|Rebecca Nelson is an associate professor at Cornell University, in the departments of Plant Pathology and Plant Breeding & Genetics, and in the field of International Agriculture and Rural Development. She serves as Program Director for The McKnight Foundation Collaborative Crop Research Program (http://mcknight.ccrp.cornell.edu/). Through the CCRP, she contributes to developing and supporting a portfolio of research projects aimed at improving food security in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. |
|Rebecca's research interests include molecular genetics and participatory approaches to disease and crop management. Her current research concerns resistance to diseases of cereal crops (especially maize) of importance to African food security. Prior to moving to Ithaca in 2001, Rebecca worked for five years at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru. She led a large project aimed at management of the devastating potato disease, potato blight that played a key role in the Irish Potato Famine. From 1988-1996, she worked at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, where she conducted similar work on rice blast and bacterial blight. |
|For me, the most compelling personal experience is just to know the statistics. In my work, I have seen hungry children and hungry people, but it is a fact that there are 800 million of them, that is what motivates me the most. That such a large portion of humanity is undernourished and does not have access to what they need to eat properly, the fact that one third of children in developing countries are hungry - that is what gets me going. I think food is such a primary issue for a human, especially a defenseless, young human. Having the possibility of adequate nutrition really should be seen as a human right.
|"We need to recognize when we are violating human rights, for example, subsidizing U.S. agriculture. "|
|I often hear people say that world hunger isn't a problem of food production, but rather a problem of food distribution. It's true that there's supposedly enough food for everyone on the planet. But that doesn't mean that the answer is shipping corn from the US to Africa. Sure, when there's a famine situation, it is critical to get food to people who need it. But even then it would be better to source the food from the African farmers who can produce and who need income. Most of the time, food insecurity is a chronic situation relating to poverty, rather than a dramatic situation like a famine scenario where food is just not available. That is, if you or I were there, we could get a meal, but many people are just too poor to get enough to eat.
|A billion dollars a day are spent on developed world agricultural subsidies and that undermines the ability of poor farmers to sell their crops in developing countries. We need to recognize when we are violating human rights by subsidizing U.S. agriculture. I hesitate to say that, given that my sister is a U.S. farmer, but I don't think it is help for family farmers like her that causes the problem. It is not healthy fruits and veggies that get the subsidies either, it's the big commodities.
| People think that if food is a right then we should just give people food. But the right to food is rather a right to let people make an honest living producing their own food and their own livelihoods. I think people in the area of policy and agricultural research are striving to empower people to feed themselves, not to be fed by others. However, there are policy and trade issues that have to be addressed before people will be able to feed themselves.
|"The idea still is that we should just give people grain. The fact that this mindset so much undermines the goal of food self-sufficiency and food security does not seem to be understood."|
It is really not recognized as widely as it ought to be how our agricultural and food policies affect food security. If you read the conversations around World Trade Organization you can see that this connection is not lost on the developing countries' policy makers. Some highly placed, important people don't seem to recognize this connection.
|The idea still is that we should just give people grain. The fact that this mindset so much undermines the goal of food self-sufficiency and food security does not seem to be understood. It's not just a problem of understanding, though; there are economic motives to support subsidies and grain dumping practices.|
|"Potato late blight is the worst plant disease there is in terms of destructive potential."
|Potato late blight is the worst plant disease there is in terms of its destructive potential. It is the most difficult plant disease to manage in general, I would guess. We found that breeding resistant plants and working with farmers to bring together different management components, we nonetheless manage that terrible disease.
|But that raises the question of do we have the political will to go ahead and do that on a large enough scale to have a significant impact. And say we are able to manage the disease but then that creates a surplus and the potato price crashes so low that the farmer cannot afford to pay the money to get the crop out of the ground, let alone to get it down the mountain and to the city. There are factors that I do not understand, but there is an element to international trade issues where selling of cheap commodities undermines prices in developing countries, and that undermines the abilities of local farmers to produce and make a living. |
|" Here are the pitfalls of the production paradigm: it is not just about growing more potatoes."
|Here are the pitfalls of the production paradigm: it is not just about growing more potatoes. One problem is that cheap potatoes from the U.S. can make it impossible for an Andean farmer to sell his or her produce. That is one result of the over-production problem in the U.S. In agricultural research, we tend to focus way too much on production in general. Food security really requires not just sufficient production, but also sufficient market access that a farmer can make a living, and beyond that a good enough understanding of nutrition and access to a balanced diet.
