Interview with Dan Glickman, vice president and executive director of the Aspen Institute Congressional Program
Co-Chair, Agree, Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture (1995-2001)
By Dave Ramaswamy, Africa Agribusiness Magazine
Dave: Dan, if you look at American foreign policy, our focus over the past 15 years has been around national security, terrorism and issues related to that, fighting battles, and exercising military options. Food insecurity, especially in Africa and the Middle East, is both a cause and consequence of conflict. Going forward, how do you think food policy can integrate itself into national security, especially with respect to Africa?
Dan: It’s a complicated question, but a couple of things. The problem with food policy is that there’s no stability in it. One year you may have surpluses, low prices, lots of rainfall, and fairly free flow of markets working well. Like this year and last year — prices are lower, supplies are higher, and there seems to be less of a problem in getting food in the developing world. So food security in the short term isn’t as bad as it was, let’s say, five, six, seven years ago, when we had shortages, very high prices, and very volatile prices that caused food riots in Tunisia, Egypt, and other places.
I’d say there are three parts to this problem. One involves anything we can do to build much greater agricultural self-sufficiency — no country is totally self-sufficient. We’re always going to need aid and trade. The extent that we can build agriculture systems, small-holder farmers being able to produce more, that’s a big part of the problem and it’s also a part of the solution. That’s what the US had been trying to do, and this Feed the Future Initiative is to help countries become more self-sufficient. The ability to produce more food, build infrastructure systems, storage, all the kinds of things that you need to deal with the thing. That’s one issue.
The second issue is aid. There’s no question that humanitarian assistance is still important and required, especially when there’s famine or drought — or in places like Syria or Yemen, where there are just political catastrophes. The U.S. had been the leader in that effort, but now you’re beginning to see more countries [offering assistance]. You got to have a system of humanitarian assistance as well.
But the main part of it, and number three, is to elevate food and food security issues higher on the multilateral political agenda. For the first time, food security is part of the G7, part of the G20. It’s an integral discussion of all the national leaders. Whereas 10 or 15 years ago, it just wasn’t viewed as important. It was viewed as farm issues, not that significant. “We’ll satisfy the problem with aid. We don’t really need to burden ourselves when we have to deal with issues like nuclear security and other kinds of things.” Now, these issues are getting a lot higher attention than they ever used to get so that’s very important.
Dave: Building on that, you said in terms of food not seen as a priority, especially food policy and agriculture and farming, that policymakers didn’t understand the interlinkages between food and other security challenges, but now it’s getting on the agenda. At the policy level, if you look at 100 years ago and the kinds of people who went into Congress, a lot of them came from farms and farming backgrounds. But if you look at the makeup of Congress now — and I’m not just talking the US Congress, but state legislatures as well — the number of farmers or people from farming backgrounds participating in the legislative process has waned substantially.
Even if you look at the age of farmers in America, the average age is close to 60. Europe is in the mid-60s. Farmers have just not been at the table when it comes to making these policy decisions. How do you think that can change, or needs to change? Because lot of the people who makes these policy decisions are completely disconnected from the farm.
Dan: There are a couple of issues here. We’re a much more urbanized society, so we have a significant movement of people moving from the farms into the cities all over the world at various rates. The US, China, India — and it’s true in the developing worlds, Africa and other places in South Asia — are just part of the trend.
One of the reasons for this is because agriculture is a lot more productive than it used to be. We get more bushels per hectare, per acre, so you haven’t needed to have all these people on farms like we had historically. But it’s a good question, because the clout of agriculture is not as great as it used to be. That’s why we need to look at these issues in a broader context: the relationship between agriculture and political stability, the relationship between agriculture, food, nutrition and health.
That’s what the Gates Foundation tends to focus on. How do you make people healthier so they can go to school? The relationship between food, health, and education, so that people don’t have to spend 24 hours a day trying to seek food; they can have a more comfortable, secure access to food so they can go take care of their health or take care of their educational needs.
