Innovation in agriculture is the key to progress, yet new ideas need to be carefully examined. This is particularly true for âif onlyâ crops, where wondrous benefits could be realised, so we are told, if only more were produced for eager markets. It rarely turns out to be so simple.
From the 1960s onwards the neem tree received a lot of attention from pest scientists who promoted the pesticide properties of naturally occurring compounds. Neemâs properties had been known across India for centuries, but were a source of wonderment to Western scientists, intrigued by the possibilities of natural alternatives to the highly toxic pesticides damned in Rachel Carsonâs Silent Spring.
âIf onlyâ crops often promise increased incomes for farmers, with other benefits such as reduced pest management costs and health risks in the case of neem. Neem was promoted widely in West Africa as part of IPM (integrated pest management), though the most notable success I am aware of was an agroforestry scheme in Niger, where neem was used as windbreaks for annual crops. Neem was also promoted widely as a botanical insecticide in Central America in the 1990s, but the most lasting result of plantings seems to be attractiveÂ trees in public parks.
I did hear of a commercial scheme to harvest neem oil from neem plantations in Indonesia, driven by a reported US market price of US$50 per litre. But, like many other wonder crops, the hype didnât match the reality. Neem products are sold widely in India, often with heavy government subsidies, but wider, international trade has yet to happen.
Promoting any new plant-based product for profit requires a complex series of coordinated steps, from getting farmers to grow enough plants to guarantee a steady supply of raw material, to having processing facilities that can produce the quality product needed by traders that are ready and willing to pay a fair price.
Add to this: trading regulations, alternative suppliers and fluctuating demand, and the barriers to success become daunting. The promotion of neem products has been a qualified success where farmers were already familiar with the plant. Creating enterprises based on a first-time crop is much more challenging, as I learnt last week in Rwanda. Patchouli is a small herbaceous plant whose leaves produce a pungent oil used in perfumery. Patchouli oil is also used in making incense and anyone who has visited India or passed byÂ Hindu temples elsewhere is likely to have smelled its particularly intense and persistent aroma.
About 10 years ago an entrepreneur from Haiti, Pierre LĂ©ger, visited Rwanda and convinced the government to support a scheme to plant patchouli, a previously unknown crop. This was the wonder plant, according to the spiel, that would transform the lives of many poor farmers in Rwanda. Patchouli is well-suited to conditions in Rwanda, where aid agencies and the government were keen to support new enterprises, particularly those that promised high financial rewards. Add to this a global patchouli oil shortage and skyrocketing price at the time, and itâs easy to understand why a proposal to establish a patchouli industry in Rwanda received a sympathetic welcome. Rwanda already grew geraniums for essential oils, so this type of business was already familiar to some farmers.
Today, however, patchouli still languishes as an âif onlyâ crop for Rwanda: if only more farmers had planted it; if only distilling facilities had been successfully established; if only investment from the government had been realised; and if only the original promoter had stayed the course necessary to establish a patchouli oil business. There are wonder crops that have succeeded, but usually because they were already grown by farmers and there was a semblance of a local industry that could be expanded when market conditions became favourable. It also helps to have committed private investors.
Quinoa is not an overnight success for Bolivia or Peru. Many people have worked for years to promote its nutritional benefits, efforts that are now being rewarded by sustained exports to North America and Europe. The quinoa was also supported for years at the exporting end in the Andes by researchers and entrepreneurs in Bolivia.
The overall picture of wonder crops is, however, of patchy success. Leucaena, a woody legume, was widely promoted by projects as a reliable solution to fodder shortages, yet it was plagued by a psyllid (a sucking insect) that followed the expansion of planting aroundthe world. Goji berries, a super-food grown mainly in north-west China, is a wonder crop that continues to do well. But success also encourages competitors, with increased quinoa and goji production in the US, for example.
The main lesson from the fates of many crops promoted as âthe next big thingâ for development is to exercise caution. It is tricky linking production to markets and finding reliable investors who will keep working on processing and marketing after donor dollars have disappeared. A committed community of researchers, processors, exporters, producers and policy-makers is essential. There is undoubtedly a place for wonder crops in creating new enterprises, but only if the assumptions and claims of the promoters are thoroughly scrutinised before taking the plunge.
Related blog stories
The quinoa boom in Bolivia has been years in the making: Quinoa, lost and found
Persistence helped to establish cardamom in Guatemala, as explained in A troubled crop.
