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Professor Sir Gordon Conway KCMG FRS answers questions on sustainable agriculture

Professor Sir Gordon Conway This sustainable agriculture interview (PDF) is also available to download.

1. What do you regard as the most significant breakthrough in improving food supplies over the last couple of decades?

It is difficult to say one thing. I think there have been a lot of new varieties, new varieties of crops which are phenomenal in what they do; one of the biggest has been hybrid rice which the Chinese have developed. It’s so good that now all the American rice is hybrid rice. So new varieties is one thing. The other is improving markets. One of the problems has been that people produce a new crop and they get a good yield and they can’t sell it. Now the markets are getting better so that they can actually sell the crop. I think that’s a big improvement.

2. Why, with dramatic innovations in technology and increasing crop yields, are there still millions starving in the world today?

Well there are millions starving for a number of different reasons. One is a lot of conflict. As you can see in parts of Africa there is conflict and that prevents people from being fed. There’s food available in many places but it’s difficult to ship it from one place to another, and the markets don’t really function they way they should be functioning. If you find a good market where people can actually sell their maize, or their rice, then they produce it and it gets sold and people can get hold of it. But of course there are also very many really very poor people who cannot afford food, and so you there have to get some kind of support, some food security, some kind of social support for those people. Those are part of the reasons. The other reason is we don’t have the right kind of crops for certain kinds of places. We have crops for good agricultural land; we don’t have crops for other types of land.

3. Some people would argue that most modern day famines are just the result of uncontrolled population growth. Would you agree?

No I don’t think so. There is a lot of evidence now, there is a classic case in Kenya, in Machakos, which showed that with increasing population growth in that area people were much more inventive about growing crops and they actually grew more crops. I think the real driver of famine these days is the lack of proper markets and the lack of proper distribution and in some places, as I’ve said before, they don’t have the right kind of varieties or they don’t have a way of controlling certain kinds of pests or diseases. There is a great big weed, called Striga, in Africa which causes problems. So it is a mixture of courses, I wouldn’t put it down just to population though.

4. Some people would argue that if we want to save lives then the money that is starting to be spent tackling climate change might be better spent on feeding people instead. How would you respond to this?

I do not think it is either or. In fact, I have just been in Zimbabwe where the agriculture is already being affected by drought. There is increasing drought in southern Africa so the crop yields are much lower than they would otherwise be and the climate change is also affecting malaria for example, so it is not really a question of something off in the future that we do not have to worry about. Agricultural production and feeding people and health is already affected by climate change, so you have to do both I’m afraid.

5. Is innovation finite and if so what happens when we have reached the limits of innovation?

That is an interesting question and I have never been asked that question before. I do not think there is a limit to innovation. Even say twenty years ago we would not have predicted the impact of mobile phones on poor people. There are 150million mobile phones in Africa and there are only 700 million people in Africa. It is extraordinary. When you think on average every family in Africa has a mobile phone, I know it varies from one part to another. Those mobile phones are very important because they are allowing people to get a better idea of the markets so they actually sell their crops more efficiently, but twenty years ago we would not have predicted that. I think there are many things that we can predict are going to happen. We need very cheap solar cells to produce solar electricity, we haven’t got them yet, but they will happen. I can’t imagine that there’s any real limit apart from going faster than the speed of light, my guess is we won’t ever do that, but I think everything else we will.

6. What would you say are a few of the positive things that Africa has got going for it at the moment?

Well one of them is that peace has broken out over most of Africa. Five years ago there were major wars. There is still fighting in Darfu; there’s still fighting in Somalia and they’re actually fighting in the Congo as of yesterday (25/03/07), but by and large most countries in Africa are much more peaceful than they were. Many countries now have good democratically elected governments and this is always a good plus, so that’s all going very well for Africa. I think we’re finding that in many African countries they’re getting a really good control over their economic policies and that in turn helps for them to go forward.

7. What do you think are some of the challenges that Africa is facing?

I think the biggest challenge is HIV/AIDS. In southern Africa, and I was in Zimbabwe two weeks ago, one in five of the population of Zimbabwe is HIV positive and most of them do not get any treatment what so ever. You find a population when it gets to be that high, it really doesn’t allow people to work productively and there’s an enormous burden of sickness. So that’s one of the biggest problems. I actually think climate change is going to be a big problem into in the future. Most of Africa is going to become much drier than it is now. With increasing droughts they’re not going to be able to grow the kind of crops they have been growing and the yields will go down, so I think that’s a problem. I think there will be other challenges to do with water, I mean getting better water resources. I think there will be continuing challenges with other diseases, not just HIV/AIDS, but TB and malaria. Malaria is looking good because we have malarial bed nets and we have good new medicines. There will be other challenges. An awful lot of people in Africa are killed on the roads, it’s probably one of the biggest causes of death and so there are things like that that we have to be concerned about. They’re all manageable and solvable providing you have good governments and peace, and that’s what’s beginning to happen in Africa, so that’s why I’m very positive about what’s happening now.

Gordon was interviewed in August 2007.

Professor Sir Gordon Conway’s Biography

Gordon Conway was appointed Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for International Development at the beginning of 2005. He also holds the title of Professor of International Development at Imperial College, London.

Prior to that he was President of The Rockefeller Foundation from 1998 to 2004 and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex and Chair of the Institute for Development Studies from 1992-1998.

His discipline is agricultural ecology. In the early 1960's, working in Sabah, North Borneo, he became one of the pioneers of sustainable agriculture. From 1970 to 1986, he was Professor of Environmental Technology at Imperial College, London. During this period he lived and worked in many countries in Asia and the Middle East. He then directed the sustainable agriculture program of the International Institute for Environment and Development in London before becoming Representative of the Ford Foundation in New Delhi from 1988 to 1992.

Sir Gordon was elected President of the RGS-IBG in June 2006, a post he will hold for three years.

He has authored Unwelcome Harvest: agriculture and pollution (Earthscan, Island Press), The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for all in the 21st century (Penguin and University Press, Cornell); and Islamophobia: a challenge for us all (The Runnymede Trust).

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