That’s become the focus of the foundation world and, to some extent, government. Recognizing that food is more than just food security. It’s related to national security, health security, education security. Ministries around the world have started to talk to their agriculture ministers, saying, “The health of our nation is depending upon a stable food supply” or “The political stability of our nation is dependent upon a stable food supply.” Those are the kinds of issues that people are talking about now.
Dave: One key point you made connecting food security with national security: According to a group of retired U.S. military leaders, “unhealthy school lunches pose a threat to national security”. Since 1995, the proportion of U.S. recruits who failed their physical exams because they were overweight has risen by nearly 70 percent.
The latest nutritional science demonstrates that a calorie is not a calorie. A calorie consumed from a cola beverage is processed in the body differently from how a calorie is processed from, say, an avocado or an eggplant. How do you think nutrition policy needs to be changed at the school level to reflect these realities?
Dan: First of all, to a large extent over the past 50 years, we’ve concentrated much more on volume rather than on nutritional quality. That’s because if you had hungry people, you had to feed their bellies, and we didn’t pay as much attention to nutrition and health security, issues like obesity. One can be undernourished and be obese.
In the US, we see what the First Lady is doing with her school meals program and other things, which is tricky because it’s sometimes politically difficult. But nutrition is becoming a much bigger factor globally as well. What we can do is encourage a much more balanced diet in the context of local customs. Everybody’s not going to actually eat the same. We’re not going to force an American diet on people, say, in Tanzania. It doesn’t work. But how we can ensure a much more nutritionally balanced diet is part of national food policy.
The foundations — Gates, Ford, Rockefeller, Buffet — and organizations like DFID in the UK and USAID are pushing a nutrition message much more than they used to. Today we’re starting to realize that you are what you eat and it does make a difference. It’s not just the volume of food, but what the content of the food is.
Dave: You spoke of how things are politically charged, especially with the First Lady’s initiative Let’s Move! and now the labeling requirements on added sugars, for example, being politically charged. Even the agency you used to lead, the USDA, has been accused by its critics of regulatory capture, saying that the big food and beverage companies are driving food policy. What do you see as the role of government or foundations in driving sensible food policy while balancing the interest of, say, food companies? And/or how do you change the products of food companies to reflect health realities, and not follow the mistakes of the tobacco industry, which publicly denied their products were harmful.
Dan: I think that in this case, a lot of the drivers in the future are actually consumers. Consumers want to know what’s in their food, whether it’s GMOs or sugar, salt. And the more they demand that the food companies disclose certain kinds of nutritional content, the more the food companies will begin to get the message.
How is this happening? Right now, Walmart, the largest food company in the world, is beginning to source more product locally and more organic. McDonald’s is changing course, in terms of hormones and antibiotics, and chicken and meat. Why is this happening? It’s not really the government that’s doing this. It’s the consumers saying, “We don’t want this other stuff in our food.” I would say that, at least in the US and in Europe, these issues are largely driven by consumers and not by the government, although the government is a big part of the factor here.
There’s another factor about food companies, they’re adaptable — with the exception of the beverage companies that are basically selling sugar water in many cases, although they’re adapting, too, with water and low fat, low-calorie foods, and that kind of thing. Most of the food companies, they’re going to want to sell products that consumers will buy. But consumers are often very confused. They’re bombarded by massive marketing and advertising, especially in the US.
That’s why the government does get involved with issues like the dietary guidelines, the Food Guide, MyPlate, and all those things that try to give consumers the basic information to make wise choices when they buy their foods. But it’s hard if both spouses are working. People aren’t cooking at home, yet people tend to eat better nutritional meals when they cook their own meals at home. A lot of people can’t do that any longer.
I think we’re making progress in this area, though. I think that there is much more national recognition about understanding the relationship between what people eat and how healthy they are. Ultimately, the food companies, and I don’t necessarily view them as culprits, have to respond to consumer demand. Years ago there was a movie called Field of Dreams. I don’t know if you remember this.
Dave: Sure, with Kevin Costner, and set in Iowa.
Dan: In that movie they were talking about whether they’re going to build a stadium, and he says, “If we build it, they will come.” For years, production agriculture has said, if we grow it or if we raise it, they will buy it. That’s changing right before our eyes. Now it’s, if they want it, we will grow it. The paradigm of power is changing a lot in the whole issue of food and consumption of food.
