"Water is the most important issue for the medium term"
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Global Food Security // "Water is the most important issue for the medium term"

An interview with Joachim von Braun, member of the International Steering Committee

In an interview with the German weekly, DIE ZEIT, the internationally respected food and resources expert Joachim von Braun has called for an expansion of agricultural productivity as a response to the worldwide shortages of agricultural land and water. Von Braun believes that, in today's age of population growth and climate change, solutions to global hunger can be found in the use of cutting-edge technologies, and in the innovative powers of smallholder farmers.

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Professor Joachim von Braun

is a member of the international steering committee that is preparing the Bonn2011 Nexus Conference. After heading the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) from 2002 to 2009, in 2010 the well-known agricultural economist became Director of the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn.

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DIE ZEIT:

Agriculture has to expand if we are to solve the problem of global hunger. But at the same time it also needs to become more climate friendly. How can we achieve this?

Joachim von Braun:

First of all, agriculture itself produces greenhouse gases; secondly, climate change will exacerbate hunger and poverty. Even without climate change, we expect there to be 113 million undernourished children in the world by 2050. If we factor in the climate change scenarios, that figure rises to more than 140 million. Just preventing that additional hunger will cost seven billion dollars.

ZEIT: More money! That's easier said than done. But what should it actually be used for?

Von Braun: In the medium term, water is the most important thing. The greatest inequality in the world is to be found in the distribution of water reserves. Africa, for instance, has to build thousands of small dams in order to collect water. If you look at the amount of water stored per head of population, America and Europe exceed Africa a hundredfold.

ZEIT: And how can we reduce emissions from agriculture?

Von Braun: The biggest influence on the amount of greenhouse gases produced comes from how we manage the soil. The earth's skin has cancer. Many soils are being badly used and overexploited, becoming saline or losing their nutrients. Healing that skin cancer must be viewed as a task for the whole world — Germany included. This is something the German Government's new Bio-economy Council is looking into.

ZEIT: The world's cattle herds pose another threat to the climate, as they release huge amounts of the greenhouse gas methane.

Von Braun: We have to make some big changes to how we keep ruminant livestock, even in developing countries. It may sound paradoxical, but the most climate-friendly cows are those that produce the most milk. Litre for litre they are responsible for much less methane. There are also ways to save emissions in the feed and grazing systems, and there's work to be done in terms of breeding research. It's not really necessary for the intestines of a 21st century cow to contain that many methane-producing microbes.

ZEIT: That leaves global rice cultivation as the third major factor causing climate change. Paddy fields also release methane.

Von Braun: There are a number of good ideas for improving rice cultivation, such as avoiding water logging and allowing fewer parts of the rice plants to rot, which reduces the amount of methane produced.

ZEIT: Who should pay for all this?

Von Braun: It should be financed through the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund.

ZEIT: Is it enough just to give money? Farmers everywhere are perceived as deeply traditional; some people refer to them as being proverbially stubborn.

Von Braun: Farmers are some of the most underestimated innovators in the world. Recently I was in Gujarat, a part of India where there are yield increases of ten per cent a year, the highest rate in the world. I sat beneath a tree talking to some young smallholders. What do they do better than others? They make the best use of their water and they invest in the best seed. Where did they learn this? From the television. The men travel up to 300 km on their mopeds to make sure they get the best seed. I could tell you lots of stories like that, for instance about the women of Africa, who I think are among the most successful innovators of all.

ZEIT: Do we have the right tools?

Von Braun: Clearly, there's a lot of work for the scientists to do, such as breeding plant varieties, and applying biotechnology and genetic engineering. The use of geographical information systems will also become very important. Climate change might cause a plant to fail in one location where it's been productive for a long time, but then it can be introduced in another area instead. At the same time, irrigation technology has not yet been developed and applied to its full potential.

ZEIT: All of this won't be much help to small farmers.

Von Braun: In future, a farmer who cultivates a plot of ten square metres should benefit from just the same things that are already helping large-scale farmers. This includes using satellite information to determine when and where to sow seed, or in which areas of their enormous fields they need to apply fertiliser, and how much.

ZEIT: But presumably the small farmer will not be driving a satellite-guided high-tech tractor.

Von Braun: No, but he should be able to use a regional database to obtain information on soil quality, and receive timely warnings whenever there's a high probability of an El-Niño year. Then, for example, instead of planting maize as planned he can change to the more drought-resistant millet, and perhaps can even fit in a fast-growing crop such as beans in the meantime. The world's 400 million small farmers are the backbone of global food production.

ZEIT: But the smaller these systems are in scale and the more precise they are, the more expensive they are too.

Von Braun: When it comes to advances in information technology, I don't believe the cost is the problem. The important point is that small farmers who work well together and who are well informed can raise their productivity just as quickly as the larger agro-enterprises can. We carried out a comparison between East Asia, where the average farm size is half a hectare — just a large garden — and Latin America, where farms average 60 hectares. Over the past 15 years, both of these experienced annual increases in productivity of 2.7 %.

ZEIT: There's something you mentioned earlier, almost in passing, that gets many Germans hot under the collar: green genetic engineering. Can we really succeed without it?

Von Braun: Given the scarcity of land and water, genetic engineering will be necessary if we're to raise the productivity of cultivated areas and feed the additional two billion members of the world's population. It will also help us to satisfy the growing demand for quality and heed the calls for a reduction in the use of chemicals on our fields.

ZEIT: Many people disagree with the global hunger argument. Are there any other good things to be said for genetic engineering?

Von Braun: Silent hunger, leading for instance to iron, zinc and vitamin A deficiencies, has increased dramatically. To achieve even a moderately healthy diet, the staple foods eaten by the poor need to contain more valuable nutrients — which is where biotechnology and genetic engineering provide the best answers. The scarcity of resources, climate change and the silent hunger of the poor are forcing us to use these technologies.

