|CERES No. 116 (FAO Ceres, 1987, 50 p.)|
by Winthrop P. Carty
The diverse nations of the Americas have united to check a growing dependence of their peoples on illegal drugs: their use, cultivation and traffic. At a series of regional and international meetings, representatives have sounded the alarm.
"The drug trafficker is a new conquistador of our people and has become a domestic and foreign enemy of our countries," proclaimed one Venezuelan delegate to a meeting of the Organization of American States. Former Colombian President Belisario Betancur went so far as to state that drugs now represent "the most serious problem that Colombia has faced in its history." Bolivian President Victor Paz Estenssoro has declared a "war to the death, a holy war against the drug industry".
The Americas, then, have heartily concurred with United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar's assertion that "drug abuse presents as destructive a threat to this generation and coming generations as the plagues which swept many parts of the world in earlier centuries. Unless controlled, its effect will be more insidious and devastating." Perez de Cuellar called for a world conference at the ministerial level to deal with all aspects of drug abuse. The Western Hemisphere roundly supported the Peruvian diplomat's proposal, and the meeting will be held this year in Vienna.
However, despite such sincere declarations and unanimity of purpose, the path leading from the cultivator of the raw product in the South to the drug user in the North is difficult to block. The United States imports $110 billion (retail value) a year in illegal drugs, principally cocaine, marijuana and heroin. (A word of caution: virtually all figures on the vast and illegal drug trade are necessarily estimates and of questionable accuracy.)
In dollar value, the United States is by far the world's most lucrative market, and Bolivia, Colombia, Jamaica, Mexico, and Peru have the lion's share of it. Bolivia and Peru grow most of the coca leaf that is converted into cocaine. Colombia produces marijuana and is the way station for cocaine moving north. Jamaica is a main supplier of marijuana. And Mexico exports both marijuana and heroin across the border. One US agency estimated that Latin America supplies all the cocaine, 80 per cent of the marijuana and 30 per cent of the heroin imported annually into the United States.
Although the administration of President Ronald Reagan opened an ambitious campaign to interdict illegal drug imports and curb the internal traffic, most drugs are readily available on the streets of American cities. US Attorney General Edwin Meese has acknowledged that "the gap between the amount of drugs seized and the amount imported and consumed is growing annually. There are signs, however, that growing public awareness, in part stimulated by the Government, is beginning to reduce domestic consumption of cocaine and heroin, the most addictive of the drugs.
Only in the last few years have North and South America been so united on the drug issue. "It is important to point out that Bolivia is not the cause of the (drug) problem," says Jorge Dandler, a La Paz anthropologist. "It was not part of any kind of internal decision... to stimulate coca production. It was part of a wider problem, and peasants reacted to market forces, to prices." Dandler and some other observers see a parallel with the cultivation of tobacco in the US, where growers are aware of a health problem but respond to demand for their traditional crop.
Fighting the monster. Nevertheless Latin American leaders find themselves increasingly challenged by the Frankenstein monster that illegal demand creates: an expanding drug mafia, growing domestic use of drugs, a "second economy" of illicit income that cannot be taxed for public programmes. Some farmers have shifted from food crops to coca or marijuana, thereby increasing the need for food imports. "The tremendous profits made by the drug traffickers have been used to destabilize both the political and economic systems in a number of countries,', notes a report of the Organization of American States.
The number of Latin Americans who now use drugs can only be guessed at. "Basuco", a potent mix of cocaine base, marijuana and often tobacco, has become a fashionable smoke for many Latin American youngsters.
A former Colombian Minister of Health estimated in 1983 that more than 600 000 persons under age 18 regularly smoked basuco. Various estimates suggest that 50 000 Bolivians and 150 000 Peruvians may use coca derivatives, and that 300 000 Mexican students are "seriously" addicted to mood-altering substances. US experts calculate that Jamaicans consume as much as 500 metric tons of marijuana annually (roughly one-fifth of the island country's total production).
The Latin American governments are literally fighting wars with the drug mafia. Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla and other Colombian opponents of the drug traffic have been assassinated on the streets of Bogota.
"Another aspect of the fight for freedom from drug dependence is the enslavement of the producer," observes the Vienna-based United Nations Fund for Drug Abuse Control (UNFDAC). "some of the most abused narcotic drugs - opium, heroin, cocaine - are derived from plants which are cultivated by the poorest farmers in underdeveloped areas of the world." In the long run, most experts agree, the Western Hemisphere's battle against drugs will be decided not only by the users' ability to kick the habit but also in the minds and pocketbooks of the campesinos who cultivate coca and marijuana, two hardy plants that grow easily in the marginal and remote lands of Latin America.
An age-old tradition. Coca has a special place in the lives of the Indians who inhabit the Andean fastness. The native peoples of the continent have chewed the leaves in a process called acullico for perhaps 3 000 years: it is documented in preColumbian ceramics. Acullico, it should be noted, is legal in Andean countries and is so widespread that a corruption of the word - aculli - has come to mean a short work break. One Peruvian study estimates, for instance, that three million nationals chew an average of 40 grams daily.
