I grew up in the United States, and my kids are growing up in the United States. Like most in our country, I have never had a single day in my life where I needed to worry about what I, or my children, would eat. Less than 5% of the population is undernourished in North America. I wish I had to worry about that. I wish, that for one day, every parent experienced the pain of not only their own hunger, but the hunger of their children. A day where we faced the very real possibility that our children would starve to death or be crippled by nutrient deficiencies so severe they could go blind. Just one day, and I think our entire world would become a different place. A better place.
I think it would become a place where technology in farming is welcomed with open arms. I think it would become a world where compassion and empathy abound toward others who face the pain of hungry children. I think it’s a world I would prefer.
Parents in the U.S. drive to Starbucks in their SUV’s and minivans and sip a latte while talking about how evil GMOs are and how farmers shouldn’t be using pesticides because those are evil too. Then leave to pick up Johnny from soccer and Susie from swim and grab a convenience meal at Whole Foods for $50. They call in Terminex to take care of a roach problem that developed because they had too many crumbs of leftover food on the floor. But darn those farmers and their pesticide use.
A continent away (where almost one quarter of the population is undernourished) there are mothers that wonder if their crops are going to fail this year, and if those crops fail, how will they keep their children in school, let alone feed them. Crops fail all the time. It’s part of farming. There is a lack of water, a lack of fertilizer, a lack of pest control that all work together to make plants wither. What if we could find a way to help farmers deal with each of those problems effectively? Wouldn’t we want to support that? Wouldn’t we want to empower those farmers to provide food and an education for their children?
Yesterday, I wormed an invitation out of my husband to attend a presentation given by Mark Edge. Mark works with a group called WEMA. It stands for Water Efficient Maize for Africa. He was on vacation in Maui and had agreed to give a short talk on what he does for a living. WEMA is a public/private partnership developing agriculture in Africa. This group works to educate growers in Africa in modern farming practices and to provide seeds that will be effective in the various climates within that continent. This might mean giving farmers basic advice in “organic” practices like green manure (cover crop) application on a field. It might involve hybrid seeds, and for some, it might mean the use of a genetically engineered seed.
Now, Mark might have my dream job. I’ve had this longstanding idea that it would be incredible to work somewhere with my husband where we could both use each of our areas of expertise (Fruits/Veggies and Corn/Soy) in a country with a developing agricultural system. In the U.S., if we need to know how to grow a crop, we ask our neighbors, check online, or call the county extension office. In many places in Africa, none of those options are available. Subsistence farming is the norm. How rewarding it would be to go to one of these countries, learn from them, and share what we’ve learned. Maybe one day we’ll get that chance, but for now it was fun to live vicariously through Mark Edge for a few hours.
Three things struck me about Mark’s presentation:
#1) Women play a huge role in African agriculture.
In the US, about 1/3 of our farmers are women. In Africa, almost all of the farming is done by the women. We talk a big game in the U.S. about empowering women, but what are we doing to empower these women in African countries? Are we supporting the development of technology that can help them spend less time in the field? Are we supporting products that can help them send their children to school or buy a washing machine? I’m horrified by American women that talk about empowering other women to succeed, and then denigrate biotechnology in the next breath. This is a tool that has the potential to help these women succeed.
#2) Monsanto Maui is intimately involved with Africa.
Maybe they could start their own blog called Africa Meets Maui. Africa, Iowa, Maui… they are all intimately connected when it comes to food production. Here on our little Valley Isle, a good chunk of Monsanto’s land is dedicated to developing this water efficient maize. It was one of the things that had me excited about the job Dave would be doing on Maui when we looked at moving here. The opportunity to work on corn lines that could impact others around the world in such a positive way was too good to pass up. For this project, Monsanto has completely donated two traits to WEMA: drought tolerant and pest tolerant corn.
#3) Farmers in Africa are eager to adopt new technology when they see that their neighbors are having great success with a practice.
This made me laugh because one of the first lessons I learned when joining my husband’s farming family was NEVER say yes to dad when he suggested an afternoon drive. His ‘drives’ involved going about 2 miles an hour past the neighbor’s fields checking out how everyone’s seed choices were faring that year. It meant hours of “farming” from the front seat of a pick-up truck. Apparently, it’s no different in Africa, perhaps without the truck.
In Burkina Faso, pest resistant cotton was introduced about 10 years ago. As farmers saw the benefits of these seeds in a neighbor’s field, they began trying it on their own land. Currently, 90% of the cotton grown in Burkina Faso is Bollgard II which needs little to no insecticide application. In the past, if a pest attacked a farmer’s field, there was nothing to be done. They didn’t have the equipment or access to crop protection products, which often resulted in a total crop loss. With an insect resistant cotton plant, they don’t need to worry about an infestation. In the few years since the adoption of these crops, the farmers have seen a 59% increase in profits. Can you imagine how a 59% increase in your salary would change your life? For these people it’s not the difference between a rusted out surf wagon and a BMW, but the difference between eating or going hungry. The difference between their children getting an education, or needing to work.
Which brings me back to the idea that everyone in the U.S. needs to go hungry for a day, or maybe three. If every parent here experienced the pain of not only their own hunger, but the agony of knowing their children are not eating, maybe the privileged of the first world would not be so quick to condemn a tool that can mean the difference between hunger and adequate calories for others.
Note: Before the cries of “shill” start, no, I was not paid to write this. I’ve never been paid for this blog, and I don’t expect to be paid in the future.
Really, I’m just this passionate about agriculture.