Dave: Over the next 30 years, 2 billion people are going to be added to the world’s population. I mentioned earlier the increasing age of farmers around the world. There’s a huge amount of science and innovation, and lot of young talent that needs to get into agriculture to meet the increased food needs. But agriculture as a sector is still seen by many as backward, old-fashioned. As you said, with increasing urbanization around the world, a lot of people are abandoning rural areas. … In Africa, small rural farming on one acre, or growing commodity crops like maize, is not a money-making venture. How do we make agriculture sexy from a policy level to get more innovation and young minds into it?
Dan: Actually, the trends in the U.S. and Brazil are both pretty good because there you’re seeing, in fact, more profitability in agriculture. The land grant schools are seeing increases in enrollment, and that’s because the past few years have shown that agriculture can be extremely profitable. Now we have very good commodity prices, but much more high-value agriculture, fresh fruits and vegetables, a bigger part of our diet that’s much more profitable than the row crops.
Of course, there’s still consolidation agriculture in this country. I wish we had smaller farms so that people can be self-sufficient, but we’ve had consolidation in almost every industry in the world. In places like Africa, on plots one acre small, it’s not going to be very realistic, in terms of producing more profit for farmers. There will be some consolidations there. They’re not going to be like in the US, but use of cooperatives is becoming a big factor, particularly in Africa.
A lot of the techniques that we went through in the US, they’re going through now and such here in Africa. In Ethiopia, for example, they have an Ethiopian Agriculture Transformation Agency that’s doing its best to try to educate farmers, providing them an extension network like we have in the US, and to give them more information, and realizing that the one-acre and two-acre farm probably isn’t a good revenue stream for the long term.
Dave: That being said, you know there are a lot NGOs and other civil society groups who want to help small rural farmers.
Dan: When I say small rural farmers, the developing world will have small rural farmers for a long time to come. It’s just they’re going to be a little bit bigger than they were 50 years ago. It may be 5 acres or 10 acres, as opposed to one acre.
Dave: In that case it becomes more commercially viable.
Dan: If you look in the United States, the thing that we saw is that people have to band together to produce and market, and that requires some sort of legal arrangement. In the U.S., it was cooperatives. In Africa, cooperatives were often viewed as a tool of a corrupt state, but the truth of the matter is that individuals alone in agriculture have trouble making it because it’s so volatile … weather, pricing … that you need some sort of safety in numbers.
I suspect that one of the trends that you’re going to see in the developing world is the much greater use of cooperatives in terms of growing, producing, marketing, buying fertilizer, trying to share the risk a little better. It’s very hard for somebody who’s got one or two acres to cope in the event of famine or some sort of extreme weather crisis.
Dave: It seems like it’s not a question of whether you’re big or small, but of whether you’re networked into a cooperative or a group-buying scheme or not.
Dan: You also have something now that most of the developed world didn’t have. That is the use of handheld devices, the use of modern communications, the ability to get pricing information. I was in Mozambique about four years ago, and I was with a group of women, vegetable farmers. A cell phone rang and there were 11 women in there. All 11 picked up the phone. They didn’t know who it was for. We asked them how they use their cellphones — this was fairly early — to talk to their seed dealers about bringing the seeds there, how to plant, to find out more about pricing information from ports.
There are still a lot of problems there. Roads aren’t good. Electricity systems aren’t great. Waste and spoilage, because they can’t get storage very well. But notwithstanding, there’s a lot happening on the ground that in Africa through the help of the foundations like Gates, Ford, Rockefeller, through the help of NGOs, both US and African NGOs — and, well, there are NGOs all over the world. And the governments are doing a better job, but I wouldn’t stake my future in what the governments are doing. That’s why the foundations and the NGOs are so important.
The US, through this Feed the Future Initiative — and I assume you’ve followed it — has been really transformed how we have helped farmers overseas.
