State of the World report 2011 – innovation but no politics

January 13, 2011

     By Duncan Green     

WorldWatch Institute launched its new State of the World 2011 report, (or at least the overview SoW2011chapter, which is the only one I can find online – if people can point to an online downloadable version, please help me out here). The overall report website’s here, but as a confirmed techno-neanderthal, I found it pretty un-user friendly. Tech whinge over. The SoW reports are published annually and are usually good value. This one is on ‘innovations that nourish the planet’, pulling together good news stories on sustainability from a two year research programme in 25 sub-Saharan African nations. It finds a ‘treasure trove’ of good ideas from nitrogen-fixing trees to better storage systems to rooftop gardening. Conclusion? ‘If each of their individual innovations were scaled up to bring food to the tables of not one farmer but 100 million or more, as well as to the consumers who depend on them, it could change the entire global food system.’ Wow, that is some ‘if’. And there, depressingly, the report leaves it – no discussion of how such good ideas might actually be adopted, whose interests they serve or undermine, what political or social processes have led to their adoption or abandonment in the past. I get hugely frustrated with this kind of ‘if I ruled the world’ environmentalism – surely we have to go on to think of how such changes might actually take place, rather than be content with ‘hey, we found some organic gardens in Senegal that are more productive than their non-organic neighbour. Job done.’ Rant over (I’m obviously in a grumpy mood today) and back to the report. SoW recommends three ‘major shifts’. The most interesting is ‘go beyond seeds’, which argues that we must: ‘Look beyond the handful of crops that have absorbed most of agriculture’s attention and also beyond developing new seeds as the default solution for hunger and poverty. The long-standing focus on seeds is no surprise: they are elegant vessels for delivering new technology to a farm. Whether it is an American corn farmer looking for more drought tolerance or a bean farmer in the Kenyan highlands, buying a new type of seed is a relatively inexpensive and immediate way to try to boost a farm’s harvest and income. But this search for just the right seed has tended to erode crop diversity in both rich and poor nations. At the same time, building soils, growing crops other than grains, making better use of rainfed farms, and investing in other elements of the farm landscape have been profoundly neglected. Yet these hold vast promise for raising incomes and reducing poverty.’ The problem is that ‘few companies have figured out ways to profit from encouraging the rebuilding of soils or aquifers.’ This echoes a nice distinction made by my colleague Kate Raworth, between technologies based on products (seeds, fertilisers etc – easily marketed, and so picked up by the private sector) and those based on practices (water management, soil use etc – often more important, but much harder to package up, sell and make a profit on). The other two ‘major shifts’ are ‘Go beyond farms’ – which turns out to mean reducing waste and crop losses, improving infrastructure and adding value to crops, but stops short of leaving altogether – migration does not get a mention despite its importance as a rural livelihood strategy (perhaps a touch of peasant romanticism ruling out migration as an acceptable option?).  ‘Go beyond Africa’: which means improving food aid and helping small farmers cash in on carbon markets.]]>