A professor's food revolution starts with rice
ITHACA, New York: Many a professor dreams of revolution. But Norman Uphoff, working in a leafy corner of the Cornell University campus, is leading an inconspicuous one centered on solving the global food crisis. The secret, he says, is a new way of growing rice.
Rejecting old customs as well as the modern reliance on genetic engineering, Uphoff, 67, an emeritus professor of government and international agriculture with a trim white beard and a tidy office, advocates a management revolt.
Harvests typically double, he says, if farmers plant early, give seedlings more room to grow and stop flooding fields. That cuts water and seed costs while promoting root and leaf growth.
The method, called the System of Rice Intensification, or SRI, emphasizes the quality of individual plants over the quantity. It applies a less-is-more ethic to rice cultivation.
In a decade, it has gone from obscure theory to global trend - and encountered fierce resistance from established rice scientists. Yet a million rice farmers have adopted the system, Uphoff says. The rural army, he predicts, will swell to 10 million farmers in the next few years, increasing rice harvests, filling empty bellies and saving untold lives.
The world has lots and lots of problems," Uphoff said, while talking of rice intensification and his 38 years at Cornell.
"But if we can't solve the problems of people's food needs, we can't do anything. This, at least, is within our reach."
That may sound audacious given the depths of the food crisis and the troubles facing rice. Roughly half the world eats the grain as a staple, even as yields have stagnated and prices have soared, nearly tripling in the past year. The price jolt has provoked riots, panicked hoarding and violent protests in poor countries.
But Uphoff has a striking record of accomplishment, as well as a gritty kind of farm-boy tenacity.
He and his method have flourished despite the skepticism of his Cornell peers and the global rice establishment - especially the International Rice Research Institute, which helped start the green revolution of rising grain production and specializes in improving rice genetics.
"The claims are grossly exaggerated," said Achim Dobermann, head of research at the institute, which is based in the Philippines. Dobermann said fewer farmers used SRI than advertised because old practices often were counted as part of the trend and the method itself was often watered down.
"We don't doubt that good yields can be achieved," he said, but he called the methods too onerous for the real world.
By contrast, a former skeptic sees great potential. Vernon Ruttan, an agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota and a longtime member of the National Academy of Sciences, once worked for the institute and doubted the system's prospects.
Now Ruttan calls himself an enthusiastic fan, saying the method is already reshaping rice cultivation. "I doubt it will be as great as the green revolution," he said. "But in some areas it's already having a substantial impact."
Robert Chambers, a leading analyst on rural development, who works at the University of Sussex, England, called it a breakthrough.
"The extraordinary thing," he said, "is that both farmers and scientists have missed this - farmers for thousands of years, and scientists until very recently and then some of them in a state of denial."
The method, he added, "has a big contribution to make to world food supplies. Its time has come."
Uphoff grew up on a Wisconsin farm milking cows and doing chores.
In 1966, he graduated from Princeton with a master's degree in public affairs and in 1970 from the University of California, Berkeley, with a doctorate in political science.
At Cornell, he threw himself into rural development, irrigation management and credit programs for small farmers in the developing world.
In 1990, a secret philanthropist (eventually revealed to be Charles Feeney, a Cornell alumnus who made billions in duty-free shops) gave the university $15million to start a program on world hunger.
Uphoff was the director for 15 years. The directorship took him in late 1993 to Madagascar.
Slash-and-burn rice farming was destroying the rain forest, and Uphoff sought alternatives.
He heard that a French Jesuit priest, Father Henri de Laulanié, had developed a high-yield rice cultivation method on Madagascar that he called the System of Rice Intensification.
Uphoff was skeptical. Rice farmers there typically harvested 2 tons per hectare, or 2.47 acres. The group claimed 5 to 15 tons.
"I remember thinking, 'Do they think they can scam me?"' Uphoff recalled. "I told them, 'Don't talk 10 or 15 tons. No one at Cornell will believe it. Let's shoot for 3 or 4."'
Uphoff oversaw field trials for three years, and the farmers averaged 8 tons per hectare. Impressed, he featured SRI on the cover of his institute's annual reports for 1996 and 1997.
In Laos, an agriculture official recently said SRI had doubled the size of rice crops in three provinces and would spread to the whole country because it had provided greater yields with fewer resources.
"Once we get over the mental barriers," Uphoff said, "it can go very, very quickly because there's nothing to buy."
The opponents have agreed to conduct a global field trial that may end the dispute, he said. The participants include the rice institute, Cornell and Wageningen University, a Dutch institution with a stellar reputation in agriculture.
The field trials may start in 2009 and run through 2011, Uphoff said. "This should satisfy any scientific questions," he added. "But my sense is that SRI is moving so well and so fast that this will be irrelevant."
Practically, he said, the method is destined to grow.
"It raises the productivity of land, labor, water and capital," he said. "It's like playing with a stacked deck. So I know we're going to win."
Rains bring hope to Australian wheat farmers
NARRABRI, Australia: Wheat farmers in Australia, one of the world's biggest exporters of the grain, raced this week to plant their fields, gambling that recent rain would lead to one of the best crops on record and put an end to seven hard years of drought.