A wonder crop can also be an insect, as we read in Kiss of death in the cactus garden
A lot of time and effort goes into development projects, from writing proposals and getting funds through to building partnerships, doing the work and finally evaluating it to show that youâve made a difference. Sometimes a simpler, direct approach is more effective, as my experiences with bamboo in Ethiopia have suggested.
I first learnt about the vast swathes of bamboo in Ethiopia twenty years ago. I was engaged in a pilot project to assess a largely untapped resource comprising huge natural stands and a patchwork of smaller plots dotted around peoplesâ homes. Existing uses of bamboo included conversion into charcoal, building fences and making small household items, such as baskets. The resource assessment was the first step in suggesting profitable enterprises on a much larger scale.
Each year the million hectares of Ethiopian bamboo produce new culms, as the woody, fast-maturing stems are known. There has been no shortage of ideas on what to do with this rapidly regenerating biomass. The most ambitious suggestion has been to burn bamboo and generate electricity. More modest proposals, though still requiring major investment, have included fashioning the bamboo into high quality flooring and decking for export to the North.
When I returned to Ethiopia ten years ago for a new bamboo project, I found little evidence of new enterprises or large scale industrial uses. The most striking discovery, though one that at first seemed commonplace, was the continuing operation of a workshop where people were trained to make handicrafts from bamboo. Some of the oldest ideas had been the most enduring.
During the second visit I went to talk with a small group of shopkeepers who sold bamboo furniture to the better-off denizens of Addis Ababa. These were, as far as I could see, the same shops that had been present when I made my first visit in 1997. The shops were well-stocked with chairs, beds, tables and all the other furniture that middle class families were keen to have in their homes.
The furniture sellers and the handicraft makers were all beneficiaries of a much earlier initiative, some time back in the 1980s, when Ethiopia was run by the Derg, a revolutionary committee drawn from the army and police. The Derg admired the socialist ideals of China and one of the outcomes was a visit by Chinese technicians, who introduced Ethiopian artisans to new designs for bamboo arts and crafts. The Chinese supported the establishment of a workshop in a government-supported, small enterprises institute, where people were still being trained thirty or so years later.
In 1997, the bamboo furniture makers and the craftsmen seemed unremarkable to me because at the time I thought that chairs and baskets would never generate huge amounts of income. But as roads improve, cities expand, and the Ethiopian middle class comes of age, there is now solid demand for sensible furniture. Bamboo industries benefit farm communities with small plots, who send regular truck loads to the bustling workshops of Addis Ababa.
What of the other more ambitious schemes for bamboo? A quick search of the web for current bamboo activity in Ethiopia shows USAID giving a grant of $1.75 million in 2014 to âdevelop processes to make industrial and quality bambooâ. This grant will have a detailed proposal, plan of action and agreed outcomes, all requiring regular monitoring, reporting and so on. In other words, a hefty administrative overhead will eat into the available finds.
But this recent public/private enterprise may also mean that bamboo enterprises are finally going to succeed on a big scale â though thereâs no guarantee that this will happen. Meanwhile the impact of a small gesture by China forty or more years ago to show solidarity with Ethiopia continues to reap benefits, an unexpected outcome of the otherwise tragic and violent period of Derg rule. Sometimes the most effective interventions are also the simplest.
Children in the UK know more about the developing world than ever before. Some of what they hear is exceptional, with brutal conflicts and spectacular natural disasters grabbing headlines. Fortunately, schools try to give a more complete view of life in poor countries, even if learning about major social problemsâ poverty, malnutrition for example âinevitably paints a rather bleak picture.
When I was asked recently to talk to primary school pupils, I decided to focus on a tropical food crop. I chose cocoa. Everyone likes chocolate, especially children. My aim was to explain how the plant was grown and beans were produced and sold, discussing the people involved at different stages in an attempt to explain why agriculture is so important.
In a small town 100 miles north of London, I reckoned few if any in my class of ten year-olds would know the cocoa plant. But I checked before starting the two-hour session, just in case. Sure enough, one girl had seen a cocoa tree in a greenhouse in a botanic garden. We began by making a long list of things that contained cocoa, including cocoa butter. We then discussed countries where cocoa was grown, using maps I provided.
The children quickly realised that cocoa grows close to the equator, because, as one girl said, âthatâs where you get tropical rain forests â and they store lots of rainâ. We went through the list of cocoa-producing countries. No one had heard of Guatemala, but several boys knew about Togo, because of another more famous export: professional footballers.
