Robynne Anderson's Emerging Thoughts on Ag

Tackling Malaria Through Innovation

The ability to create innovative products is essential for improved living. One of the most compelling challenges we face is malaria. About 3.4 billion people – half the world’s population – are at risk of malaria. In Africa, a child dies every 2 MINUTES from malaria. In addition to deaths, the social and economic costs from the illness are huge, estimated at $12 billion a year in Africa alone.

It is my pleasure to note that Target Malaria is nominated for the “Moonshot” award by Wired. Target Malaria is a not-for-profit consortium aiming to reduce the population of malaria-transmitting mosquitoes in sub-Saharan Africa. By reducing the population of malaria mosquitoes, they can reduce the transmission of the disease. You can vote here to support them and other innovators in this category (second award grouping).

Innovation is something that should be encouraged and celebrated in every sector. The Wired Audi Innovation Awards promote teams and individuals striving to break down barriers in whatever sector they’re working in.

In February 2016, scientist Astor Teller laid out the principles of the “Moonshot” philosophy. A moonshot, he said, should be firstly about solving “a huge problem in the world that affects many millions of people” – like malaria. Second, a moonshot should not settle for half-baked measures: it has to provide a “radical solution” that can do away with the problem for good. The last criterion, Teller explained, is the reasonable expectation that technology can actually solve the problem. Moonshots should be as much about pragmatism as they are about dreaming. Target Malaria incorporates all of this criteria, and excels in its field. Not only is this a cutting-edge research project, but it also has the potential to save millions of lives.

Specifically, the Target Malaria team is researching approaches that can reduce the numbers of mosquitoes that spread malaria. By reducing the population of the malaria mosquito, (a very specific beast called Anopheles), they are able to combat transmission of the disease. Their strategy relies on reducing the number of female malaria mosquitoes. Only female Anopheles gambiae transmit the disease, and a reduction in the number of females limits reproduction and the future population size, therefore dropping the transmission of malaria. This approach is expected to be complementary to other mosquito control methods, easy and inexpensive to implement, because the mosquitoes themselves do the work of stopping malaria. The control method would be a long-term, sustainable, and cost effective solution to prevent malaria.

Outcomes of the Pan-African Conference in Zambia

DSC_0114The pulse of development is often a bean.

The Pan-African Legumes conference is highlighting some of the outcomes of their meeting in Zambia. It was a pleasure to be a speaker regarding the International Year of Pulses. I’ve never seen such an enthused and dedicated audience at any meeting. Every workshop was packed, people were engaged, and they worked 12-14 hour days in session. More than 400 young scientists showed their passion for pulse crops, every one of whom is needed to foster the productivity of pulse crops and the diversity of the food system.

Read the event recap from the MSU publication ‘Futures’ here.

International Edition of Seed World: Calls for more Research

seedworldThe International Edition of Seed World touched on global issues in the seed sector in time for the International Seed Federation meeting in Uruguay.  An article on the need for more research is on page 42 based on an excellent report by Dorothy Murrell – also a seed sector veteran.  It was a privilege to create an International Edition of Seed World more than a decade ago when I purchased Seed World which is still owned by Issues Ink under the capable leadership of Shawn Brook.

Read the article, on page 42, here. 

EnRoute Magazine: The Frequent Flyer

I was featured in this month’s enRoute magazine. Read about my work and travel experiences:

Tech, Data and Ag

2016-04-25-1461601170-7117176-robynnUN-thumbMany have the impression that technology is for “new” sectors; that farming – which represents a third of the world’s population, half its poor, and is the primary driver of rural development – needs no more than a plow. The sleepy vision of agriculture belies the reality that the most empowered farmers deploy technology regularly to improve yields, increase resilience, and to reduce the footprint of agriculture with sustainable intensification. Conservation tillage is an excellent example and has saved soil, water resources, and reduced fossil fuel use. Farmers themselves took up this technology. Just as they have taken up technology to produce energy from waste products like manure.

Farmers are frequent and complex users of technology.

In the case of smallholders, that technology may take the form of better seeds, water harvesting methods, and grain storage. Some of these technologies are well known, but there are practical risk management issues for someone to change variables on their farm – a complex eco-system – when they are living on less than a dollar or two a day.

This is perpetuated by gaps in research in many areas. So-called “orphan crops” don’t receive their fair share of funding, even in the face of profound needs such as the challenges cassava, banana, and palm dates face from crop diseases. Plus, we are often inclined to talk about crops, forgetting entirely the livestock sector that touches the lives of billions. Funding for animal health not only improves livestock productivity and sustainability, but also helps protect human health.

Recently, I’ve heard many comments that seem a bit snide about how agriculture science only focuses on yield. Without question, science should focus on nutrition, value-addition, and sustainability. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that yields are the way farmers get paid, and we will fail farmers if we leave them with less income than they need to produce our food. Please don’t forget that farmers also produce our clothes in the form of cotton, wool and other fibres, as well as energy, and innumerable other natural products.

To enable farmers to do this successfully, there is a clear and imperative need to invest in public and private agricultural research. This always receives lip service, but we are seeing groups like the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Resources system struggle with massive cutbacks. At the same time, people criticise and undermine intellectual property in agriculture which funds private sector research. We need to support the whole of the science, innovation and technology process in agriculture.

Another clear gap is agricultural extension systems, which were largely gutted over the past few decades. We need local knowledge to supply best practices, implementation, and technologies. We need ways for knowledge sharing to advance agriculture in conversations between scientists in labs and every farmer who are themselves biologists and ecologists working in practice.

Finally, I cannot stress enough the need for insurance and risk management tools to allow farmers to uptake technology when they have only one crop or herd a year. Socio-economic realities limit the ability of smallholders – most of whom are women – to take up new technologies and even basic mechanisation.

All that depends on technology, and also data. Farmers are huge developers and consumers of data and one gap is to fund the use of big data like geospatial and infrared to help agriculture, particularly in the light of climate change.

Agriculture is a great example where we can further the sustainability and further the equity by furthering technology. It has a particular impact in rural areas where some of the greatest inequities exist.

From an agriculture perspective, we have only 14 harvests left to go to 2030 to reach the Sustainable Development Goals #Global Goals