New effort needed to feed the world

22 April 2010

The Soviet Union disintegrated, China implemented its one-child policy and India opened up to international markets. But first we had the Green Revolution.

Researchers at international agricultural research centres developed high-yielding crop varieties and new social institutions. Poor farmers gained the means and freedom to increase food production. Academics at top universities linked with researchers at the international centres. Postdoctoral fellows supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the "Rocky Docs", helped build the capacity of international agricultural research. Extension agents in developed countries routinely worked in developing countries.

Australia punched well above its weight in the fight against poverty and hunger. With funding by Australia's Contribution to International Agricultural Research, many agricultural scientists and agricultural economists conducted research in developing countries. With funding by AusAid, researchers from developing countries came to study at Australian universities. Many Australians lived and worked at the international centres. For several years, the chairman of the peak body, the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, was an Australian academic.

Crisis was averted and we relaxed. Governments stopped supporting the international centres, which became more like non-governmental organisations, not researchers. The World Bank speculated that sustainable development would create jobs, avoiding the hard work of agriculture. Schools and universities embraced soft sciences. People in developed countries became obese.

In Australia, departments of agriculture and primary industries shrivelled. The once mighty Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics became emaciated. Agriculture science and agricultural economics starved to death at one university after another: at LaTrobe, Melbourne, Adelaide, New England, Queensland and Western Australia. The first faculty of agriculture in Australia was born at the University of Sydney. This year it celebrates its 100th birthday. This may be its last. Its buildings are condemned, to be torn down, with no plans on the drawing board. One suggestion is that the faculty be composted to provide nourishment for the rest of the academy.

Like my generation, this generation may come to live in fear: fear of terrorists with nuclear weapons; fear that South Asia and Africa will overrun the world with hungry people. As the world's population increases by at least half, to perhaps 9.5 billion in 2050, the best agricultural land will be smothered by cities and soil fertility will continue to decline.

To feed 9.5 billion people, we must expand crop production in Africa and South America and increase yields on existing farm land. We have no idea how. We can only hope that agricultural researchers create another miracle.

Yet this time there is even more to fear. We are changing the climate. In developed countries, we are living beyond our means, borrowing uncounted trillions of dollars from the future.

Even if we had a coherent policy to mitigate greenhouse gases and reduce global warming, we probably couldn't afford it. Instead, our only choice is to adapt. In developing countries, poor people - the most vulnerable people - can't even afford to adapt.

My real fear, however, is the generation gap. The Green Revolution was fought by determined people with advanced knowledge and skills, people with PhDs.

You can't earn a PhD by reading in the library or browsing the internet. It requires a long and arduous apprenticeship, one few people undertake these days, and the few who do choose to work in industry or government. Academics of my generation have not trained their replacements.

More than a difference in ages, the generation gap is a looming gap in the generation of knowledge and skills.

Before agricultural researchers can discover how to feed the world, we must first train the researchers: the plant breeders, soil scientists, animal nutritionists and policy designers.

Before we can train researchers, we must train the academics who will replace my generation.

Before we can train academics, we must re-create the agriculture faculties. Before we can re-create these faculties we must reform the universities. This could take a long time. For many thoughtful people, the challenges of our time are summarised by the millennium development goals:

► Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.

►Achieve universal primary education.

► Promote equality of the sexes and empower women.

► Reduce child mortality.

► Improve maternal health.

► Combat HIV-AIDS, malaria and other diseases.

► Ensure environmental sustainability.

► Develop a global partnership for development.

More than one billion people live on less than $1.34 a day. Education is neglected because families are poor and the children must work to survive. Although extremely poor families are landless, most poor people are farmers and most farmers are women.

Better health for women and children requires better medical care, clean water and adequate nutrition. And somehow we must learn to live sustainably instead of borrowing from the future. The pity is that we must start again from the bottom of the list.

Australia's contribution to development is its research and research training. For this, Australia needs its universities.

Despite the name, universities are not universal and must choose between one of two visions: a "university of the mind" with arts and pure sciences; or a "university of the world" with agriculture, education, engineering, medicine and veterinary science. North American universities see one vision or the other, but not both. Australian universities have had double vision. To keep from going cross-eyed they covered one eye, the eye on the world.

Australia needs one top university with both eyes on the world.

A university of the world could be a separate campus within a multi-campus university, as with the University of California, or an entirely new university. It might be a virtual university, but but it would be better if it were real. Research is best done in collaboration and research training is an apprenticeship that requires close supervision.

An agriculture faculty could be populated by the few agricultural scientists and agricultural economists still surviving in our universities, but we may not be enough.

Researchers in the CSIRO and state departments of agriculture and primary industries could join our university of the world. Together we could bridge the generation gap and achieve the millennium development goals.

As a lad on the farm, I had plenty of time to daydream and my mother had plenty of advice. "Son, don't count your chickens before they hatch." She would be surprised to know that I am following her advice. I, like many others, teach and supervise students at universities in developing countries. If my generation of academics cannot train our replacements in Australia, perhaps we can train them in Asia and Africa.

This article was published in The Australian, 21 April 2010.

Contact: Associate Professor Greg Hertzler

Phone: 02 9351 5459

Email: 30262e0f5b0c373e411520310512064e333b124c621f0631690a20