I planned an illustrated journey, going in stages from planting seed to producing cocoa beans, first showing large pictures on a screen before getting the children to look more carefully at photo-sheets. We began with photos of different cocoa gardens, one well-tended, another in decline and one with dead and dying trees. Next, we did seed to pod and then pod to bean. The children asked good questions about planting, flowering, pod production and shading of young cocoa plants with bananas and other plants.
I brought out three cocoa pods and said we were going to look inside. Eyes widened as the children carefully cut open the pods, exposing a perfect sequence from unripe to ripe and over-ripe pod (this was more luck than judgement). Handling the pods sparked the childrenâs curiosity, and they asked more questions: how do you know when the pods are ripe? They change colour. How long can you keep a pod after youâve removed it from the tree? About a week.
The children tasted the flesh surrounding the beans in the ripe pod, pleasantly surprised at its fruity flavour. A few nibbled at the beans, equally surprised to discover these did not taste of chocolate. We moved on to the next sequence of photos: from pod to bean, then bean to truck. The children learnt about fermentation and drying, the challenges of selling and buying beans, and moving 63 kg bags from DR Congo to the port of Mombasa in Kenya for export, a journey that takes about two to three days by truck.
The children also cut open some dried beans. They graded them, as a buyer would do, then cut them open to check the quality, using a colour chart â as a chocolate maker would do. In two hours weâd gone from growing cocoa to exporting beans. Along the way the children had seen farmers in action, where they lived, the clothes they wore, and learnt about the importance of cocoa as a major source of income to nearly 30,000 farmers in DR Congo.
Todayâs children are tomorrowâs leaders, and in a world where people are far removed from the source of their food, it is vital that we help people in the North understand the importance of agriculture to people in the South, and the need to help farmers succeed. Better yet, while stimulating young minds, to allow children to taste the real flavours of the South.
My thanks to Marianne Quinsee and Toni BoaÂ of Little Bowden Primary School, Market Harborough, for enthusiastically supporting the visit, and to Andrew Daymond of the International Cocoa Collection at the University of Reading for providing the pods and beans.
Everyone wants to see lots of farmers benefitting from agricultural innovations, managing risks more effectively and creating new pathways out of poverty. Success in pilot projects is always encouraging but it is no guarantee that this will translate into bigger gains for the masses.
I recently witnessed a golden opportunity in Rwanda to spread the word about iron beans, one of several biofortified crops developed under the umbrella of Harvest Plus, a major donor-funded programme on nutrition which works closely with national governments around the world. A quartet of development practitioners working with HarvestPlusÂ recently won the World Food Prize.
Rwanda is famous for its ability to mobilize lots of people. They have a special word: Umuganda, a âcoming together in common purpose to achieve an outcomeâ. To some thereâs a strong element of âcome or elseâ, yet my experience of events in Gakenke district suggested clear enthusiasm and interest in attending.
The first event was a mass planting of âiron beansâ close to the main road, a prominent place that was both easy to reach and easy to see. The Governor of the North Province was there, as was a government minister, appointed to strengthen ties from national to local level. It was clearly a significant occasion and I watched in awe as over 100 people placed seed in prepared furrows, adding a dollop of fertilizer. It was a powerful way to promote a nutrient-rich variety of a key staple crop.
Everyone then moved a short distance to a much larger community meeting. New people arrived, swelling numbers to around 1500. As the audience settled on a gentle slope, a singer moved sinuously with microphone in hand, keeping them amused as the assembled dignitaries took their seats in a tented enclosure facing the crowd. My heart sank a little as I waited for long speeches. Managing a large meeting requires skill and active participation keeps people engaged. If they get bored they can leave, even in Rwanda.
I was unsure about the purpose of the community meeting. Was this an extension of the bean planting Umuganda? I could see a display of bean varieties at the end of the tent, but as the singer departed we turned to other things. A short line of people formed on the flat ground between the tent and the slope. It was a mixed group with a common purpose, but each seeking a different outcome. They had all come to petition the authorities about a problem or wrong-doing.
My friend Jean Claude Izamuhaye explained what was going on. âThis woman is disabled, and so is her husband. She wants help with health insurance.â Another lady had problems paying school fees for three daughters. There was a land dispute that a man wanted resolving. Each case was dealt with courteously. A moderator relayed questions to the Governor, Minister and local officials present. A village leader commented on a case.
The large crowd also responded, and not always favourably. One petitioner was deemed to have a frivolous case and was pelted with clumps of grass by neighbours as she retook her seat. The petitions lasted for over an hour. I waited for someone to say something about the beans and point to the display, but nothing happened. When the meeting ended lots of people crowded around the bags of beans, eager to learn about the different varieties on show.