Dave: Earlier you mentioned that only now are people trying to integrate health, nutrition, food, agriculture. When it comes to food insecurity in Africa, a lot of it stems from energy insecurity. Now the Obama administration, through the Power Africa Initiative, is trying to facilitate deals to allow more access to utility scale grid power for Africa.
Dan: It’s absolutely critical. Again, I’ve got to go back to what we did back in the late 18th, late 19th, early 20th centuries. The building of an electric grid made all the difference in the world. You couldn’t transport crops without an electric grid. We electrified rural America. … Because of that, we created these rural electric cooperatives all over the country that provided power so they could operate grain elevators, do all these kinds of stuff. Without electric power, it’s almost impossible to do anything.
Dave: Historically in Africa, there have been US and European energy companies, extractive industry companies, especially for the past 50 years. And typically the NGO civil societies have opposed these investments, saying they’re despoiling the land, polluting groundwater, soils, displacing communities. But in many cases, the infrastructure that will be built by these companies can actually help small rural farmers, in terms of providing energy to store and process food. And on the environmental side, because of stable energy, it will reduce deforestation, reduce the need for firewood. How do you think the story needs to change for some of these companies to be seen as allies of the farmers and the environmentalists, instead of enemies?
Dan: That’s a very good question. The truth is, major American public companies that have shareholders are now subject to all sorts of public relations activities by their shareholders, including by environmental groups, to push American companies to be much more environmentally responsible. Take a company like Coca Cola, which has had problems with, for example, water utilization in India, Latin America. Now, Coke is all over the issue of water quality in East Africa, Central Africa.
You take a lot of the agriculture seed companies, Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta. These companies, because of shareholder democracy, are no longer like the old colonial-type powers. I like to say the Chinese have begun to occupy that space. I was in Ethiopia last year in Addis Ababa. We met with a lot of agricultural officials, and they were saying that the Western companies had come to realize how important being sustainable stewards of the land was, but how the Chinese companies had come in and were occupying the old-time extractive space.
For this to work, you have two things. One is that US government has a big role to play to push this, but the more modern shareholders of democracy, are really forcing them to do the right thing here. That’s a big positive. The question is, “Is there enough investment opportunities to make it worthwhile for them to go into these countries and spend a lot of money?”
For Coca Cola, yes, because they’ve been there. … Coca Cola’s the largest employer in Africa. I mean, they’ve got distribution networks. But for a lot of the companies, I don’t know. It depends on whether they can secure some sort of return on their investment, or their shareholders won’t want them to do it. The foundations, Gates Foundation, particularly, is a seminal force in this area. Do you know Howard Buffet?
Dan: His foundation is not as big a player as Gates, but they’re also a very important force. The Rockefeller Foundation has been doing a lot of work in the area of finance. And financing water systems and technology are offering us opportunities where the systems don’t have to be as big as they used to be. You can have water purification systems that are much more local, for smaller communities and even for small, older farmers. Even energy technology, although you still need a grid, no matter what you do, but there are other new technologies.
I guess my answer to your question is, I think most major companies understand it and get it. But whether they’re willing to commit a lot of resources, I don’t know.
Dave: I’ll pick on two things you said. One is the role of Chinese and Chinese into Africa. Many people think it’s controversial, and that the types of things they’re doing, the extraction of resources, their policy towards human rights and environmental rights are very questionable. That being said, they are a force in Africa. The trade volume of China with Africa is three times what it is for the US with Africa. They’ve built a lot of infrastructure, which has improved lives of farmers because they can now get crops to market. Where do you see collaboration opportunities with US companies, US government, and some of the new players in Africa, the Chinese, Indians, and Brazilians?
Dan: One of them has to be in the environmental space, where there’s a lot of pressure in almost every country in the world, and in China, to deal with water, water rights, soil health, and forestry. Forestry’s a huge issue. That’s where multilateral institutions are so important. That’s where governments have a really big role. You’re starting to see now the Chinese recognizing that their people could choke to death unless they somehow deal with these issues. As long as we keep these high up on the multilateral agenda, then I think we’ll make progress.
