Monday March 11, 2013
Boosting farm productivity
BY NATALIE HENG
Farm productivity has to be beefed up lest the world goes hungry.
THE ROAD is dusty and filled with motorcyclists, as we make our way by bus to a corn field in Bà Ria Vung Tàu, Vietnam. The field we are being taken to was set up 80 days earlier to demonstrate how cutting-edge innovations in agricultural technology can help solve a looming 21st century crisis: How do we feed an additional two billion people by the year 2030?
In 1950, the global population stood at 2.5 billion but rapid expansion during the post-war years soon led to panicked predictions of a Malthusian nightmare. The Green Revolution, however, saved us. A series of agricultural developments – high yielding cereal varieties, synthetic fertilisers and pesticides – helped avert mass famine by more than doubling cereal production in developing countries.
Now, against the backdrop of erratic weather brought on by climate change, rising fuel prices and the dwindling availability of arable land, the issue of food security has emerged again.
Technology played a role in averting disaster once before and agricultural biotech companies, such as Syngenta, believe it will do so again.
As we arrive at Syngenta’s demonstration plot in Bà Ria Vung Tàu, we are greeted by Ngo Lanh who heads the company’s solutions development division.
He is standing in front in a field of corn, with a bucket hat to protect his head. The bus-load of journalists being handed hats of their own have earlier learnt about the ins and outs of corn at a workshop in Ho Chi Minh city, two hours away.
We follow him through rows of corn plants swaying in the breeze, and he stops in the middle of two plots with knee-high corn stems, cultivated 29 days earlier. To the left, the plants vary in size and there are patches of bare earth whereas plants to the right are of a uniform size, with no out-of-place gaps.
This, Ngo explains, is what pre-treatment for seeds can do – the seeds on the right have been pre-treated with Cruiser, a liquid product which protects growing plants from pests, and encourages deeper root growth, for better tolerance of dry spells.
Further on, Ngo shows us an older crop, large enough to tower over us. He reaches for a plant which has dried out from the tip, and pulls it towards him. It snaps at chest height, revealing a brownish caterpillar, the Asian corn borer, a pest that has dug into a plant in the plot left untreated by Cruiser.
It takes a moment to adjust to the overwhelming wall of leaves, stems and corn, but soon, subtle yet discernable differences become apparent. In plots treated with herbicides, the corn have wider leaves and bigger ears. At another spot, plants which have been treated with a fungicide look in much better shape than those in a neighbouring untreated plot, which feature brownish dry patches on the leaves, caused by a fungal infection.
Ngo points out that by spending, say an additional US$53 (RM160) on seed treatments for pest control and fungicide, a farmer can increase his yield by 1.2 tonnes per hectare, which translates into an additional US$331 (RM993) in profit per hectare.
He introduces us to 44-year-old farmer Tran Kim Tuyet, who has been conducting field trials using Syngenta products on his 3ha farm close by. Tran used to plant hybrid corn on a 4ha plot without using any crop protection products – he and his wife would do all the hand weeding by themselves – and would get 23 tonnes of corn out of it. It was a pretty good yield, at 5.75 tonnes per hectare. After using crop protection products supplied by Syngenta on 3ha of his farm (he plants soy on the remaining land), his yield has improved by 0.25 tonnes per hectare.
“It’s a lot easier, instead of hand-weeding, I can just use one weed application which frees up a lot of time for me to do other things. Also, I produce higher quality corn, with equal-sized kernels, which always gets better prices at the market, where I sell my produce,” he says through an interpreter.
It is smallholders like Tran who can make a crucial contribution to global food security. However, many of the 500 million smallholder farmers (who each farm less than 2ha of land) in the world lack the access to resources, markets, appropriate technology and agronomic knowledge to achieve this.
Mainly concentrated in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, smallholder farmers are thought to support the livelihoods of over two billion people, but only account for 25% of global food production. The global population is estimated to reach nine billion by 2050 and with rising incomes, increased demand for meat, and therefore grain to feed livestock, and a growing biofuels industry which uses crops like corn for conversion into bioethanol, more pressure is being put to increase agricultural production.
To meet these needs, it is thought that smallholder farmers will need to more than double their current production levels. Currently, many regions fall short of producing their full potential.
Food security involves many factors: logistical access, affordability, trade policies, and environmental factors like drought, water stress and land degradation. However, at the core of it all is production: can we grow enough food to feed the world? If we are running out of arable land, then surely, the best way to solve the problem is to make what we have more productive? The crops that we see today are the result of thousands of years’ worth of selection by man; today’s corn looks nothing like that of its ancestor, a wild grass known as a teosinte.
Years of research have gone into developing high-yield crop hybrid varieties, as well as pesticides, fungicides and other products. Crop protection has become essential to get yields we do now, by reducing productivity losses from weeds, insects, and diseases.
But to keep up with demand, we need to get the maximum performance out of our hybrids, through things like early season weed control, the correct methods and quantities of applying herbicide, pesticide and fungicide treatments and other best practices.
Hardeep Grewal, Syngenta’s head of corn marketing, explains: “In the United States where they often have better access to the latest technologies and finances to invest in biotech, crop protection and best management practices, the average yield is 9.5 tonnes per hectare. In Vietnam, the average yield per hectare of corn is 4.5.”
Still, there has been a change. About 15 years ago, many Vietnamese farmers were growing open-pollination varieties, saving seeds and planting their own corn to get an average of three tonnes per hectare.
But the problem with open-pollination, says Hardeep, is that it entails the extreme mixing of genetic material and expression of random traits, so it is hard to make improvements in yield and disease resistance.
The hybrids we find today, which have a concentration of desirable traits due to crossing inbred lines to produce superior hybrids, offer greater yield potential and desirable traits from both parent plants.
Still, 4.5 tonnes is a fraction of the potential yield hybrids can give. To get the most out of a crop, best practices need to be deployed – with the right agronomic practices and crop protection, hybrids commonly planted in Vietnam could be producing yield of up to eight and nine tonnes per hectare.
Before the collaboration with Syngenta, Tran didn’t use any of the crop protection methods he does now. Having seen the results, he says the profit makes investing more money in the technology a worthwhile exercise.
Though the technology exist, the challenge for many of Vietnam’s farmers is acquiring the finance to invest in it.