Acullico provides a stimulant, creating a mild feeling of wellbeing - but in no way to the same degree as cocaine. It also depresses hunger and fatigue. The indigenous people value coca as a medicine, especially for dysentery, indigestion, diarrhoea and other gastrointestinal aliments. It is also applied as a poultice and is ingested for a variety of common problems, much as aspirin is taken as a cure-all in industrial societies.
Further, acullico maintains significance as a religious and social ritual in the Andes, and is a symbol of the Indians' heritage. "Upon arriving in Peru," notes a Peruvian study, "the Spaniards discovered an advanced civilization with substantial knowledge of flora, both wild and domesticated. Much of this knowledge was subsequently transmitted to the Old World, where it transformed the diet of Europeans. Maize, green beans, squash, and sweet potatoes were readily received, and today are basic elements in European and North American diets. One American drug, tobacco, was widely accepted as pleasurable and harmless." Europeans, however, rejected acullico.
A debate raged in colonial times over the Indians' use of the coca leaf. Many Spanish officials wanted to ban the plant as injurious. But the supply of the product to miners at Potosi, Bolivia, then the largest city in the hemisphere, created such a good business that middlemen were able to save the plant from eradication. Thereafter coca was grown for domestic consumption, although coca production was limited by international agreement, the Single Convention on Narcotics of 1961.
Coca was accepted abroad only at the turn of this century in the form of a medicine and the basis of cola drinks. In the early 1970s, the great epidemic of drug abuse broke out in North America and to a lesser degree in Europe. Suddenly a plant that had long been scorned as the source of the Indians' unseemly practice became the fashionable, albeit illegal, habit of northern tes in the potent form of cocaine hydrochloride.
The US National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 22 million Americans have tried cocaine and roughly 5.7 million are regular users. The social and economic toll of the drug traffic has been enormous. Roughly 20 per cent of all US prisoners are serving time for drug related crimes, and over the past 15 years marijuana users have been arrested at the rate of one every two minutes.
US drug authorities trace the following dollar trail of the coca plant to the North American user: the South American farmers sell 500 kilos of coca leaves for about $250; the coca leaves are converted into approximately 2.5 kilos of coca paste, which sells for $1 000-$2 000; the 2.5 kilos of coca paste is processed into one kilo of cocaine base, which is sold for $5 000-$10 000; the one kilo of cocaine base is converted into one kilo of cocaine hydrochloride, which sells for $8 000-$15 000; smuggled to the East Coast of the United States, that same kilo of cocaine nets $36000-$38000; East Coast wholesalers cut (dilute) the cocaine by half. The original kilo of pure cocaine thus yields $72 000-$76 000. By the time it reaches the street, the average kilo of 100 per cent cocaine has been cut to 12 per cent purity and brings its seller $800 000.
The coca bush. The coca bush itself is a neutral agent. It can be found from Central America to Argentina. Like everything else about it, the plant's botany, distribution, and chemistry are the source of some controversy. But for the purpose of producing cocaine, Huanuco, a variety of the species Erythroxylum coca, is recognized as the most potent and profitable. The shrub grows one to three metres tall and is found at elevations between 500 and 2 000 metres, mainly along the eastern slopes of the Andes and in moist inter-Andean valleys from Ecuador to Bolivia.
Professor Timothy Plowman, a world authority on the subject, reports that "Huanoco coca is always grown from seeds, which are germinated in special nurseries or planted directly into the field under the shade of manioc. Once established, a plantation of Huanuco will yield its first harvest in one or two years and reach maximum productivity in about five years."
The coca plant, in common with cannabis, has become a poor farmer's wonder plant. It is a cash crop that is highly disease-resistant, requires little attention, and grows in poor soils and on precipitous mountainsides. The plant is harvested four times a year by stripping the leaves. Some growers are townspeople who go to the hills to plant coca and return for the harvest. Plantings now dominate many non-traditional coca areas of Bolivia and Peru and are earmarked strictly for the export market.
The yields of Huanuco vary greatly according to region,
techniques employed, and crop year. But Plow man reports yields as high as 1 200
kilograms per hectare in Peru and 851 kilograms per hectare in the Chapare
region of Bolivia. More speculative estimates suggest some yields in Ecuador
reach 3 000 kilograms per hectare. Other forms of coca cannot compete naturally
with Huanuco in the cocaine trade, although production is increasing in the
remote upper Amazon areas of Colombia, Brazil, and Peru, where growers have
greater protection from the authorities.
The processing of the leaves, not unlike that of sugar cane and the wine grapes of some areas, can add a semi-industrial activity to a region traditionally remote from modern commerce. Crude refineries now dot the Andean backlands. They convert coca leaves, the traditional commodity, into coca paste, the intermediate step to cocaine powder. The paste will be turned into pure cocaine at a more sophisticated plant along the pipeline to the US market.