I don’t view the Chinese as the enemy. I just think that their resources are so limited, and they’ve been on a growing spree. So sustainability hasn’t been historically at the top of their agenda, but it’s going to happen.
Dave: It’s similar to what happened to North America. If you look at the bison population in 1800 versus 1900, a 60 million bison population was reduced to less than a 1000. Now the bison population is about 500,000. U.S. forest cover now is much more than what it was a 100 years ago. In the 19th century, large areas of our forest were cut down for timber and energy. As countries get economically wealthy, they tend to get more environmentally conscious.
Dan: That’s right.
Dave: Civil society groups — especially in the U.S. and Europe — want Africa to leapfrog over how development happened in the US and Europe, by putting the human rights cart before the economic growth horse. When the US was developing through the 19th century and early 20th century, women, minorities – none of these groups had voting rights, very poor human rights, we had a destructive civil war. Yet the U.S. evolved past all of that towards a more perfect union. As we became richer, all these human rights and environmental rights issues came to the fore, and we had a chance and monetary resources to tackle them.
Dan: You’re very right, I understand. There certainly wasn’t perfection in the Western world that we exploited to build, but our political systems were, by and large, pretty stable. While there was corruption, it wasn’t everywhere. Things got too bad like they got during the … let’s say, right around the turn of the 1900s, and yet the progressive movement worked to clean things up.
Look, the cultures are so much different. The lack of profound education — I mean, education was a huge factor in the US. It was much more limited [elsewhere], I mean, because the colonial powers didn’t encourage it in Asia or Africa certainly. These things take a long time. The danger of Africa’s course is that it’s got all these minerals, forestry, and all these potential exploitable resources — and we don’t need it as much here, but the Chinese need it, and certainly India.
Brazil is a pretty good example of a country in the more modern era that’s developed its agricultural resources better and now has exploited the Amazon region to build soybean farms. Brazil now spends more on agriculture research than the US does. They learned it from us. Most of their scientists were trained in the US. Brazil is a pretty good example of some of these developing countries that have managed to develop a much stronger agriculture and food security environment.
Dave: Brazil has a lot to teach Africa in terms of tropical crop research.
Dan: That, and then you have the connection with the Portuguese language, so they have the relationships in Mozambique and Angola. There’s a more natural fit. … I mean, the U.S. relationship is more just the diaspora relationship of Africans in this country, but culturally, Brazilians are probably closer to Africa than we are.
Dave: That’s where you say more multilateral cooperation makes sense.
Dan: Absolutely, like keeping it on global agendas like the G20, G7. The power and role of the big foundations like the Gates Foundation. If you were to ask me who has more power and influence in the area we’re talking about, I’d say that Bill Gates and Walmart, just ironically. It’s not the US government — maybe a little bit — but all the players in the modern world are forces like them.
Dave: That raises the question of accountability. Elected legislators are accountable to voters every few years. Companies are accountable to shareholders. But it seems like some of the large foundations, because they have their large endowments, are pretty much not accountable. Or their accountability is substantially less than what you’d think. Especially in Africa, in countries like Ethiopia and other fast-growing countries, you’re starting to see this backlash against many NGOs, which are seen as not accountable to anybody and slowing down the pace of economic development.
Dan: Some are better than others, and you can’t generalize. My experience tells me that probably it’s because the amount of money. The Gates Foundation spends $5 billion a year, mostly in Africa. With those resources, and the fact that there’s a leader of the foundation who genuinely cares about this stuff, it’s made a big difference. Leadership is a big factor in both donor and recipient communities.
Developing leadership is a really important part of this effort. How you train young people to be different from their ancestors? To be more respectful of political systems, capitalism, freedom? It could take a long time. The American land grant system used to be really big in terms of relationships with African universities. They ran out of money or they ran out of interest, and that [relationship] has fallen way down. That’s something we’ve got to try to encourage because to develop agricultural technology in this field, it can carry forward on these things.
Dave: Now my question is about diet. Humans evolved in Africa, on the African savanna. Homo sapiens arose almost 200,000 years ago, and for most of human history, humans have been hunter-gatherers. Agricultural civilizations have been around for 10,000 years. Now when people look at modern diseases like diabetes, heart disease, or obesity, there’s this view that the agricultural diet, especially, the industrial agricultural diet, is responsible for a lot of these problems and we need to look back into our evolutionary past to address some of these health challenges.