|In my work with The McKnight Foundation Collaborative Crop Research Program, I am trying to make sure we consider all these aspects of the problem when we decide how to invest in agricultural R&D. Thinking about it, I came to realize that we really have to operate differently if we want our work to result in better-nourished children in poor countries. We have to find out who is hungry and where crop research can make a difference. We have to target crops that provide the nutrients that are most needed, which can include not just calories and protein, but also nutrients like vitamin A and iron. We have to target crops that women control, because these crops tend to get to the children. We need to focus on crops that not only provide nutrients, but also those that maintain and enrich the soil. We target areas where malnutrition is high, and we support groups of research projects that are likely to lead to farming practices that provide livelihoods, nutrition and sustainability.
|"Nothing that's ever happened with genetic engineering can even hold a candle to the power to what conventional breeding has done. But the tools of molecular biology can enhance that in a number of ways."|
|People use the term 'biotechnology' to mean different things. In terms of direct gene transfer or genetic engineering, I take a pretty agnostic view. The debate on transgenic crops has been blown out of proportion in my opinion. I think we need to use every technigue we can to improve crops.
|Plant breeding is an extremely classical and extremely powerful technology. If you think of how the progenitor plants of the crops that we use all the time, how they have been transformed through the process of recombination and selection, both by farmers and the formal research sector, it is incredible. Nothing that has ever happened with genetic engineering can even hold a candle to the power to what conventional breeding has done. But the tools of molecular biology can enhance that in a number of ways. The possibility of moving genes from wild relatives into cultivated crops appeals to me. I feel that if we could make better use of our genetic resources using biotech, it would be a good investment, a good decision. |
|I was recently asked to give a talk about biotech and to defend how biotech is going to help solve world hunger. I ended up with the image of a galaxy and I said that the center of the galaxy is not biotech. What is at the center of my galaxy is the problem of lack of food security. The problem is that there are so many stunted children and hundreds of millions of people with not enough food to eat. There are many things surrounding that, policy issues, technology access issues, and biotech is one of them but probably not in the top ten... not the only one by any means. It has been overemphasized both by detractors and those pushing the technology. There were a lot of young activists in the audience and I urged them to go ahead and be outraged, but not to forget about the biggest outrages of all.
|"I was really struck by how classical breeding was treated like it was out of style."
|In my years in the international agricultural research centers, I was really struck by how classical breeding was treated like it was out of style. This seemed unfair, considering how incredibly potent the conventional breeding has been. For example, the major crops have become more productive as a result of fairly straight forward conventional breeding.
|If you look at research focusing on developing country agriculture, there are huge successes, many of which are based on conventional plant breeding. Most of Southeast Asian rice was developed directly or indirectly at the International Rice Research Institute, mostly directly. Most of the maize grown in developing countries in the tropics is directly or indirectly from the breeding program of the International Center for Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT for its Spanish acronym). These big crop breeding programs have been unbelievably successful. |
|These programs have been exceptionally good at breeding for relatively uniform environments, such as the Asian rice paddies. It was relatively straight forward to make a huge impact in Southeast Asian rice. Subsequent to making big impacts in the relatively uniform environments, it was acknowledged that more diverse products were needed in dealing with more diverse environments. Marginal environments are more diverse and the crops grown in more marginal environments are probably more diverse too. |
|"The research establishment has come to realize and embrace the importance of working with farmers and diversifying the crops used in those environments."|
|The research establishment has come to realize and embrace the importance of working with farmers and diversifying the crops used in those environments. A lot of people are frustrated that the big programs are not embracing farmer-participatory approaches enough. |
|There is certainly room for improvement but I am still impressed by what is happening-slowly, there are real changes in how people actually work, how they perceive the problem. A lot of innovation is happening and is being shared amongst different continents through international research mechanisms such as the international centers' Participatory Research and Gender Analysis program. |
|"Research experiments are done in an obvious place in the community so the farmers are able to see the researcher's experiment."|
|A friend of mine, Sieglinde Snapp, was involved in developing a trial approach called the "central-satellite trial," while she was working in Malawi with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. She was doing experiments on soil fertility enhancement where she would do a central experiment and a bunch of farmers would do little mini versions of the experiment on their own fields. A local farmer gave it the moniker of the "mother/baby trial" and the beauty of that concept has been widely appreciated and the approach has spread quickly to many people in many places. |
|The idea is that research experiments are done in an obvious place in the community so the farmers are able to see the researchers experiment. Then the farmers can elect subsets of the treatments and they do those experiments in their own fields. The researcher can take note of the data from their main experiment and then also gain valuable information from the experiments that are conducted under farmers' management regimes; maybe the farmers do not weed their fields in the same way the researcher weeds their experiment, and so on. |
|"The researcher can sample the diversity of the farmers' conditions much more effectively using a trial design like that."|