Profits for the campesino. The price Latin American campesinos receive for the raw product (coca leaves, cannabis, or poppy), it is often noted, is a mere pittance compared with the eventual retail value. But the fact remains that the campesino still prospers. In 1984 a High Level OAS Commission found in Bolivia's Chapare that a farmer "cultivating coca could net up to US$9 000 per hectare per year. The next most profitable crop... was citrus, which could net about $500 per year starting in the fifth year after planting when the trees begin to bear fruit. Income from coca could be 19 times greater than the return for citrus. Based on all available studies, there is no crop from coffee to cacao that could be grown in these regions which compares with the net return of coca under present conditions."
Similarly, marijuana and poppy offer the same kind of advantages over possible alternative crops. After 22 policemen were murdered by narcotraficantes in the Mexican state of Veracruz, a spokesman for the Attorney General's office in Mexico City lamented, "The problem is economic, and the peasants are the last people we should blame. It is a depressed area, and the traffickers are able to pay them $20 for a little crop of marijuana when they would earn maybe $2 for the same amount of maize."
In addition to the obvious advantage of economic return, campesinos are "paid at the farmgate", without having to worry about storage and transport. And for a decade, until very recently, all the wonder plants maintained a good and predictable price.
As items of inter-American contraband, marijuana and heroin are losing some of their sales value on the US market. Although heroin, derived in part from poppy grown in Mexico, is highly addictive, the number of US abusers has stabilized in the last decade at roughly 500 000. Marijuana, a bulk export more easily interdicted, is giving way to cocaine, the more profitable commodity. Cannabis, many argue, is not truly addictive, but a number of experts contend that it is a 'gateway" to hard drugs.
In Jamaica, marijuana is given a mystique by the Rastafarians, a cult with perhaps 70 000 members who view the plant as the "tree of knowledge" and a "healing herb". Ganja, as the Rastafarians call it, is smoked in large cigarettes and water pipes. Jamaica, despite official crackdowns, has the basis for significant exports to the United States.
Marijuana cultivation is shifting from tropical America, where spraying, uprooting, and interdictions have reduced the profit margins, to North America. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a Washington-based group lobbying for the legalization of the drug, states that most marijuana smoked in the US is homegrown. "Marijuana consumers", NORML avers, "are smoking less, consuming higher quality marijuana than in the past, and are paying higher prices far domestically grown marijuana." The potent US plants, mostly sinsemilla (seedless), are increasingly grown indoors for personal use.
US drug authorities consider NORM L's figures exaggerated, but concede that there is a trend toward more domestic cultivation. The US Park Service is discovering more and more marijuana on public lands. US officials, in common with their Latin American confreres, are finding out the social, economic, and political complexities of uprooting the problem at its source. On the Latin American front, an OAS report notes: "Interdiction requires methods which are often expensive, time-consuming and labor intensive - including manhunts through jungles, manual eradication of crops by pulling up or burning one plant at a time or intercepting small shipments to assembly centers. Due to high visibility of the field agents, be they civilian or military, the dangers and risks are great. They are often cast as enemies of the people who destroy the livelihood of the campesinos."
Various programmes have been tried, such as spraying, licensing crops, offering crop substitutions, interdicting chemicals needed for converting the raw product into a commercial product, police raids. None have been fully successful in isolation. And Latin American central governments, already burdened by the austerity dictated by foreign-debt obligations, find the anti-drug campaigns costly and often politically unpopular. InterAmerican experts, for the most part, see two main avenues of action:
- Reduce US consumption - something that seems to be happening, albeit in small measure compared with total demand;
- Balance police actions with regional economic development in Latin America's drug-growing areas.
The modernization of Andean backlands would be a complex and expensive undertaking. But as Irving Tragen, an OAS expert, observes, "No one crop, and probably no combination of crops, will fully match the income generated from the sale of illegal coca. Accordingly, a coca reduction and control effort that coincides chronologically and geographically - with development activities is the sine qua non for a successful crop substitution programme."
An interview with Donald L. Winkelmann
Ceres: CIMMYT recently marked its 20th anniversary and much
attention was drawn to the achievements of the last two decades. Do you think
that the Centre will be able to maintain this tempo of change? What are the
prospects for new developments over the next 15 or 20 years?
Winkelmann: Our best-known achievements of the past 20 years are the dwarf wheats. We think it is unlikely that we will have that kind of breakthrough over the space of the next two decades, but CIMMYT staff is pursuing work that could give us another such boost. Progress in maize has been less dramatic but notable even so and represents the kind of continuing improvement, useful for national programmes and farmers, that we count on for the future for both maize and wheat.
Q: Is it fair to say that the very success achieved in widespread adaptation of improved varieties of wheat and maize has also generated other problems of an economic and social nature?
