Three letters keep cropping up whenever Margaret Zeigler talks about growing food to feed the world – TFP. It’s an unprepossessing acronym, but the head of the business-led Global Harvest Initiative (GHI) is convinced that ‘total factor productivity’ is where the future lies.
The agricultural x-factor
There’s only one hitch. Turns out that TFP isn’t so easy to define. Read almost any textbook on agricultural productivity and it will focus on inputs. Better seeds, better machinery, better land, better gadgetry. Get those in place, farmers are told, and the outputs – higher yields, basically – will promptly follow. TFP defies this logic. Zeigler describes the term as “that mysterious increase in output” that can’t be explained by the sum of inputs.
So what else is there to add into the mix? Well, nothing. Although mix is actually an apposite word. According to Zeigler, what counts isn’t so much what you put in, but how you use what you already have. “We don’t want to emphasise just one or two simple technologies,” she says. “It’s about getting the right mix of policies, investments and practices in place.”
It is the first two pieces of this food security puzzle that occupy her attention, particularly the policy angle. That’s no surprise. Prior to her current role, Zeigler was deputy director at the Congressional Hunger Center, a group dedicated to linking grassroots work with farmers to policy development. The mission of the GHI, which she joined as executive director last year, is similar although on a bigger scale. She describes the industry-backed group as advocating for a “wider, value chain approach to solving problems.”
Read from one perspective, it could sound like Big Ag (GHI counts multinationals like Monsanto and John Deere among its members) trying to muscle in and set the rules. Zeigler is adamant that this isn’t the case. Incorporating the voice of farmers is essential she insists. “Farmers at all levels [need] to be sure that their viewpoints are part of a corporate advocacy message.”
Policy response to global hunger
So what is the view of farmers? “Most of the time farmers want access to better technology, or they want to be linked to markets, or they want some extension services,” she says. There, it’s back to that mysterious mix again. Business can certainly contribute, especially at the input end. John Deere, for example, is the world’s largest producer of combine harvesters. But harvesters alone won’t put food on the table for our estimated nine billion population come 2050. The overall policy framework needs to be right for agriculture to thrive – and for that illusive TFP to begin its magic. Step in governments.
Feeding the world is clearly a global challenge, but Zeigler points to two national-level measures that could make dramatic inroads. Policy number one centres on research. Suppose the draft budget of a developing world country were to miraculously fall into her hands: what extra clause would she sneak in? Answer: provision for a national agricultural research centre. “[Such centres] are very important for countries as they seek to take all the possible techniques and practices that are out there in agriculture, and make them adaptable for their own country environment,” she says.
Look at Embrapa. The government-funded Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation has 47 different specialist research units. Together these have played a key role in revolutionising Brazil’s agricultural productivity over the past two decades, Zeigler says. Introducing the use of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, pioneering integrated test management and experimenting with cutting-edge crop varieties are just a few of the locally relevant innovations that she credits to Embrapa.
Such research doesn’t come cheap. Nor is it a quick fix. “These kind of investments are not sexy, they take time, and they don’t run on two to three year donor country project cycles.” Zeigler concedes that many developing countries, especially the poorest, have limited budgetary capacity to put up the cash themselves. So the onus is on foreign donors to reach deep into their pockets. “What these institutions really need is a 10 to 20 year commitment to really get all the best aspects of agriculture tested, deployed and into the hands of the people that need it,” she argues. There is a legitimate role for companies to collaborate too, pooling resources and findings jointly.
Biotechnology: getting more from less
Breakthrough policy number two focuses on biotechnology. Despite her caution about single solutions to the world’s farming needs, Zeigler is unabashed about the productivity gains that biotech, a rather divisive approach, portends. “The potential really is there to produce more per hectare, in many cases with using less input,” she states. What’s missing at present are the rules and regulations to ensure that biotech has the full gamut of protections in place. The safeguards she has in mind are twofold: those to ensure biotech crops are developed, marketed and used safely, and those to protect the intellectual property rights of their developers (think Monsanto).
Again, Zeigler has a model country in mind. The Philippines. “About 10 years ago, they adopted a series of legislative and regulatory frameworks that govern the testing and growing and production of biotech crops … That’s why the private sector is investing in the Philippines because there is IP protection,” she says. It’s not only seed companies that are looking to the Philippines. A host of other south-east Asian countries are too. “They’re all interested in using more biotechnology.”
Global trade distortions
Important as it is to focus on national policy interventions, one senses that Zeigler’s enthusiasm owes partly to the lack of traction at the international level. One of the main reasons developing world farmers are unproductive is because global trade rules are fixed against them. In the recent past, GHI has lobbied the World Trade Organisation over existing trade distortions. However, Zeigler and her colleagues have come to the frank conclusion that “there’s a lot not happening right now” when it comes to the WTO.
So under Zeigler’s watch, the GHI is changing tack. She feels the industry group’s advocacy efforts can be better spent helping poor countries to negotiate more constructive bilateral trade agreements with their major trading partners. Part of that will involve providing compliance support to enable these countries to meet sanitary and phytosanitary requirements. “A lot of times barriers can be put up because developing countries’ products are not in compliance with global standards”.
By her own admission, agricultural policy and research investment are not sexy. But if they can boost farmers’ productivity and help ensure tomorrow’s growing population of doesn’t go hungry, then they need all the attention they can get.
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