In one of the biggest Australian grain belts in New South Wales State, wheat farmers struggling with years of losses were once again ploughing and sowing their fields around the clock, encouraged by a few weeks of steady rain and forecasts for a rebounding harvest.
"It was fantastic rain," said Ron Greentree, the biggest individual grower in Australia, whose workers were busily sowing about 80,000 hectares, or 198,000 acres.
"Everyone around here is working 24 hours, now we've got the rains," he said as he walked through one of his fields. "We have waited a long time for this rain. We are 70 percent done. Hopefully we will finish in the next 10 days."
Greentree is expecting a good crop of about 250,000 tons from his properties. Last year, encouraged by a winter sprinkling of rain, he and other farmers sowed their fields, only to watch the wheat wither as the rains dried up.
Global food markets are also hoping this year will not be another false dawn for Australian wheat growers.
On Tuesday, Australia caused some concern in markets by cutting its official wheat output forecast by nearly 9 percent after the return of dry weather in April and May in parts of the country.
It still expects wheat exports to more than double to 16.3 million tons in the 2008-2009 season, but news of the smaller crop threatened to tighten wheat markets at a time when record corn prices had put food inflation in the spotlight once again.
The downgrade was also bigger than similar cuts announced by private forecasters over the past week, though the new 2008-9 crop estimate of 23.68 million tons would still mean a rebound of more than 80 percent from the drought-hit production of last year.
In Narrabri, about 500 kilometers, or 310 miles, northwest of Sydney, farmers are investing about 250 Australian dollars, or $235, a hectare to plant their fields - 20 million dollars for Greentree's estate - and in some cases straining bank credit to the limit to put in another crop.
"It's been a pretty devastating last four to five years. It has really hurt the communities," Greentree said.
"It was a real relief when it did rain, but people are a bit gun-shy," he added. "Last year, it looked good until the end of July, and then it didn't rain and all the crops failed."
The main eastern Australian wheat-growing state of New South Wales normally accounts for 30 percent of the country's crop, but encouraging rains early this year stalled in April and May and only resumed in the Narrabri-Moree District early this month.
Elsewhere, the state is still dry, waiting anxiously for rain. But planting is well under way in Narrabri, making it one of the main hopes for good production from parts of eastern Australia.
The drought halved the previous Australian crop and helped drive global wheat prices to all-time highs earlier this year.
An estimated 26 percent of the New South Wales wheat crop has been sown, mostly into dry soil, the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries estimated this week.
Victoria State, which produces about a tenth of the Australian wheat crop, is in slightly better shape than New South Wales, with rainfall about 50 to 60 percent of average by late last month.
South Australia, which normally supplies 15 percent of the annual crop, also got planting underway well before New South Wales. Western Australia, which normally contributes about 40 percent, was best placed of the cropping states, with good early rain across most of the state.
The biggest Australian wheat crop was 26.132 million tons in 2003-4. Drought cut the two most recent crops to just 13.1 million tons in 2007-8 and 10.64 million tons in 2006-7.
FIRST OIL, NOW BANANAS
Yes, we will have no bananas
Dan Koeppel is the author of "Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World."
Once you become accustomed to gas at $4 a gallon, brace yourself for the next shocking retail threshold: bananas reaching $1 a pound. At that price, Americans may stop thinking of bananas as a cheap staple, and then a strategy that has served the big banana companies for more than a century - enabling them to turn an exotic, tropical fruit into an everyday favorite - will begin to unravel.
The immediate reasons for the price increase are the rising cost of oil and reduced supply caused by floods in Ecuador, the world's biggest banana exporter. But something larger is going on that will affect prices for years to come.
That bananas have long been the cheapest fruit at the grocery store is astonishing. They're grown thousands of miles away, they must be transported in cooled containers and even then they survive no more than two weeks after they're cut off the tree. Apples, in contrast, are typically grown within a few hundred miles of the store and keep for months in a basket out in the garage. Yet apples traditionally have cost at least twice as much per pound as bananas.
Americans eat as many bananas as apples and oranges combined, which is especially amazing when you consider that not so long ago, bananas were virtually unknown here. They became a staple only after the men who in the late 19th century founded the United Fruit Company (today's Chiquita) figured out how to get bananas to American tables quickly - by clearing rainforest in Latin America, building railroads and communication networks and inventing refrigeration techniques to control ripening. The banana barons also marketed their product in ways that had never occurred to farmers or grocers before, by offering discount coupons, writing jingles and placing bananas in schoolbooks and on picture postcards. They even hired doctors to convince mothers that bananas were good for children.
Once bananas had become widely popular, the companies kept costs low by exercising iron-fisted control over the Latin American countries where the fruit was grown. Workers could not be allowed such basic rights as health care, decent wages or the right to congregate. (In 1929, Colombian troops shot down banana workers and their families who were gathered in a town square after church.)
Governments could not be anything but utterly pliable. Over and over, banana companies, aided by the American military, intervened whenever there was a chance that any "banana republic" might end its cooperation. (In 1954, United Fruit helped arrange the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Guatemala.) Labor is still cheap in these countries, and growers still resort to heavy-handed tactics.