A: Well, let's start with the recognition that all change has implications that run well beyond those initially envisioned, whether it involves dwarf wheats, the wheel, or the fermentation of yeast. If it is a significant change, the implications are almost inevitably wide ranging. There was substantial consternation early in the so-called green revolution that its implications for income distribution were detrimental, that it made the rich richer and the poor poorer. There was criticism of CIMMYT, and of the whole initiative in agricultural research, because of a sense that the gains had not fallen in a way initially expected. But it is my perception that these attitudes have changed dramatically over the past decade or so and that people now see that the poor of the world - poor customers and poor producers - were the major beneficiaries of those discoveries. The arguments for this are well known and well documented. This is not to say that one can be completely sanguine about what transpired on the income front. For example, we know that there are substantial areas of the world that have not yet benefited from improved agricultural technology. Indeed, that recognition now has a heavy influence on the orientation of our research. In an earlier day our concentration was on wheat for the well-watered regions of developing countries. And justifiably so, as it turns out that three-fourths of the spring bread wheats in developing countries are grown under well-watered circumstances.
Now, however, a substantial portion of the total effort of our spring bread wheat programme is focused on those more difficult environments characterized by drought, soil problems, and high heat. The work on disease resistance in well watered areas, of course, goes on.
Q: Will your efforts to help those harsher environments require major changes in your research system?
A: One thing we see is a need for sharper characterization of those regions. Through our associations with colleagues in national programmes we are developing a better sense of the high-priority problems that affect those environments. One should understand that the tailoring that is required for any specific environment is, with high probability, beyond our reach as an institution that makes its products available to many national programmes on a global basis. It would not be efficient for us to try to pursue such tailoring. Instead we develop materials that are generally useful for a major environment like lowland tropical maize, and make those available to national programme areas in that environment.
Q: That's where the fine tuning is done?
A: Yes. One of our functions is to ensure that national programmes have easy access to the materials from these international networks of plant breeders. This apparatus is really phenomenal. It brings together the energies of more plant breeders than have ever focused on a single problem in human history. And we're getting better at this. What we're coming on to now is an ever more precise delineation of major environments and ever closer association of individual experimental stations and plant breeders with such environments and hence an ever more efficient exchange between people in like environments in different countries or even on different continents. This means that an individual plant breeder associated with the network in, let's say, the coast of Guatemala, has easy access to material put together by a person in a similar environment, let's say, in Cd'Ivoire, or by another breeder in a like environment in the coastal areas of Ecuador. In this way the energies of a large group of people coalesce around a particular set of problems. This is not to suggest that the material that comes from Cd'Ivoire is going to fit neatly into the niche in Guatemala, but it puts the breeder there far ahead of where he might have been by himself. He is then able to make the refinements that his local circumstances require.
The second thing that we do is to offer training of various kinds which helps the national programme personnel on methods and techniques, on sensitivities to new issues and new themes in plant breeding. They acquire new inputs for their programmes and new ideas on how to push these ahead. This makes for sharper, more effective activity than 20, or even 10, years ago.
Q: CYMMIT is working on wheats for more tropical environments. The basic genetic material for such wheats must be much more limited than those suited to temperate or semi-tropical zones. Where are these genes coming from?
A: Well, it turns out that wheat has much greater plasticity than we initially suspected. A decade ago when we first started putting wheat down on the coast of Mexico, Helminthosporium sativum overwhelmed everything. From as many as 500 lines, perhaps only one or two would survive. Now the differences are really notable. There are materials that not only survive but produce. These are the result of the introduction of new genetic material over a number of years. We also see an increasing tolerance to late-season heat. These obviously are going to be useful in environments where, heretofore, wheat had not been an option. Having access to that late-season heat tolerance might change the production patterns of farmers in environments where wheat has long been a traditional crop, such as the southern part of Pakistan through the Punjab and over toward the Sind. The idea is to open up new options for farmers. We' ve seen maize move well north into Canada and well north into Europe as plant breeders have pursued materials more suited to those environments. I have no doubt that we are going to see wheats move into environments we thought were simply not destined to grow wheats. How prominent they will be in those areas, how large an extension we are talking about, I don't really know. Other people are providing better rice varieties, and these are also options. As I said, the idea is to open up more options to farmers, and wheat which accommodates the stresses of more tropical environments is one way to do that.
Q: At any stage of developing varieties likely to be widely adapted is there any input into the planning of centres such as CIMMYT on what the possible nutritional implications of a major shift in cropping patterns would be?
A: IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) has made a major effort on issues that relate to nutrition. What happens to calories and proteins? Ten years or so ago there was substantial anxiety because farmers were shifting away from pulses and into cereals. Our colleagues at ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) showed that the total production of proteins - and of calories - had increased dramatically in that particular case as a consequence of going into the higher-yielding cereals and going out of the pulses. There will be other cases in which they won't be increased. I think that the whole system is going to have to give more attention to such themes.