ZEIT: Would more affluent consumers also benefit?

Von Braun: Several valuable varieties of fruit and vegetable involve a lot of pesticide use under current production methods. I avoid aubergines, for example, which are often heavily treated, especially when they're grown in developing countries. But it isn't just people like me who have the right to eat healthy, uncontaminated staple foods; poor people do too.

ZEIT: But the industry is only concerned with rich, western consumers.

Von Braun: That has changed, at least since the most recent global food crisis. The seed breeders, such as Monsanto and BASF, are rethinking their approach, as are the processing companies like Unilever and Nestlé. Rather than just being a question of doing good deeds once in a while, it is now important for ethical trading to be an integral part of a company's strategy.

ZEIT: Climate change, population growth, space given over to bio-energy plantations, rising expectations in Asia: these four factors are provoking the next food crisis. Yet today, for the first time ever, there are already more than a billion people going hungry.

Von Braun: The growing number of people who have too little bread or rice to eat has been the most worrying consequence of the recent crisis, but people don't live by bread alone. Silent hunger is destroying a generation, and that will add another billion.

ZEIT: So, is it not possible to compensate quickly for the consequences of a relatively short-lived crisis?

Von Braun: Children suffering a shortage of food for a period of two or three months will experience health effects for the rest of their lives. Our studies have shown that the labour productivity of formerly undernourished children 30 years on is half what it should be. Nutrition in the early years of childhood must be given much higher priority.

ZEIT: What do we need to do?

Von Braun: First of all, our agriculture needs to be much more productive, worldwide. The growth rate varies between 1.5 and 2 %. The world population is growing at around 1.2 % per year. This means that, if people are to eat more, and more healthily, the supply will be inadequate.

ZEIT: And secondly?

Von Braun: It's not just a matter of the productivity of the fields and the size of harvests; it's also about the market and its mechanisms. As a result of the food crisis, many countries began storing food reserves. Grain reserves were especially low at the time the crisis hit. The oil crisis and the misplaced subsidies for biofuels have caused those reserves to shrink still further. Now it would just takes a drought in Australia, for instance, to throw the fragile system out of balance and drive prices to all-time highs.

ZEIT: Did politicians react too late to this acute crisis?

Von Braun: The initial responses were often wrong, with borders being closed and exports stopped. That fuelled speculation and drove prices even higher.

ZEIT: Instead of food security as a political objective, the strategy of food self-sufficiency has emerged, with each country making its own arrangements to ensure there's enough to eat.

Von Braun: Of course, that runs counter to all economic logic, although it's quite understandable during times of crisis. The British Government recently commissioned a report on the food security of the UK. That country is able to produce 50 % of the food it needs for itself; the rest it has to import. Presumably it has enough pounds sterling in the bank to pay for the food imports it needs. Likewise, it should be relatively easy to buy food supplies for 80 million Germans on the global markets. But for China or India, such a low self-sufficiency quota would become an issue of national security.

ZEIT: So it's in their own interests for them to stockpile food?

Von Braun: Not at all. The holding of reserves has to be reconsidered, everywhere in the world. Otherwise countries like China and India, or some of the African states with low purchasing power, will have to pursue a very expensive policy of storage while at the same time raising their production at whatever price, including damaging the environment. In a world where food is scarce, there should be more trade, not less. This will allow production to take place in areas where it makes most sense, both economically and ecologically.

ZEIT: And how can that be reconciled with national interests?

Von Braun: There was some good news when, just a few weeks ago, the Asian economic union agreed to a collective policy on grain storage. We need this kind of arrangement — collective virtual grain stores — on a global scale. Agreements are needed between the most important grain-trading countries. To think in terms of national or regional self-sufficiency is like people all wanting to retreat to their own allotments — much as I actually like allotments.

ZEIT: Some states, such as China and Saudi Arabia, are trying to secure fertile agricultural land for themselves around the world. You've called this strategy land grabbing.

Von Braun: We should differentiate carefully when judging this. For example, it is more sustainable for Saudi Arabia to invest in Ukraine to secure wheat harvests for itself than if it uses fossil water reserves from beneath the desert to grow wheat in the desert. However, more problematic cases are those where valuable land and water resources are being sold off without regard for the needs of small farmers — which is happening more and more frequently.

ZEIT: How can we control that?

Von Braun: I've proposed using a code of conduct. There should be no land grabbing without regard for local farmers, cultivation should follow sustainable principles, traditional land rights should be protected, and there should be no exports from countries where famine exists. Moreover, the local people must have a share in the profits.

ZEIT: It's been said about you that you'd rather be sitting under a tree with a group of small farmers than in air-conditioned conference rooms among policymakers.

Von Braun: Yes. Absolutely. As the director of IFPRI, you have to listen closely to the people you're working for: the world's poorest people. That doesn't mean as part of a fleeting courtesy call; it can often take several hours. And the next day you're sitting opposite the head of state discussing structural and strategic aspects of agricultural policy. Politicians often seem impressed by the fact I speak to the people. In contrast, the farmers are usually less impressed that I'm familiar with their leaders.

ZEIT: Now you are returning to Germany…

Von Braun: …as director of the Centre for Development Research, and a professor in Bonn. I can start teaching PHD students again…

ZEIT: …and you'll be sitting under trees in India or Africa again more often?

Von Braun: Without a doubt.

Published by the German weekly {http://www.zeit.de/2010/02/N-Interview-von-Braun|DIE ZEIT, 7 January 2010, No. 02}

Joachim von Braun spoke to Andreas Senkter.

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