The search for more food

November 27, 1991

Doing Well by Doing Good
By Derek Tribe
Reviewed by Craig Cormick

Last month, October 16, was World Food Day — and on that day almost one billion people in the world went hungry, and more than 40,000 died from hunger-related diseases.

For major agricultural producer countries, such as Australia, which are facing problems associated with excess food production on global markets, it can be easy to forget that much of the world still suffers from shortages of food.

For such nations, with little means of importing the excess foods of the developed world, the only hope is to increase their own production of food.

But to do this they need the assistance of developed countries — in particular their expertise in agricultural research and improved production techniques.

It is a paradox that while the developed countries spend millions of dollars treating diseases and health problems associated with over-eating, only a fraction of this is spent on research to increase food production in developing countries.

The executive director of the Australian Crawford Fund for International Agricultural Research, Professor Derek Tribe, argues that to continue feeding the world we need to commit more resources to agricultural research.

Speaking after the launch of the book, Professor Tribe said, "The real problem is to develop systems which do produce more food income but don't do more harm to the environment".

Professor Tribe argues that Australia has great expertise in agricultural research, and it would be in our own best interests to offer this expertise to developing countries.

Some groups, such as the National Farmers Federation, have questioned the export of Australian agricultural technology, saying that it could ultimately undercut rural exports.

However, Professor Tribe said that it was important to understand the link between agricultural development and economic development in poorer countries.

He said that UN Food and Agricultural Organisation surveys over the past 20 years had shown that those countries that had increased their food production had subsequently increased economic growth and then increased their importing of food.

"That has enormous implications for Australia", he said.

In Doing Well by Doing Good, Professor Tribe outlines four main benefits for both Australia and developing countries from exporting

  • increased economic growth in developing countries;

  • increased income for Australian and overseas farmers;

  • increased opportunities for more sustainable farming systems;

  • helping the world's hungry to feed themselves.

Although global food production over the past few decades has largely kept pace with increasing population, many bodies, such as the World Bank, have expressed concern that production now seems to have levelled out.

However, steady population growth, coupled with increasing environmental degradation, will mean severe food shortages in many parts of the world.

We have already witnessed this in sub-Saharan Africa, and international bodies have expressed a fear that Asia may soon not be able to feed itself.

The only solution is increased crop yields, and this can be achieved only through increased agricultural research. Biotechnology in particular is going to have significant impact on agricultural production in the future, but it will be subject to varying regulation throughout the world, and its development will be restricted almost exclusively to the wealthy, developed countries, due to the large costs and long lead times to develop new plant varieties.

The main source of agricultural research, including biotechnology, for developing countries is through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Sponsored by UN agencies, the World Bank and individual countries, CGIAR has pioneered many new strains of staple crops in many areas of the world, enabling many developing countries to feed themselves.

Among its more notable successes is the doubling of rice production in Asia over the past 25 years.

Yet to continue to increase global crop yields, more resources must be put into agricultural research. Professor Tribe has argued that Australia should increase the amount of money spent on international agricultural research.

The Australian International Development Assistance Bureau spends only about 1.7% of its budget on agricultural research — with about one-third of this going to CGIAR.

However, Australia is better represented in terms of scientific input, Australian scientists representing over 4% of CGIAR staff.

Professor Tribe said, "Given the continuing decline in the budget for international agricultural research, despite its benefits, it is time for a new approach to development assistance in this area."

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