the “blue revolution,” a campaign to promote aquaculture. His methods of fish farming have increased the protein and mineral content in the diets of more than 1 million families. Dr. Philip E. Nelson, an American citizen, holds the 2007 World Food Prize for his technological breakthroughs revolutionizing the food industry in the area of sanitary, large-scale storage and transportation of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Question: What do you consider to be the single most effective action that could be taken in the near term with available technologies to increase world food production?

Gupta: I think the most effective action that is needed is technology and financial transfer from the developed countries to the developing countries. I consider this to be the most important action if you are looking at short-term gains in production. We need a technology transfer along with the financial assistance to implement these technologies in developing countries.

Presently agriculture productions are low in most of the developing countries as compared to the developed countries due to lack of appropriate technologies — from production to marketing — and the financial resources necessary for the governments to implement development projects. The developing countries need the improved production technologies — especially in the area of biotechnology and genetics and improved seeds without excessive royalties — for increasing food production in the near term.

Nelson: I’d certainly agree with technology transfer. I think the main thing we really need to focus on is the total food chain. Production is critical, but also preserving that product after it has been harvested and before it is delivered to the consumer. I would say we could have a big immediate impact by looking at that total food chain delivery system.

Q: An estimated 1 billion people globally don’t have enough to eat. I have heard it said that adequate food is produced in the world, but it just isn’t available to all the people who need it. Is that what you gentlemen are saying — if distribution or storage were better, the hunger problem would be solved?

Gupta: Yes, probably storage is one thing because there are quite a bit of losses in transportation and storage. But besides that, you need to have adequate food production, and access to the food is another concern because of the poverty. In India, some years we have surplus food production, but the government doesn’t have adequate silos to store the surplus food during the monsoon rains. On one side we have the excessive production; on the other side, people are starving and dying because they do not have the purchasing power.

Nelson: I agree with all that. The biggest thing that we misunderstand is that malnutrition is probably because of poverty. So if we can get some funding in the hands of the poor, and get the distribution accomplished, we could go a long way in reducing starvation and hunger.

Gupta: Presently, what is happening is starvation and hunger in the developing countries. Food aid is coming into the countries where there is need. But we have to develop the production within the countries or within the region as that will create livelihoods and employment opportunities and produce the food at an affordable price. We have to look at that, rather than growing the food in the developed countries and then transporting over long distances to the developing countries at a very high cost.

Nelson: I agree with that 100 percent. There’s no question that we’re always going to need agencies like the World Food Programme, and other aid agencies, because of natural disasters — as we saw earlier this year in Haiti — political unrest, or other unforeseen, disruptive events. We are going to need that kind of emergency input, but we’ve got to establish agriculture in the local communities and develop markets for their goods at the local sites.

Q: Turning now to the ongoing progress in the areas where you gentlemen specialize, Dr. Gupta, are you seeing further expansion of small-scale aquaculture ventures?

Gupta: Very much so. Though my work was originally concentrated in Asia, now the same technologies and methodologies are being transferred to African nations. If you look at their core concern, 90 percent of the world’s aquaculture production comes from Asia. So lots of efforts have been made in the past in Africa to take these technologies from Asia in toto and transfer them to Africa without taking into consideration the social, economic, and cultural aspects of the people in those countries.  And this effort has failed. Millions of dollars have been put into these countries by the donor nations. So that was a mistake that had been made in the past.

My research is concentrated in starting the development of technologies by working closely with the communities, first understanding their social background, economic situations, and cultural aspects, and then developing technologies that are suitable to those communities.

The second aspect that we looked at was the fish production by the small farmers to improve their nutritional status by consuming the fish they have grown in their backyard ponds. Our assumption at that time was that they’ll be able to eat more of the fish they have produced and have better health. But this was a mistake that has been made in the earlier stages of our research because the small farmers are looking for cash economy. They want the cash income because their needs are much more than eating the fish. So what we found in our work is that actually 80 to 90 percent of the fish produced by the small farmers, even from homestead ponds, are sold in the market as they fetch high prices. Then they’ll buy cheaper dried fish for their own consumption and other daily necessities. This has resulted in improved nutrition, not because they are eating the fish they have produced in the homestead pond, but because of the cash income they were able to generate through farming fish in their ponds.

So this is what we have taken into consideration in my work, closely understanding their needs, and the market demands, and developing technologies that will bring cash income to these poor households.