|The researcher can sample the diversity of the farmers' conditions much more effectively using a trial design like that. At the same time, the farmers are sampling the researchers' material. So you have farmers judging and possibly even adopting some of the treatments or varieties, whatever is being tested. In those initial fertility trials, they would be testing different legumes--it could be crops with maize or different cover crops. This is a simple idea that allows more rapid uptake of the technology by the community and it allows the researchers to understand how their technology actually performs in the farmers' conditions. |
|"I was really impressed how the research establishment, by having this international dimension, is able to appreciate and spread innovation."|
|An innovation like that in Malawi gets noticed very quickly in many different countries and is put to work in many different circumstances. I was really impressed how the research establishment, by having this international dimension, is able to appreciate and spread innovation. If you do not fund an international sector that is able to recognize and spread innovation, you could have brilliant things going on locally, but it begins and ends there. It might have great local impact, but the ability to spread those innovations rapidly to other countries is something I really do not think we should lose. The international research sector is almost starving to death right now and it is a real shame. |
|"The international research sector is almost starving to death right now and it is a real shame."|
|I spent thirteen years in the international crop research centers and over that time, watched my budget go steadily down, down, down. Now, having left the international sector about a year ago, I can still see how it is getting worse and worse all the time. And although I am not there feeling the pain, I am feeling the pain anyway. I think it is terrible to let that international establishment, which has done so much good, go down the drain. I do not see who is going to take on that role of taking care of international germplasm collections, recognizing and spreading innovations from one little place to another little place, just making sure that research trends are documented. |
|Lately, I have been reading about seed systems: maize in Mexico, roots and tubers in the Andes, beans in Africa. The international centers are an important part of the research threads that get carried out. They facilitate other peoples' research, they document a lot of the research that gets done, they facilitate the national programs' research. I think they really have an important role to play and I think it is a terrible shame that the world does not appreciate that and support this role. I guess it is a case of the "tragedy of the commons". |
|"I think that the system is in grave peril, or even of extinction, really and that would be a really big mistake of the international community to let that happen."|
|They really are starving for money right now. I think that the system is in grave peril, or even of extinction, really and that would be a really big mistake of the international community to let that happen. |
|I think there was fat in the system. Having watchdogs and having people looking over the shoulder is basically hygienic; it is good to have critics, to a certain extent. I think that point has been vastly exceeded now. The environment is way too demanding, too critical, too unappreciative of the constant benefits of the International Agricultural Research Centers. I think the international community should be giving more and complaining a bit less. |
|"Maybe the world as a whole just does not care that much about a billion hungry people."|
|The international centers have come a long way in understanding the shortcomings of the Green Revolution. They have really taken to heart a lot of the criticism that was leveled for a lot of the shortcomings of the Green Revolution. These were obviously very important insights and very real complaints. Maybe the critics have not realized the importance of the system and the contributions that it has made. Or maybe the world as a whole just does not care that much about a billion hungry people. |
|The system is reasonably up to date in many areas and innovating and changing the way national programs do business. There is the perception that the centers are, in a certain way, backwards. Of course, there is always an element that is behind the times and old fashioned, but there is also a real vanguard element in the system, and that vanguard element is very important for bringing new ideas to nations who are isolated from the cutting edge of thought in methodology and technology. |
|"We are guided by the goal of reducing food insecurity and malnutrition through crop research."|
|I have two main enterprises. The first and foremost is managing the McKnight Foundation Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). The CCRP supports projects in Asia, Latin America and Africa. We focus on supporting crops like tef and finger millet, which have cultural and nutritional value to people who face food insecurity. We have been asking ourselves: Should we be trying to increase productivity or help make better-nourished children? We are guided by the goal of reducing food insecurity and malnutrition through crop research. |
|We fund two projects aimed at decreasing vitamin A deficiency through the development and use of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes in eastern Africa. Our new grants focus on traditional crops in the Andes, on millet- and sorghum-based systems in west Africa, and on legume integration in eastern and southern Africa. |
|"Inter-institutional collaboration is very important in getting our job done."|
|We try to connect research organizations with organizations working in development and with farmer communities. We work informally with the Rockefeller Foundation to make our African investments as good as they can be. Inter-institutional collaboration is very important in getting our job done. There is quite a long chain of events that has to occur between the research and actual human welfare. If different institutions do not work together to try to do this it really does not happen. You have a lot of isolated activities that do not lead to an impact. In my job with McKnight I get to try to make those connections work better. |
|I also work on disease resistance, focusing for now on African maize. In Africa, in the many areas where maize will grow, there has been a huge shift from sorghum- based and millet-based diets to maize-based diets. If you can grow maize, it can out-yield sorghum and millet. You have sort of a doubling series from millet yields to sorghum yields to maize yields. If you can be growing the higher yielding crop, then in a certain circumstances it may make a lot of sense. |