At this point I was mentally urging someone to stand on a seat and give a short message about the beans, encouraging farmers to talk to knowledgeable staff from extension, dressed in distinctive green T shirts, who had been present throughout the meeting as silent observers. Now was the time, I thought, to form small groups and talk about the iron beans or even some other hot topic â the meeting took place soon after maize lethal necrosis disease was found in Rwanda. The extension workers all knew how serious this was.
The farmers milled around, the extension workers talked amongst themselves, and gradually people drifted off, back to their homes and offices. Someone had thought it was a good idea to have an attractive display of bean seeds, in full view of 1500 people, mostly farmers, but that was it. A golden opportunity to âscale-upâ an innovation was only partially seized.
Piggybacking on a community meeting held to resolve social issues needs to be done sensitively, so as not to disrupt the main reason why people came. But with a little thought and effort â getting the agreement of the meeting organisers to talk briefly about beans to everyone assembled, then tagging on a short Q&A session at the end â so much more could have been achieved.
Read more about the World Food Prize 2016
With increasing urbanisation, fewer people have the chance to learn about agriculture. OurÂ blogs tell stories that illustrate how it works, particularly through the experiences of farmers around the world. Â But there are other ways in which the busy city-dweller can learn about crops and livestock.
Iâm particularly interested in how young people learn about where their food comes from and the importance of agriculture to society. Iâve just been to the Museo del Oro Precolombino (Museum of Precolombian Gold) in San JosĂ©, Costa Rica, a delightful place that many schoolchildren are taken to. It was an unexpected pleasure to see so much about agriculture and how early societies and communities began to move from harvesting natureâs bounty to growing their own crops.
The displays were in Spanish and English, clearly presented, not too long yet still informative. I read that from 2000 â 500 B.C. âagriculture encouraged the establishment of permanent villages and the development of âŠ ceramicsâ. The horse did indeed come before the cart. Early crops included beans, yam and maize, still prominent in todayâs diet. Coyol palm, whose sap is turned into an alcoholic drink, and pejibaye, a palm with edible, starchy fruits, were also shown and available in the streets outside the museum.
The museum displayed many exquisite gold objects, created to signify wealth, status and accompany their owners after death. There were fine ceramics on show, some used for ceremonial purposes, and a series of grinding stones (metates in Spanish) for making meal and flour out of grain. A photo-montage, as one exited the museum, showed indigenous people using techniques known from prehistoric time, including a Bribri woman grinding maize with a large stone. SuchÂ technologies are still in use today
Few museums in big cities pay much attention to agriculture, which is a great pity. Sophisticated systems for irrigation and storing crops were created a long time ago with skill and ingenuity, and deserve as much attention as visually appealing collections of artefacts, coins and costumes. At the Museo del Oro Precolombino you get to see both high art and quotidian endeavour. Without agricultureÂ sustainingÂ people and creating newÂ wealth,Â there would beÂ no fancy gold objects in the museumÂ .
As Henry Hobhouse wrote in Seeds of Change, crops such as sugar cane, tobacco, tea, potato and cinchona have played a crucial part in shaping world history. The wealth of Great Britain is derived as much from trading in crops, as extracting minerals, for example. Yet you will be hard pressed to find much mention of agriculture in some of the great museums of major cities.
An irrigation channel is unlikely to excite a schoolchild, but Iâm sure they would be fascinated by an amazing collection of miniature agricultural machinery I recently saw in the University of Padova in Italy. Lovingly worked in wood and metal, I marvelled at the fine detail of hand carts, grape presses and other examples of equipment used by farmers in Italy. There were five cases containing around 150 models, sadly languishing in a corridor and out of sight to the general public. We could all do more to showcase the industry, creativeness and intrigue of agriculture, not just in museums but in other public displays that everyone has the opportunity to see.
I found such an example in a small village in Cyprus, where the guide explained that he and a few others had wanted to celebrate the land and the dependency of local communities on agriculture. There were pitchforks, saws, axes, shovels and animal traps, as well as moulds for making bread. A timely and telling reminder that the things we depend on most for our survival and development come from agriculture, and that we should celebrate this more.
Museums dedicated to the past are a great way to showcase the evolution of agriculture and the shaping of societies. However, agriculture cannot really be fully understood without knowing more about the farmers of today. For example, the Access Agriculture video library offers everyone, including farmers or students, the opportunity to learn about agriculture and the people practicing this noble profession.