One of the major changes over the past 20 years has been a shift in emphasis from a production or output orientation in our work in agriculture and agricultural development to a productivity orientation - input oriented. So instead of asking questions about what we can do to increase production of, say, maize or wheat, the questions we are asking now are what we can do to increase the productivity of farmerheld resources that are committed to maize and to wheat. This is a more interesting, more profound conceptual framework for organizing our work.
Q: You have referred in some of your speeches to the importance - and the difficulty - of identifying comparative advantage. Are you talking about the comparative advantage between crops or about the comparative advantage among different regions for producing a particular crop? Does this refer to the problem of surplus production in some areas?
A: Comparative advantage is one principle for assigning resources. The idea is to use the resource endowment of a country to maximize, through trade, the total stock of goods and services available to its residents. But what has happened to us in the contemporary world is that real flows of goods and services tied to what resources can do - land, labour, and capital - are something on the order of one-twentieth of the financial flows in today's world. The financial flows often overwhelm whatever markets are trying to tell-us about the value in production of labour, land, and capital. If you are in a place like Mexico, wondering about which direction to go, where to put your own investments for a longrun payoff, do you put more research on wheat, or on cotton, or more on maize?
Q: Are you getting a distorted picture?
A: Let's call it kaleidoscopic. You see one thing today, another thing tomorrow and something else later.
Q: Would you cite, for example, the case of Saudi Arabia's venture in wheat production to demonstrate the impact of an excessive amount of capital?
A: No, the Saudi case relates to a different question. They were paying five times the world price for wheat. Look what happened. An incredible increase in production, which, again, just says that there are prices at which you could produce bananas in the Arctic. The financial flows and comparative advantage issue is a different one. In the past, when people had more stable prices, they could more easily make judgements about their comparative advantage. But today, the relative prices of currencies vary enormously because of financial flows, and these influence judgements about comparative advantage. What this means is that one is much less certain about where to orient domestic research resources than when prices were more stable.
Q: Are you saying, in effect, that both the scale and tempo of international financial transactions are having an impact on the direction and planning of agricultural research?
A: It clouds, it obscures, it makes it more difficult to divine the direction in which one should be moving. Imagine managing the national research programme of, say, Mexico. You have a series of options which are biologically feasible and you have limited resources to invest across that array of options. What you try to do is to choose the sorts of things that you think Mexico will want to place in the market ten years from now. Such decisions are now more difficult to make because of those enormous ebbs and flows on the financial side with their consequences for exchange rates.
Q: Do you see biotechnology markedly affecting developments in maize and wheat breeding?
A: Wheat and maize varieties in the next decade will probably
emanate from conventional breeding practices. Bear in mind that even in Mexico,
where we get two crops a
year, it takes five years to develop a variety. So the crosses that are being made now will become the varieties five years on. But we are trying to monitor biotechnology closely, for two reasons. First, because developments in the new sciences have implications for us and our work. But beyond that they have potential implications for national programmes. We see it as one of our responsibilities to help keep national programmes apprised of what is available through biotechnology. So we are adding staff in that area. As well, we are seeking to develop working relationships with the most skilled practitioners of these arcane arts.
Q: Most of whom are in the private sector still?
A: It is really a mix of private and public sector. The Plant Breeding Institute in England, for example, has a gifted staff. The land grant system in the US, the public systems in France and Germany, also. But let's recognize that a very substantial proportion of the resources in biotechnology are accounted for by the private sector. Clearly, these people are optimistic about the future of biotechnology.
Q: There has been much controversy - and perhaps some confusion as well - over the question of plant genetic resources. How do you see CIMMYT's role in the conservation of germ-plasm as far as the crops for which you have a mandate are concerned?
A: With regard to conservation, this has been a sticky and contentious issue. We've spent a great deal of time talking past one another. Happily, over the past several months we have been able to get a far more precise sense of what the international community expects from us and of what it is that we can effectively offer. Wheat is easiest to talk about. The genetic resources of wheat are held in a variety of places. There is a major holding of the wild relatives of wheat in Japan; there are major holdings of wheats in the USSR, the German Democratic Republic, Italy, Ethiopia, Turkey, and the US. What we have agreed to is that, for spring bread wheats and spring durums, we will hold in our base collection the materials that have emerged from the dwarfing genes, those materials that are most closely associated with CIMMYT's own history. These are essentially first working collections, and second for intermediate storage - 25-year span. We have agreed to hold, in intermediate storage and working collections, all the spring triticales that have emerged. For maize, the custodial responsibilities are notably different. We have agreed to hold, in long term, over 50-year storage, a collection that represents all the land races of the Western Hemisphere, which make up something like 90 per cent of the world's land races of maize. We have also agreed to keep records on the land race materials that are being held in other parts of the world - significant numbers of land races are held in northern India, Thailand, and Japan. While we won't necessarily hold copies of these, we will know where all that material is and how it is characterized. We have entered into no formal agreements on this; we simply, in collaboration with IBPGR, have agreed that this be our current role within the CGIAR system on this particular issue. As well, we are seeking to facilitate the development of national germ-plasm facilities, especially in maize. The idea is to have the materials widely enough distributed so that simultaneous loss is unlikely. Even the fact that we are on the flight path coming into Mexico City airport may constitute the kind of threat that might induce us to think about having duplicate collections. Indeed, it has been recommended to us that copies of everything at El Batan be placed elsewhere in Mexico.