The final piece of the banana pricing equation is genetics. Unlike apple and orange growers, banana importers sell only a single variety of their fruit, the Cavendish. There are more than 1,000 varieties of bananas - most of them in Africa and Asia - but except for an occasional exotic, the Cavendish is the only banana we see in our markets. It is the only kind that is shipped and eaten everywhere from Beijing to Berlin, Moscow to Minneapolis.
By sticking to this single variety, the banana industry ensures that all the bananas in a shipment ripen at the same rate, creating huge economies of scale. The Cavendish is the fruit equivalent of a fast-food hamburger: efficient to produce, uniform in quality and universally affordable.
But there's a difference between a banana and a Big Mac: The banana is a living organism. It can get sick, and since bananas all come from the same gene pool, a virulent enough malady could wipe out the world's commercial banana crop in a matter of years.
This has happened before. Our great-grandparents grew up eating not the Cavendish but the Gros Michel banana, a variety that everyone agreed was tastier. But starting in the early 1900s, banana plantations were invaded by a fungus called Panama disease and vanished one by one. Forest would be cleared for new banana fields, and healthy fruit would grow there for a while, but eventually succumb.
By 1960, the Gros Michel was essentially extinct and the banana industry nearly bankrupt. It was saved at the last minute by the Cavendish, a Chinese variety that had been considered something close to junk: inferior in taste, easy to bruise (and therefore hard to ship) and too small to appeal to consumers. But it did resist the blight.
Over the past decade, however, a new, more virulent strain of Panama disease has begun to spread across the world, and this time the Cavendish is not immune. The fungus is expected to reach Latin America in 5 to 10 years, maybe 20. The big banana companies have been slow to finance efforts to find either a cure for the fungus or a banana that resists it. Nor has enough been done to aid efforts to diversify the world's banana crop by preserving little-known varieties of the fruit that grow in Africa and Asia.
In recent years, American consumers have begun seeing the benefits - to health, to the economy and to the environment - of buying foods that are grown close to our homes. Getting used to life without bananas will take some adjustment. What other fruit can you slice onto your breakfast cereal?
But bananas have always been an emblem of a long-distance food chain. Perhaps it's time we recognize bananas for what they are: an exotic fruit that, some day soon, may slip beyond our reach.
Cocoa prices at over 20-year high
LONDON/NEW YORK: Cocoa prices surged to their highest level in over 20 years on Wednesday, adding extra pressure to global food prices, after reports of a possible supply squeeze in the world's top grower, Ivory Coast.
A report by independent analyst Hans Kilian, seen as bullish on Ivorian supplies, was the initial trigger for a fund and investor-driven surge in U.S. futures to a 28-year high of $3,122 a tonne.
In London, benchmark second-month cocoa futures hit a 22-year peak of 1,682 pounds a tonne, before closing at 1,658 pounds, up 33 in brisk volume of 5,641 lots.
Analysts said cocoa prices could rise further due to robust global demand and a tight supply outlook.
"We haven't been at these nose-bleed prices in years," said Ralph Preston, futures analyst with HeritageWestFutures.com in San Diego. "Especially with that fundamental news coming out, that's going to really light a fire under this."
Text: McCain's energy and climate speech
The following is the prepared text of Senator John McCain's speech about energy and climate change in Houston, as provided by his presidential campaign.
EU votes to unify rules on detention of migrants
STRASBOURG: European Union lawmakers voted Wednesday to allow countries in the bloc to hold undocumented migrants in detention centers for up to 18 months and ban them from EU territory for five years.
Approved in this medieval French border city, which is home to a significant population of North Africans and Turks, the legislation establishes common rules for expelling foreigners who are detained on EU territory without permission to be there.
Described by critics like Amnesty International as "severely flawed" and an erosion of human rights standards, but by supporters as a balanced approach, the so-called return directive passed in the European Parliament by a vote of 369 to 197, with 106 deputies abstaining.
"The member states must decide whether they need them - if so, then please legalize them," Manfred Weber, the German center-right legislator from Bavaria who shepherded the measures through the European Parliament, said of undocumented migrants in Europe. "If you don't need them for your labor markets, then send them home."
Death of toddler twins shocks Australians
CANBERRA: Australians were warned on Wednesday to recover a lost sense of care and community after the apparent death from starvation of two 18-month-old twins that has shocked the nation.
The decomposing and emaciated bodies of the boy and girl were found in their cots by their 11-year-old sister in the family's suburban home in the tropical city of Brisbane. The pair had been dead for up to a week, police said.
The 28-year-old father and 30-year-old mother of the two were detained and charged with failing to provide necessities of life after their mother told police she may have neglected the twins and not fed them enough.
"It is a very a very important thing to realize that we should be looking after the next door neighbour's kids, or the kids down the street, and keeping an eye on them," Abused Child Trust co-founder and Chairman David Wood told local radio.
"That's what would have happened years ago. It's hard to comprehend that that can occur in our society, in a reasonably normal Brisbane suburb," Wood said.