The following is a guest post from Tim Hammerich.
“Roads and Seeds”
A reflection on global food security from episode 187 of the “Future of Agriculture” Podcast with Ambassador Kenneth Quinn.
The very second you’re reading this, hundreds of millions of people are hungry. When you hear this, as I’m sure you’ve heard it before, I hope you really think of what that looks like and feels like in this very moment. That person that you are picturing will go to sleep tonight undernourished. For them, tomorrow is not likely to be any better.
Our agricultural system has achieved incredible efficiencies in the hope that fewer people experience food insecurity. However, there is still work to be done. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, over 700 million people live in severe food insecurity globally. Another 1.3 billion live in moderate food insecurity.
The Green Revolution
The Green Revolution taught us that it is possible to make progress toward reducing world hunger. This period in the late 1950s and into the 1960s marked the spread of agricultural technologies to many food-insecure countries. Dr. Norman Borlaug is widely considered the “Father of the Green Revolution”. His work in plant breeding is estimated to have saved the lives of over one billion people.
During this time, Kenneth Quinn was working with farmers in Vietnam to help them implement improved rice varieties. In addition to utilizing this new seed technology, the communities he was working with were also building farm-to-market roads. This is where Kenneth Quinn, who later became Ambassador Quinn, made an important discovery. Of the eight villages, he was working with, four of them gained access to a new farm-to-market road. Those four communities began to flourish while the remaining four still struggled. It was not just the seed that led to prosperity, it was also the road.
“It was building all those farm-to-market roads that brought out all of those seeds….Roads and seeds became the formula that ran through my life and my career.” – Kenneth Quinn
This mission of bringing seed and roads to food-insecure places became the life work of Ambassador Quinn, including 32 years as an American Diplomat, becoming the U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia, and serving as the President of the World Food Prize Foundation. The latter was started by Dr. Borlaug to recognize the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world.
“The bond between Norman Borlaug and me over the 10 years we worked together until his death in 2009, was over roads” says Dr. Quinn. “That was the binding between us.”
Seeds and Roads
The concept of seeds and roads being the solution to world hunger seems oversimplified at best. These complex problems certainly cannot be distilled to simple one-size-fits-all answers. And even developed countries, many of with excellent roads, have instances of food insecurity.
The concept of seeds and roads solving for hunger is quite literal in some cases. Ambassador Quinn saw it firsthand in Vietnam and the model has certainly been repeated many times over the past six decades. Equally importantly though, is what seeds and roads represent for food security.
Seeds represent technology. Not just any seed will do. The right seed is productive and efficient and well-adapted to local climate, pests, and diseases. To consistently produce quality seed is to develop a robust system of scientific research, education, and extension. These important components lead to not just seed, but other technologies that help pull people out of poverty.
Ambassador Quinn argues that countries like America are strong because of our historical commitment to research and extension. A commitment he worries is waning.
“America is in danger of slipping from its position as the global leader in food and agriculture research. We’ve been in that position for over 100 years – it’s one of the great achievements of America. But we are now not funding sufficiently the public research that is needed. Other countries – most notably China – are funding and putting more money in. We need to support our public universities, land grant universities, and others.” – Ambassador Kenneth Quinn
Roads represent market access. We are living in a time of quarantine due to COVID-19. Unfortunately, we have very recent examples of what happens when perfectly good food has demand but no market access. All of the technology and productivity in the world will not cure hunger without access to markets. This is, of course, in reference to physical markets that a farmer can logistically deliver their harvest, and it can be consumed before spoiling. Futures markets don’t help a farmer that doesn’t have a physical buyer. Further, roads are mostly a result of public policy, which is another essential aspect of giving market access to farmers.
“Those countries that make use of all of their human resources are going to be the ones that succeed. So infrastructure, research, education, extension, and maintaining peace so that there’s a stable trading system. Because in order to feed people all around the world, countries that grow more food than others have to export. In order to do that we have to have a stable trading system. And we have to be prepared to deal with the changes from climate volatility.” – Ambassador Kenneth Quinn
Creating a more food-secure world is possible by expanding roads that lead to market access, and seeds that are the result of stronger investments in localized science, education, and extension.
Ambassador Quinn does a masterful job on the podcast episode of explaining the connection between agriculture and peace. I encourage you to check out the full episode.
Tim Hammerich is the Founder of AgGrad.com which connects students and young professionals to hiring agribusinesses. He is also the host of the “Future of Agriculture” weekly podcast about agricultural innovation.