Q: Is there a case to be made for in situ preservation in the case of wheat or maize?
A: This is pretty much the strategy that we have come to with trypsicum and teozintle. But in situ in maize? Think of it: 12 000 accessions. That is a lot of material to tend. The other side of it is that you would get a constant genetic drift over time if you were simply to continue planting them out year after year after year. Another interesting side of conservation is the physiology of seed at very low temperatures, something that we don't completely understand. So we are initiating, as well, a modest research programme in conjunction with our germ-plasm storage effort, to get at some of these issues.
Q: Is there no base in past experience for knowing how long seed can be stored under different conditions?
A: The conventional wisdom is that seed stored at -4 and about 10 per cent moisture will be viable for 50 years. But it turns out that materials taken out of long-term storage and planted need special attention. They need a little bit of tender loving care when they come out of the box, before they go into the ground. We know of materials that were lost because they were planted in the same way fresh seed might have been planted. There was insufficient seedling vigour, and plants were lost. This raises questions about the viability of the seed per se. I don't think that this is scientific black magic. You just have to be more careful because vigour has diminished as a consequence of that long stay at low temperatures.
Q: What has happened to hybrid wheats? Is that an exercise that never got off the ground? Is there a future for hybrid wheats?
A: There are selected national programmes that are interested in hybrid wheats. There is a continuing effort in hybrid wheats among commercial companies in the US and in Europe. And there are surely environments where hybrid wheats will be profitable and will be employed by farmers. It's hard to believe, though, that hybrid wheats have much of a place in developing countries in the near future.
Q: Because of the cost of seed replacement?
A: Exactly. Take, for example, single cross hybrids. It turns out that the cost of production for such hybrids might well run to the equivalent of 12 to 15 kilos of commercial grain. So, if I were to buy one kilo of seed, single cross hybrid, I'd have to trade in 12 to 15 kilos of commercial grain. If I need 20 kilos per hectare for seed, my extra seeds costs for going to the hybrid would be in the order of 250 kilos per hectare; that's the extra grain that I have to get back just to pay for the seed. And for a farmer who's getting 1 500 to 2 000 kilograms with his current practices, it's not very likely that just changing seed will give him that kind of boost in yields.
Q: You mentioned earlier that production was no longer the main theme. Are you developing strains with the idea that these fit into lowyield agriculture?
A: Well, first, I don't want to leave the impression that production is not important. It's just that production frequently gives you the right answer to the question about varieties and technology, while productivity always gives you the right answer. That slight twist in perception can make a difference. Now, with respect to what kinds of materials we are developing, we're looking for a great deal of stability and robustness, materials that are well buffered so that they can readily accommodate the stresses that nature imposes during the growing season. As well, we want materials that are responsive to various kinds of inputs. But we certainly are not pursuing hothouse varieties that need to be almost manicured if they are to yield well. Robustness, stability, the capacity to accommodate the stresses of nature - these are important considerations for our work. By the same token we want things that are responsive to better management. Over time, one of the things that the farmer does when he finds robustness and stability in the face of nature's adversity is to cultivate more intensively. The evidence in India is clear on this, also in Bangladesh and other countries. Give the farmer the variety that is resistant to diseases, that accommodates the stress that nature imposes, and his confidence in those materials makes him willing to accept the risks associated with heavier investment in the plant - more fertilizer, better water control, more care in his weeding. So we want varieties that respond to that extra attention.
Q: Is there any role for what is known as horizontal breeding in developing lines that are suited to these harsher environments?
A: Well, Norman Borlaug was well on the way toward multilines when the dwarf varieties hit the market. The yield increases from the dwarf varieties were so high the multilines were just overwhelmed. Now, some of our colleagues, Khem Sing Gill in India in particular, have done good work on multilines and have multilines available. In the midwestern United States, the programme at Iowa State University has done phenomenal work with oats multilines. Our principal breeder in spring bread wheats is interested in multilines. And, of course, in maize you always have multilines because it is an outcrossed plant. I had always thought of the major advantage in multilines as being in protection against disease. But perhaps in those harsher environments there are other kinds of buffering that the multilines can offer. Diseases are usually less pressing in those environments.
Q: How much feedback do you get from farmers, either directly or through national programmes?
A: Our real link with farmers is through national programmes, and I want to emphasize that our clients are national programmes. What we do is serve up a set of intermediate goods that national programmes can use in their efforts to develop improved technology for farmers. To the extent that national programme researchers are themselves conscious of farmers' reactions, we get a great deal of feedback. To the extent that national programme researchers are isolated from farmers, then that cuts the thread.