In Africa, of course, there’s hunger and poverty, but there are some tribes in Africa like the Nuer, the Maasai, the Dinka who are some of the tallest humans on earth, with average height of 6-foot-2inches, and they have lean physiques, and nobody goes to the gym. What do indigenous cultures like those have to teach us with respect to diet?
Dan: I think, one, we have to respect that there’s no one size fits all. That’s for sure. Second, our particular dietary system is not necessarily suitable for the rest of the world, and we’re changing that ourselves. We’re finding that it leads to huge amounts of carbohydrate consumption and sugar and other kinds of things. It’s a very good point.
On the other hand, there are great nutritional deficiencies in the developing world. Micronutrients and diversity of foods, and part of that is because of poverty. Poverty has such a big role on these kinds of things. How do you get everybody in the world, developed and developing nations, to have a diet that’s much more in sync with, perhaps, what humans should be eating and what history should be guiding us to eat? It’s not easy to do. If you look historically, there’s not a lot of research in the relationship between agriculture programs, health, and nutrition.
The Council on Foreign Relations had a task force on non-communicable diseases in the developing world. What are they? The ones you just mentioned — diabetes, heart disease, cancers. … They did this report and it was composed of a lot of health people, and they focused on tobacco control, which was important; and they focused on pharmaceutical availability, which is important; and they had virtually nothing in there about diet and nutrition, school meals, you just name it.
I said, “I won’t sign the report.” In fact, I think this is the report. I’ll give it to you. The Emerging Global Health Crisis. If you look at the people on it, by the way, there was me. I’m the only guy who has anything [to say about nutrition]. … Sandy Berger was on the National Security Council. Mitch Daniels is president of Purdue University. Tom Donilon was National Security Advisor. Ezekiel Emanuel, Rahm Emanuel’s brother. Me. Donna Shalala and Tommy Thompson, former health secretaries in the U.S.
You look through this thing, and you’ll see there’s just virtually nothing about diet and nutrition as part of health strategy. I raised the issue. A French philosopher once said, “You are what you eat.” I said that building immune systems, making people so they’re not susceptible to disease, has as much to do with health as everything else. I put additional views here. You’ll see them. I said, basically the report doesn’t fully include diet and nutrition and other forms of preventive care as key strategies to help combat diabetes, cardiac disease, hypertension, cancer, and other non-communicable diseases.
In this country, we think if it’s exotic and technologically advanced, then it must be good. Telling somebody or devising systems to get more protein into the diet or micronutrients into the diet — that’s too simple of a solution [for people who prefer to hear about technology-related solutions].
Dave: Things like eating fermented foods.
Dan: Yeah. That’s why you’re supposed to eat sauerkraut —
Dave: Eat Sauerkraut and drink kombucha.
Dan: Even pickles. It doesn’t sound like it’s the greatest diet in the world, but fermented foods and, of course, the omega 3 fats, which are —
Dave: Good fats, as opposed to hydrogenated vegetable oils and trans-fats.
Dan: Some, like avocados, are pretty good. Anyway, it’s not viewed as exotic science.
Dave: Absolutely. It’s viewed as too simple.
Dan: It can’t be good because it doesn’t cost any money to solve the problem. On the other hand, the consumers of the world are really beginning to demand a lot more. “I want more control over my life. I don’t want you to tell me what to do.” Some of that’s not so good because a consumer will say, “I don’t want to get vaccinated,” and that’s not good either.
Dave: You raise a good point about how in our country we look down or are dismissive of solutions that are cheap or “old-fashioned,” and not technologically advanced. We also seem to ignore the environmental aspects around health.
I’ll give you an example. If you look at obesity rates in rural America, when compared to New York City or Washington, DC, they’re substantially higher. In cities you have walkable streets. People take public transportation and walk to the café or restaurant, while in many parts of rural America, people live in these suburban islands and they need a car to run even simple errands.
