Food Security and Technology


Below, Josh Ruxin answers the second of our three questions.

One of humankind's oldest conundrums--food security--has actually grown more complex as technology has improved, environmental degradation has increased, and the global population has soared.  Further compounding the situation is climate change.  Swirling together, this is the issue that during the oil spike of 2007 and 2008, and the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, thrust tens of millions and possibly hundreds of millions back into poverty. It's a troubling web of intersecting interests combined with the good and the bad of globalization that has created the current challenging climate for the poor. Industrialized farming made food cheap and enabled the poor, particularly in Asia, to migrate to urban centers. Low prices made small farm agriculture extremely unattractive. When oil spiked and food prices rose, new opportunities arose for subsistence level farmers who for the first time in decades could make money in the marketplace.

I've had the chance to see how these twisting elements create opportunities as well as a perfect storm for the poor at the Millennium Village site in Mayange, Rwanda. In our first year, careful research showed that a particular variety of maize would be ideal for cultivation. In the first season, there was a bumper crop resulting in as much as a 10-fold increase in individual farm productivity. The next season, however, the rains stopped. The season after, the rains were so erratic that pests flourished. Then the rains stopped early again. That was enough to convince everyone involved to convert their fields to drought-resistant crops such as cassava and high-value fruit trees such as mango and pomegranate for long-term economic growth. For nearly three decades, there has been declining rainfall across East Africa and climatologists are trying to figure out why. However, simply linking the efforts of climatologists with those of agricultural scientists will not solve this issue. Multiple disciplines have to be united in order to conquer the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities presented in agriculture. Ground water needs to be accessed for micro-irrigation, but solar energy also needs to be utilized in order to do so cost effectively and efficiently. Recycling water to replenish reserves, harnessing soil critters and bacteria on a grand scale to avoid cost-prohibitive petroleum-based fertilizer, and improving storage systems for avoiding loss due to pestilence are all among the vital interventions that are needed. Further downstream, Information Communications Technology is needed to connect farmers to markets and provide timely information to optimize incomes and expand efficiencies in the marketplace.  It's a complex web that starts with the soil but quickly emerges to involve many sophisticated sciences and systems.

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