|On the other hand, millet and sorghum can better resist drought, so a shift to maize may mean a higher risk of hunger in a dry year. In Ethiopia, the suggestion to change over to a diet based on maize or sorghum has not been well received. Ethiopians very much value the tef crop (Eragrostis tef), which is central to their diet and culture. Tef is better adapted to their very drought-prone environment, so it is a very logical thing for them to stick with it. |
|"One case where I was really encouraged by our work was in Uganda."|
|In the past, I did a lot of work on practical disease management, using variations on an approach called Farmer Field Schools, which was originally developed by the FAO. While I worked on potatoes with the International Potato Center, I was based in Peru but worked on a project where we were working in six different countries trying to connect their research organizations with farmers, so farmers would have better access to the products of research both in terms of improved varieties, and also the knowledge they would need in order to better grow those varieties. |
|One case where I was really encouraged by our work was in Uganda. We went to visit a group of women farmers to ask them if they would be interested in participating in this program. We were working with national researchers, the potato researchers there, also with AfriCare, an NGO there. It was very obvious that though the farmers had very limited resources, they were incredibly coherent as a group and they had been working together to farm the many different crops that they raise. They were very open to working with us to improve their access to better seed and better knowledge. The women said, 'We work together. We would love to work together. We need access to more knowledge and to more technology.' |
|"They were much more proud in their bearing because they had conducted a series of experiments."|
|When I visited that group again two years later, they had done several field experiments as a result of this project. They were much more proud in their bearing because they had conducted a series of experiments; they had identified varieties that were better for their group; they had applied for membership in the Seed Producers Organization. They used the expression, 'a few miserable potatoes,' when we first visited them. In the second visit, they were proudly showing the results of their experiments. They were really assertive in describing their work. They were nicely dressed. Their children looked okay. It made me extremely proud and happy to see how well they were doing. They had taken this opportunity of a quite modest investment and they had really converted it into a better welfare for themselves and their families. |
|On the sad side, the leader of the group had been this beautiful, luminous young woman. The second time I saw her she looked very physically diminished. I mentioned to my husband that it had been great to see the group transformed so positively and so sad to see this young woman looking so bad. He said the obvious thing, that she was probably an AIDS sufferer. I was just heartbroken to realize the power of will of these women to improve their welfare and the power of that disease to devastate lives and families. |
|"That was the goal of that effort: to develop farmers as experts."|
|For me that was a high point: to realize how fully people can seize the possibilities we provide. In the effort in Peru we reached many communities. I saw families in terrible poverty there, but also how they avidly took up the opportunity to learn about potatoes. |
|We had a field day once where the farmers were making presentations of their results to a larger community. We had brought thirteen communities together and different farmers groups were presenting results to this larger community. Some local journalists who attended wrote an article in the paper saying that the experts had been making presentations. The journalists had missed that 'the experts' were really local farmers who participated in this field school and had become so authoritative that they really sounded like experts. That was the goal of that effort: to develop farmers as experts. I just love to see a scene where the farmer is discussing the results of their experiment and there is a crowd of other farmers taking notes and they are really keen on both the giving and receiving end of their own discourses of their experiments. |
|"What touched me even more than seeing hungry children is seeing the women."|
|You are also getting at the question of the traumatic side of food insecurity. What touched me even more than seeing hungry children is seeing the women. Sometimes malnourished children are still running around and having fun. I have seen so many children with that bleached colored hair that indicates bad nutrition, but they are still sparkly and full of life. I know they are more vulnerable to disease and other problems, but meanwhile they can be avid participants in the farmer field schools. |
|It was very difficult for the women to become good participants in the farmer field schools. They were so overworked and overwhelmed that they are denied educational opportunities. Improving women and girls' education has to be taken seriously in improving food security.
|"The International Food Policy Research Institute found that increasing food availability is important, but even more important is increasing women's rights and education. "|
|I read a report indicating that child stunting has been reduced from half of developing country children to one third of developing country children. For me it is a terrible feeling. It is good that it has come down, but it is still so high. The International Food Policy Research Institute found that increasing food availability is important, but even more important is increasing women's rights and education. |
|"If the policy environment is not favorable, plant disease management and crop management will only improve things so much."|
|Working with Indian farmers and the African women, I saw that an important part of this work is empowering women and having women have access to opportunity, to knowledge, to technology, to understanding how to nourish a child. It is not just a question of improving plants. An improved plant can go only so far. But an improved plant in the hands of an improved farmer, a good mother that can do a lot. But, again, up to a point. Because if the policy environment is not favorable, plant disease management and crop management will only improve things so much. This is especially true in light of the billion dollars a day in agricultural subsidies in the industrialized countries.