Q: Do you see the national programmes ever becoming strong enough for there to be no need for CIMMYT?
A: Well, two points. The first and easiest is that I think there will always be great advantage in having an institution like CIMMYT to serve as the hub of an international network of breeders of wheat and maize. These know that they can share their best materials through us and receive the best of others in return. To the extent that you can build trust and confidence, this could be done by an individual national programme. The great advantage that CIMMYT and other international centres have - certainly one of our most valuable assets - is the trust of the national programmes, their faith in our evenhandedness at the hub of that network. Now we are pursuing the possibility of devolving certain activities in which we are currently engaged to some of the more advanced national programmes so that we, ourselves, can move toward more strategic research. It's really a process that has been going on for many years. For example, the kind of work that we do in agronomy today is really markedly different from what we were doing 20 years ago.
Q: Could you give some specific examples?
A: Certainly. Twenty years ago CIMMYT staff were working alongside Indian and Pakistani researchers developing technologies for Indian and Pakistani farmers. Those were new varieties; they had new requirements in husbandry. Our associates went out there to help. By now, national breeders and agronomists know how to handle those varieties; they are familiar with their growing habits, characteristics and needs, and they take care of those aspects. Meanwhile, CIMMYT staff are turning their attention to newer problems. One example relates to sustaining yields in agriculture. This is going to be an ever more challenging task over the coming decades because we are using our agricultural resources in a much more intensive way than ever before - for example, the wheat/rice rotations in the Punjab and across into Bangladesh, or the soya/wheat rotations in the pampas of Argentina. These represent an enormous intensification in land use.
How do we sustain those yields?
Q: Apropos of that, there seems to be some concern in the United States that it is going to become increasingly difficult, as well as more costly to maintain the very high level of yields that they have attained. In other words, there has been a deterioration in the basic resource.
A: I don't know whether there has been a deterioration, but the evidence suggests that something is happening that we need to know about. We have some data out of Pakistan, for example, that suggests, yes, yields are being maintained. But if you look at the input side, what you find are ever more experienced farmers using ever higher levels of inputs but not improving yields.
Q: From the farmer's point of view, are you past the point of optimum profitability?
A: Well, first, one point is that the farmer never got to the optimum level of profitability. He is pursuing it. But now what has happened is that the potential profits that are available to him are shrinking. My hypothesis is that will not only require the kind of agronomy that we were practising 20 years ago. It's going to be an agronomy that rests much more closely on underlying scientific disciplines. These are the paths that CIMMYT will be pursuing because of the staff we have, because of the horizons we have for research and the easy connections we have into the basic scientific community. We're locking for new ways to focus talents on problems of an international nature.
by B.A. Bishop
This article is intended to raise questions concerning the kind of published farm price information put out by most governments, whether of developed or developing countries. In the former, one purpose of providing such information is to give farmers an idea of the prices they might receive when they market their produce' thus enabling them to improve their marketing plans. I contend that the relationship between such published prices and those actually received by farmers is largely unknown, and that it is probably rather weak. If this is so, it raises questions concerning the manner in which farmers receive their price perceptions, in both developed and developing countries, and whether this affects their marketing practices. It also raises questions concerning the validity of the conclusions that can be drawn from price analyses. Finally, I will include some observations about the way in which the present state of affairs is changing.
It may be noted that the question of how published prices relate to actual prices is not often addressed' since it is commonly assumed that farm price information is clear and unequivocal' and that the greatest difficulty is one of definition: for example, what is the definition of "farmgate" prices and what adjustments have to be made to recorded or published prices to bring them into accordance with this definition? Typical of statements to this effect is this: "The prices at which goods change hands, and the total quantities at which they are traded, are relatively easy to discover." On the contrary, neither the prices at which goods change hands, nor the total quantities traded at any one price are known or easily ascertainable.
One may identity a number of "locations" where seller/buyer transactions take place, where prices are determined, and where ownership is transferred. Transactions may take place, for example, between:
- the producer and the wholesaler, who may be either a national or a regional wholesaler, in a central market
- in a regional market, between the producer and the regional wholesaler - locally, between the producer and the retailer
- or, again locally, between the producer and the consumer directly.
One may suppose that for each of these "locations" there is a characteristic set of prices which vary from location to location partly for such unavoidable reasons as transport costs, partly because of market imperfections. In addition, the manner of the sale may be such that prices are determined at the moment of sale by bargaining or by auction, or they may be determined by a previously agreed contract. It is clear that when a farmer enters a market location he does not know for certain what price he will receive, unless he has a previous contract, but in this context government price fixing is analogous to a contract. Nevertheless it is important for a farmer to know what prices are being established in the market location.