Q: Dr. Nelson, how do you see that the storage and preservation technologies in which you specialize may be applied to the output of aquaculture producers to greater effect?

Nelson: I’m very excited about Dr. Gupta’s work because I think it really contributes significantly to our world food security. I have a slide I use in presentations that uses the Chinese proverb: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. I add another line to that: If you teach a man to preserve his fish, he will live forever, feed a community, and have some money.

So that is the focus of my activity, on that piece of the total food chain, trying to give developing world farmers the means to preserve fish, grains, fruits, and vegetables, and then also to develop local markets. In many developing countries, now in their large cities, there is a greater demand for more product. If small, developing world farmers can learn how to produce and transport product to fulfill that demand, I think we have some opportunities now to have a major impact on poverty and hunger.

Q: Small farmers in developing countries are frequently lacking adequate vehicles to get their products to market, or passable roads that lead to the market. How do donor nations help address those problems?

Nelson: It will take a team effort. Addressing just one aspect won’t do. There’s got to be market development, improved infrastructure. Certainly it is more complicated than simple technology transfer. We have some good examples where pockets of these activities are working.

In Malawi, a project called Millennium Villages has brought significant improvement to villages that include agriculture, water conservation, health improvement, improved education, etc. Still, Africa lags behind the rest of the world in all aspects of infrastructure development.

Sari-clad woman tossing fishing net into pond (Courtesy of World Fish Center)
Dr. M. Vijaya Gupta’s promotion of aquaculture helped to increase fish production in Bangladesh tenfold.

We want to take those examples and multiply them. I hope to do that by having an international center, which will be focused on food technology development and the expansion of markets. I’m hoping for a major thrust with lots of support from an array of organizations to focus on this activity.

Q: Give us one of these good examples you refer to.

Nelson: Working with plant breeders, food technologists have found a mutant variety of sorghum grain. A protein within that grain acts a lot like wheat protein. To a country like Senegal where they like baguettes, they import all the wheat to make the bread that the local people desire and want. The concept we’re testing now is that this mutant sorghum strain would produce a grain that could be used to replace, maybe, 50 percent of the imported wheat with the locally grown sorghum grain. We’re hoping that would produce a baguette that is acceptable to the population. You can imagine how that would improve the market opportunities for the local farmers and reduce the need for imported wheat in Senegal.

Food prices are another factor in world hunger. When you are importing great quantities of commodities, that can be a problem and it’s a drain on their resources.

In Malawi, we’re working with women, and developing small, entrepreneurial groups that will be able to better market their products. But we’re talking about 10 small groups and we need to spread this model 10 thousandfold.

Q: Dr. Gupta, will you share an example where a village adopted some of your aquaculture techniques and improved overall quality of life for its people?

Gupta: Take, for example, my work in Bangladesh, where I went way back in 1986. As you know, two thirds of the country goes underwater for about four to six months of the year. There’s so much water, but very little fish, even though fish is the most important commodity in the lives of the Bangladeshis. The country is flooded almost every year, so the rural households construct their small huts and houses on elevated land. To have an elevation for the house, they dig some soil from land adjacent to the house, and in the process they create small ditches or ponds. There were hundreds of thousands of such ponds and ditches in the rural scenery. When I went there, they were lying fallow, covered with water hyacinth, an obnoxious aquatic weed, and were breeding grounds for the mosquitoes. So I was looking at how we could use these little ponds that could provide nutrition for the families.

I’m a biologist, so I didn’t know at that time about the rural way of life — the culture of the people, or the economy of the people. I joined hands with some of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of the country who were working at a grassroots level so we could move faster toward aquaculture that could increase the family income and improve the nutrition of the family members. Once these nongovernmental organizations were convinced of the economic viability of these technologies, we went to the villages; first we made an effort to understand, the people, their culture, their economic situation. Then we started with small, low-cost technologies without risk of investment, trying the technology in their ponds, demonstrating these technologies to them.

We went to a number of villages, and actually we had more than 10,000 farmers as collaborators in our technology demonstrations, and on-farm research. So once we were able to show that the unutilized ponds and small roadside ditches can give anywhere from two to three tons of fish per hectare within four to six months of time, there was tremendous response and adoption of technologies.

I should say that this has revolutionized rural aquaculture that has led to improved livelihoods and nutrition of the rural populace. That was the first step we did.

