Thursday, July 10, 2008

Food Research Budgets Cut

Given how food prices have been soaring recently, it was surprising for me to read that agricultural research budgets have been getting cut.

From the NY Times:

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.

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.

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 United States is in the midst of slashing, by as much as 75 percent, its $59.5 million annual support for a global research network that focuses on improving crops vital to agriculture in poor countries. That network includes the rice institute.

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.

Adjusting for inflation and exchange rates, the wealthy countries, as a group, cut such donations roughly in half from 1980 to 2006, to $2.8 billion a year from $6 billion. The United States cut its support for agriculture in poor countries to $624 million from $2.3 billion in that period.
From Wired:
Despite worldwide food shortages and falling farm production in the United States, little attention has been paid to a critical piece of the agricultural production web: Fertilizer.

Given all the demand, natural gas prices have doubled since the mid-90s, and the price of ammonia has tripled. That's bad news for farmers, especially those in the developing world who already have limited ability to purchase fertilizers.

So while billions of dollars in venture capital are flowing in to cleantech companies that would only make small differences in the world's energy balance, research into new fertilizer tech is inexplicably underfunded.
Why is this important? Look at the increases in yield that have come from one such research project:
The method, called the System of Rice Intensification, or S.R.I., emphasizes the quality of individual plants over the quantity. It applies a less-is-more ethic to rice cultivation.

Harvests typically double, he says, if farmers plant early, give seedlings more room to grow and stop flooding fields. That cuts water and seed costs while promoting root and leaf growth.

Dr. Uphoff was skeptical. Rice farmers there typically harvested two tons per hectare (an area 100 by 100 meters, or 2.47 acres). The group claimed 5 to 15 tons.

Dr. Uphoff oversaw field trials for three years, and the farmers averaged eight tons per hectare.

In Laos, an agriculture official recently said S.R.I. had doubled the size of rice crops in three provinces and would spread to the whole country because it provided greater yields with fewer resources.

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