In the short term, he will need such information simply to be able to decide whether or not to sell his produce. If costs of production to the time of harvesting are considered "sunk" costs, he will need to know whether he can at least cover his marketing costs. In the longer term, he needs to know something about the general level of prices in the market, which will enable him to judge whether the prices he himself actually received in the past were acceptable in comparison with what other farmers were receiving and whether or not he can surpass prices previously received by improving his marketing practices. The important point is that the farmer needs to know the market price as a basis of comparison by which he can make management decisions.
The farmer's sources. But as far as the farmer is concerned, the definition of the market price is not really too significant so long as it bears a known relationship to his own prices. The market price may be the price received by a neighbour for a particular quality and quantity of crop, or it may be the price he received from a particular known merchant the last time he went to market. In fact, in market systems where the diffusion of price information is not much developed, these may be the two main sources of price information for an individual farmer. In other words, a farmer is not so much interested in generalized market prices as in an indicator price that he can relate to his own circumstances.
Even where there is government intervention in the market, it is rare that published price information indicates the actual price received by the farmers. There are so many variations on the theme of intervention - floor prices, ceiling prices, guide prices, fixed prices for a certain quality and/or quantity, to which are applied rebates, taxes, or subsidies - that the published price is only an indicator of what the farmer actually receives. In most cases, numerous adjustments are necessary to arrive at this figure. In principle the information for this should be available in government records.
Thus the case is somewhat different for these prices than for those where the basic data are not collected.
In fact, in Western Europe, generalizing on the basis of observations of the situation in five countries, namely the Netherlands, France, Italy, Spain, and (to a lesser extent) the UK, it seems that published data may be more fairly described as indicator prices than as anything else. The reasons for this may be understood by examining more closely the difficulties in the way of publishing price data which reflect better the general price situation in the markets, for instance weighted average prices. In order to be able to calculate these it would be necessary to know both the price and the amount involved in every single market transaction. Merely to state this requirement is to make obvious the difficulties in collecting comprehensive data on market prices. In the first place, if price data are to be collected, the transactions must be observed. In general only transactions taking place in organized wholesale markets can be easily observed. In Europe, on the whole, price data are only collected in such markets. One may suppose that direct producer/consumer sales are not important for most commodities in most European countries and such importance as they once had is tending to diminish. On the other hand, the prevalence of sales under contract, which escape the organized marketing system altogether, is tending to increase, and there is very little good information, for any commodities in any countries, about the proportion of total production which is disposed of in this way. The situation is somewhat paradoxical in the sense that in some cases the contract prices are based on the published prices, which themselves relate to only a small proportion of the total transactions and for this reason may be exceptional. Thus the exception becomes the rule by which prices are set.
In the second place, since price variations take place throughout a season at varying speeds, it follows that price and quantity observations must be made throughout the season, the intervals between observations being determined by the speed and/or irregularity of the price movements. In fact, since prices vary even during a single day, one might suppose that there would need to be several observations during a day.
Third, the existence of regional variations implies that there also need to be observations in various parts of a country, exposed to the same difficulties as just mentioned.
The Netherlands example. In general, it appears the price data in European countries do not match up to the problems posed above. In the first place, the observations are made where transactions are relatively easily observable, namely the national or regional wholesale markets. Second, they are mostly "on-off" observations, for a particular day, with seldom even the range of prices being given. Third, no attempt is made to associate the price observations with the quantities sold at those prices. More commonly, if weighted average prices are calculated, the weights depend on the total quantity of that particular commodity passing through the market in the course of a year. Finally, though it is difficult to be sure about this, the observations of prices do not seem to be made in a very scientific way, being more in the nature of an estimate of a "fair average price" made by an experienced merchant.
The cause of these shortcomings is presumably the cost of doing anything better, though one must admit that it is difficult to know what to suggest by way of improvement. In this connection it is perhaps relevant that the best data on prices of fruits' vegetables, and flowers are those produced in the Netherlands, where records of prices and quantities for all transactions are a by-product of the attempts to improve the institutional arrangements for marketing these products.
The question is whether any improvements which might be achieved in the price data would be commensurate with the extra cost involved. From the point of view of one of the more important groups of users of price data, namely the farmers, as has been noted, their purposes are probably adequately served by indicative prices, and they would not have a requirement for more soundly based general price data. Agricultural policy makers presumably are interested both in the dynamic effect of changes in agricultural prices on production and incomes, and in the relative level of incomes in the agricultural sector and other sectors. For the former, movements in indicative prices would perhaps be a sufficient basis for analysis, but for the latter what is required is to know the real level of agricultural prices. However, the required information about agricultural sector incomes can also be derived from national farm income surveys, and this is in fact done in the UK and other European countries.
In general, this article has suggested that if accurate farm price information were to be published, then many more items of price data would have to be collected and processed than is the case at present. This is now certainly within the bounds of technical and financial possibility for developed countries, through use of computers to record each and every market transaction as regards both price and quantity. Some steps have already been taken in this direction. The irony is that at the same time as the technical possibility is coming closer, the growing prevalence of direct contracts between farmer and processor, which fall outside the scope of organized markets, makes the achievement of this objective less and less reliable.