Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Guatemala #2: Feeding the World for the Next 50 Years

1024 words, reading time 4.5 minutes

My new friend, Bernabe, a Guatemala farmer who is a true scientist of applied agriculture.

How will farm families on small acreage in Guatemala thrive in the future?  One answer is certainly “Applied Research.”

          Fifty years ago it seemed likely the world’s population would outstrip its food supply.  Neo-Malthusian Paul Erlich’s book, The Population Bomb, predicted the worst and was widely believed. Yet world population has doubled and famine is rare today compared to former days.

One reason for this is birth control and fallen fertility.  The other is widespread adoption of what research discovered.  We all know about the Green Revolution and probably know that Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Prize because the research he led was the basis of that revolution.

What I did not appreciate is that research of this kind has continued unabated and expanded significantly into every major crop and, equally important, into the human behavior and institutions that cause research to be adopted, with particular attention to small farms. Borlaug’s old home, The International Center for the Improvement of Corn and Wheat in Mexico, is still a major contributor.  Semilla Neuva has consultant with and received support from the center. 

There are now 17 research centers around the world working together to pull off a second Green Revolution, coordinated through an umbrella group with the acronym CIMMYT (Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research).  That it has 17 members tells you how many crops and approaches are being driven by research.

One of the 17 is The International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Nairobi.  It covers several crops and includes a focus on small farmers.  World-wide, over $1 billion will be spent this year on research directed at small farmers.

One crop the Nairobi center supports is pigeonpeas, with an annual research budget of $100 million.   Last month it brought SN’s Curt Bowen and Kristin Lacy on a multi-week tour of pigeonpea research and production in Malawi, Kenya and Tanzania.

          Pigeonpeas and a $l00,000,000 research budget.  Who knew?
One of 21 test plots for corn planted in April at the SN research and training center.

          Curt brought back pigeonpea seeds from both Africa and India to plant in SN’s new research and training center.  A few words about the center:  It was purchased by Boise’s Steve Hodges in January, consists of about eight acres, put its first test plots into the ground in April and today looks like exactly what it is:  a place where dozens of separate plantings will reveal what works best and what does not.

          The best source of information about what works would be the report of 10,000 farmers, Borlaug’s center would tell us, but the next best is testing in places like this., the same way Borlaug began.
These are pigeonpeas, call gondul in Guatemala.  There is a native version which has been here for years but it is less productive that those isolated by research.  Unlike this stand, gandul is being planted between rows of corn and uses the fertilizer already applied to corn and sesame, so 90 percent of the cost of pigeonpeas is in harvest. 

          For corn, SN has devised seven tests or treatments, each of which it will repeat three times.  The variables are seed varieties, application of chemical fertilizer or use of organic fertilizer, and how the ground is treated after harvest: “no till,” i.e. not plowing the ground after harvest (see separate section on “no till” in Mexico below), or use of a shallow plow called a romplaga. 
Two migrant works from America...

          Julia and I, SN’s new development director, Katie Miller, Curt and Kristin are here to plant trees, specifically a fast-growth tree called “madre de cacao” because its branches and protection from wind have been effective with cacao for a long time.   We plant every seventh row in a field that has been prepared for this purpose, with corn, sesame and pigeonpeas going in the other six.
Girls like to whack things too.  Here Julia is trimming foliage with a machete given her by Trinidad Recinos, SN's field operations director.  This will create an opening for the newly planted trees. 

A row of tree sections thrust into wet rows.  They are planted 18 inches apart and will make a good windbreak and source of shade.  The planter in this picture is loafing, practicing his golf swing.
It has been raining so abundantly that, for the most part, all we have to do is thrust a limb of the tree--which is about a foot long and can be two inches thick--four-six inches into the muddy ground 18 inches apart.  It will develop roots and grow so quickly as to provide shade next year.  After we’re finished it doesn’t look like much but we expect to enjoy next year a picture of what we did this year. 

          While we’ve been at work, others have been planting.  Curt is excited to announce, “The peas are in the ground!”  He believes these are the first African and Indian seeds planted in Latin America.

          Semilla Nueva or “New Seed” indeed!

          The pigeonpea seeds have been planted in 57 rows with exactly 54 seeds per row.  This will provide a lot of valuable information about how seeds from the other continents will take hold in this one.

          Now hold on for a brief lesson on “no till” for us non-farmers, using Mexico as an example.

          Curt tells us Guatemalans make about $50 per hectare of corn while Mexicans make $200-250, an enormous difference.  You have to think having the world research center for corn in your country has made a big difference but the major difference, Curt says, is “no till.”  Mexican farmers don’t turn their soil over except once in the first year.  They let the corn stalks deteriorate and become soil.  Fields are not burned, as is the practice in Guatemala.

          Are Mexican farmers making much more money because they get more on the income side?  Only partially.  The major difference is in cost-reduction:  less use of expensive fertilizer because of "no till."  The other factor is that Mexico has been better able to withstand drought for the same reason: better protection of the soil.  Outcome may be similar between Mexico and Guatemala in good years but average in the bad years and Mexico comes out way ahead. 

Mexico has mapped all of its no till plots on Google Earth.  Semilla Nueva could join this system to begin mapping Guatemala.
Don Juan on the left and Bernabe on the right, two of Semilla Nueva's best scientists, men who are out standing--and outstanding--in their field (a very bad old joke). 

          After visiting one of SN’s best participating farmers, Bernabe, who has been experimenting with many technologies and innovations, we asked him what was the most important change he had made.  He quickly answered “No till.”  He has tripled the typical income of Guatemalan farmers to $3,000 a year.  That’s obviously important but my impression is that his satisfaction comes from being such a good scientist in the field.

          It is important that Guatemala switch to “no till.”  While it rained hard every day but one while Julia and I are here, Guatemala has dry zones and weather patterns are clearly changing: more periods of intense rain and more periods of no rain.

          From Borlaug to Bernabe is a stretch of about six decades.  Research and its application have fed the world for half a century and will have to do so again in the next 50 years.  It has to include the world’s hundreds of millions of small-plot farmers.   


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