Dan: At the farm now, they have very expensive machinery. It used to be you had to actually walk with the horse. Modern technology has made a lot easier, but it’s true, some of the highest incidence of obesity is in small towns in rural America.
On the other hand, some of the highest longevity rates are in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, where you have very homogeneous populations, where maybe there’s a lot less stress. You’ve got friends. You don’t worry whether the Middle East is going to blow up or not, this kind of thing.
Dave: Sure, I agree. I know you mentioned food waste. There’s talk about climate-smart agriculture. There’s a lot of emphasis placed on increasing food yields and crop yields in Africa, and row crops and use of agrochemicals and fertilizers. But the fastest way to increase yield is to reduce waste. If you look at what happened in manufacturing with the Toyota Production System, “the machine that changed the world.” A key innovation there was reducing inventory and reducing waste in input materials. Who do you think are the companies designed to play the role of the “Toyota of agriculture,” in terms of reducing food waste?
Dan: I don’t know because there are a lot of new companies, but what are the problems to be solved? One problem is refrigeration. Much of the waste is just lost spoilage. A lot of that’s related to the grid and power, but can we devise storage systems and refrigeration systems that are more suitable and cheaper for smaller-scale agriculture.
Food waste is a big problem in Africa because of spoilage and no real transportation system. If you don’t have a railroad or a road, then you’ll lose your crop unless you can somehow consume it locally. For the developed world, it’s largely because we overproduce. We eat too much and food is cheap. Inventory management is not nearly as good. But you’re right, the 30% to 40% of food that’s either rotten or just thrown out could help feed another billion or 2 billion people, no question about it.
I still think that you’ll never stop the march toward technology, though. There are crops that are drought-resistant and pest-resistant, and basically dealing with this crisis of water, which is probably the biggest problem facing agriculture. That’s going to take some technological solutions, too. That can’t be done using prehistoric technology.
In a lot of small-scale agriculture, you don’t need that. You just need better production methods and more appropriate use of fertilizers. But you also need seeds for drought-resistant crops, too. There are ideological factors that play here. Some people are just against new technology. On the other hand, there are some people who say the only answer is new technology. It’s going to be somewhere in between.
Dave: 2015 is the International Year of Soils. And with respect to soils both in North America and Africa, if you look at the loss of topsoil per year for the past 50 years, it seems we’ve lost a lot of mineral content, a lot of organic matter. For example, a carrot grown in two different fields could have different nutritional content based on different soil mineral profiles.
Dan: By the way, research into soils has been a very low priority in our land grant schools, so we tend to research higher yields, productivity. There’s a guy at the Land Institute in central Kansas who has been doing work on perennials and cover crops, which are very important.
Dave: What are your two takeaways for a young person who wants to enter the African agriculture sector? What’s your advice?
Dan: One, you’ve got to learn the field just like everything else, which means either go to school formally or else find an extension-type network, where you can become skilled in the subject matter. You can’t do this without knowledge. That’s certainly one thing. Then, use modern technology to keep up to date, so you’ll know what’s happening with respect to prices, technology, trends in the weather, all those kinds of things. Do you remember the movie The Graduate?
Dave: Yeah. The key for career success was “plastics.”
Dan: Yes. I honestly do think that the future of the world is agriculture and food. Just look at the population, the demographics. … People can make a lot of money in this business in Africa, not just the US, but in Africa. In fact, there are probably more opportunities in Africa than there are in the US because you haven’t had this massive urbanization yet and everything else.
There are a lot of challenges, huge challenges, but leadership skills coupled with adaptability for changing technology — smart people can make money in this business if they know what they’re doing. That’s the big issue, if they know what they’re doing. You just can’t haphazardly go in and think you’re going to be a great farmer and necessarily survive. That’s why maybe you have to adapt and go into a cooperative or some sort of similar type of endeavor. Aspen does a lot of that. As I said, leadership training, there’s some done in the agriculture sector, but there’s a lot of stuff online now that wasn’t there a long time ago.
Dave: Thanks for your time.
Dan: You’re welcome.