Second, we realized that most of the rural women were working in the house, but not employed otherwise. We thought that if we could involve the women in this low-cost, low-input simple technologies, the women would add income to the family in addition to that of the husband, who works as an agricultural laborer or some other position as that. So we motivated them, trained them, and the NGOs came forward with small loans without any collateral. This has worked very well. Now about 60 percent of rural fish farmers in Bangladesh are women.

So that has resulted in increasing the household income, and improved the status of the woman in the house and also in the society. Before that, she was just a worker.

I have seen a picture, promoted by one of the NGOs there, of a woman with 12 hands. One hand is holding the baby, the other is sweeping the house, the other is cooking, another cutting the firewood, and on and on. The title of the painting was “My Wife Does Not Work.” She does everything! But unless she is bringing in a cash income, she is not regarded as working. So that’s why we brought women into the picture with a low-input technology. Then once they got trained, and got the confidence, they wanted intensive production technologies for higher benefits. Now some of them are involved in fish-seed production [controlled breeding of fish as in a hatchery], which is more lucrative than fish aquaculture. 

When I went to Bangladesh the aquaculture production was less than 100,000 tons. Now it is nearing 1 million tons. So it is not only increasing the production, but creating the livelihoods for rural communities where there are very few opportunities for income.

Q: Political factors can also be influential in food security. Policies can encourage or discourage production, and certainly there are regimes in the world that don’t place great importance on the nutrition and well-being of their people. How do you weigh the political issues contributing to hunger?

Nelson: I’m a scientist, a technologist, so that question is best posed to others. But certainly that is a major barrier in a number of areas of the world, particularly Africa. We have seen what can be done in countries where that has changed. Malawi is a good example. India is going through a renaissance as the government is beginning to focus on developing more processing techniques as a way to preserve their products and get them distributed. Governments can make a big difference.

Gupta: We are not just to look at technology, but must also look at procurement prices for farmers. When there is bumper crop, the market price comes down and the farmers are not able to make any profit. On one side, the input costs — the fertilizer, the pesticide — are going up while on the other side, there is no guaranteed or minimum price for their commodity. It has happened in my country — when there is a bumper crop, the market price comes down and the farmers are not able to recover the expenses incurred for producing that crop.

Because of this, at times the farmers involved in food production are moving away from food crops toward the farming of commercial crops — cotton, tobacco, sugar cane, and things like that. So the government needs to ensure a minimum price for the farmers, which will take care of their well-being.

Q: The great unknown challenging global agriculture today is the effect that climate change may have as time unfolds. Let’s talk about your expectations a moment. Dr. Gupta, take us back to Bangladesh, a low-lying country that will be especially vulnerable to the sea level rise that is predicted to result from climate change.

Gupta: Much work has been done with regard to the impact of climate change on crops, but not much information available as it relates to fish. Nevertheless, looking at what might happen in the oceans, there is going to be a big impact on capture fisheries. Global warming will change the fish diversity, the fish distribution, and abundance. Climate change and global warming will result in the acidification of the seawater that will have an impact on shell-bearing organisms, like the shrimp, oysters, clams, etc. To an extent, this will have an impact on aquaculture. So we are looking at developing strains of fish that are tolerant to salinity. So more needs to be done to mitigate the impact of climate change.

Q: Dr. Nelson, what’s going on in the processing and preservation links of the food chain to cope with climate change?

Nelson: Climate change is putting pressure on the geneticists and plant breeders to develop varieties that can withstand droughts and reduced temperatures. That part of the production chain is critical, and without that kind of activity, I think we’re looking at some major effects. On the other hand, as climate changes that means there will be differences in the production areas. That means more distribution is going to be required as we move products from one area to another, as temperatures and climates lend themselves to production.

I mentioned earlier that we are beginning to develop an international center here at Purdue. We’ve received some funding to do that, and the focus will be on technology and market development and reducing product losses in that part of the world where hunger threatens populations. We think there is a need to bring international focus to this area of the food chain, and hopefully reduce hunger and increase food security.

Gupta: I think that improving the livelihood of the farmer has to be part of the solution too. Food production by itself will not solve the problem unless we can reduce poverty and hunger. So we are working from the perspective of creating livelihoods and improving the lives of the people in rural communities.

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№3, 2010№2, 2010№11, 2009№9, 2009 (eng)№9, 2009№5, 2009№3, 2009№5, 2007№12, 2006
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