ELISA at ICRISAT? That’s "Economics with a human face!"

aflatoxin ladyPATANCHERU - Ever alert for the application of "Science with a human face" - the very idea which it so happens this photo beautifully shows - from India, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) noted that on 4-6 May 2011 was held the World Economic Forum on Africa 2011 with the theme, "From Vision to Action, Africa's Next Chapter" (weforum.org). Then in the same online advanced story, ICRISAT made a fundamental observation (ANN, author not named, icrisat.org):

The rich and powerful gather in South Africa this month to consider ways to "craft innovative partnerships between business and civil society." Yet there is little mention of agriculture on their agenda, despite over 60 percent of Africans working in the farming sector.

We are talking of delegates from many countries attending the World Economic Forum in Cape Town, South Africa; in those early days of this month, they came, they said, they concurred. No, there was no mention of agriculture, not even in the Home page of their website (weforum.org). While the economists were of one mind concerning innovative partnerships, they were not of one mind concerning innovative partnerships with farmers.

Where's the New Economics there? I'm a teacher by profession, a writer by confession. But Economics is not really a foreign language to me, for at least 4 reasons. One, English is not really a foreign language to me - in the Philippines, English was the medium of instruction when I was in Grade School (mid-1940s), high school (1950s) and college (1960s). Two, I graduated in 1965 from the University of the Philippines Los Baños at the time when you had to pass Economics 1 and 2 if you wanted to pass your course, any course. Three, I'm an eclectic, voracious reader; I read even the fish wrapper from the market. Four, in the early 1960s, I read and reread, avidly, the textbook at that time, American economist Paul Samuelson's new, improved Introduction to Economics, because it was immensely readable; it was, if I may say so, Economics at your fingertips.

Becoming immensely popular all over the world, with his books Paul Samuelson became the "Father of Modern Economics" (independent.co.uk); he won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1970. He died 13 December 2009 at 94, but the ghost of Samuelson haunts world economics to this date. His popular economics was Keynesian, that is to say, all business and government; agriculture is there, somewhere, but you'll have to look hard for it - good luck!

So, if I know the economists, except the geniuses, their heads are above the clouds, and can see neither the forest nor the trees, much less the rice and corn fields at their feet. So, I'm not surprised that those who discussed the economics of development of South Africa ignored the grammar of agriculture - which means they couldn't construct a good sentence using the word development.

The economic thinkers of the WEF forgot the farmers and farm workers in their deliberations. The WEF's own website states (weforum.org):

The World Economic Forum is an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.

Can't find agriculture there. As it looks, the WEF is out there to improve the state of the world using the old-fashioned paradigm of Leaders know best, especially the articulate ones. Now then, either these business, political, academic and other leaders of society don't understand agriculture, or they relegate it to a minor role in development, or ignore it altogether, so it's no wonder you can't find agriculture in their agenda.

Another way of looking at it is this: Economics is the Policy of Scarcity, while Agriculture is the Policy of Abundance. Two people are talking. Economist: "We have scarce resources." Agriculturist: "Go and multiply!" Then they go their separate ways.

Borrowing from ICRISAT, what we are looking for is "Economics with a human face."

If we have problems of development today, it is not that the developed countries have too much technology and the developing countries too little - that can be taken care of by technology transfer. But the problem is that we have too many economists and too few agriculturists. Another way of putting that is this: The economists have too much leadership and the agriculturists have too much followership. This is economics leading the charge and agriculture paying the price.

Today as well as yesterday, we have 2 problems with agriculture, and they both involve economics actually:

One, the problem with agriculture is economics:
What the farmer produces, the middleman takes away

The farmer grows the crop and harvests the grains. The middleman moves in via the farm gate, buys the grains at a price that he dictates, and moves out, profits at his fingertips.

Now then, in the case of chickpea grown by eastern African farmers, what ICRISAT has done is ally with an array of national partners and farmer organizations using a market-driven strategy (Annual Report 2004: Sowing the Seeds of Success, page 18). The partners sow the 1st-generation seeds (F1). The next-generation (F2) seeds are handed over to farmer organizations called Producer Marketing Groups (PMGs). Each PMG selects farmers who multiply them and sell the 3rd-generation (F3) seeds to the PMG. The PMG then sells the F3 seeds to traders in regional and international markets. The PMG is a system of commercialization by farmers of their own produce. Traditionally, it is the middleman who knocks at the farm gate; today, the middleman is the farmer himself; that is, the produce waits for no middleman but goes straight to the market, through the PMG.

That is to say: Farmers produce. Farmers handle. Farmers market. The PMG is non-racial, non-denominational, non-geographical: African or Asian, believer or heretic, farmers benefit in each link of the market chain. The PMG is the way to go today; this is the Real Farm-To-Market Road; it's more than physical, it's more than economics in theory - it's economics in practice. It's economics for everyone, including those who can't define economics to save their lives.

Again, borrowing from ICRISAT, the PMG is "Economics with a human face."

Out of Africa, out of the PMG experience, among other things, ICRISAT has come up with a strategy that it calls the IMOD: Inclusive, Market-Oriented Development. (See my series of IMOD essays beginning with "An African Revolution. IMOD Power to the Women!" 22 September 2010, iCRiSAT Watch, blogspot.com). The IMOD is the Big Picture; it is "Development with a human face."

Two, the problem with agriculture is government:
What the farmer produces, the government takes away.

Since governments have imposed increasingly strict food safety standards without considering costs of crop production, small farmers have been thrown out of the marketplace simply because quality testing is out of their reach, if you will pardon the mixed metaphor. Where government has ignored this problem of small farmers, it is government ignoring economics ignoring agriculture.

Now then, in the case of farmers in India, what ICRISAT has done is conduct research on how to control the aflatoxin content of peanut and other crops, including ginger, black pepper, turmeric and coriander (ICRISAT Annual Report 2002: Research for Impact, pages 7-8). The word aflatoxin is derived from the first letters of the common mold called botanically Aspergillus flavus (afla) that produces the poison (toxin). Long-term intake of low levels of aflatoxins results in aflatoxicosis, which has been reported from Taiwan, Uganda, India (ansci.cornell.edu). People don't want poison in their food. To detect aflatoxins in farm products before distribution and prevent consumer dis-ease as well as expensive recalls, collaborative R&D work by ICRISAT and the Scottish Crop Research Institute has generated a tool kit called the ELISA, the name describing the process in technical terms: enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (August 2009, SASA, icrisat.org). Never mind the jargon; the photo above shows that the ELISA kit enables a technician to simply screen for the toxin in a peanut cake bought from a local farmer. Where aflatoxin analysis used to cost $3 via thin layer chromatography (TLC), with ELISA it now costs only $1. TLC is not only more expensive; it is also more time-consuming. And yes, the mountain doesn't have to go to Mohammed anymore - the ELISA technician can always visit any mountain-high pile of farm produce. With ELISA, smaller is more beautiful.

Because it is much simpler, ELISA is "Science with a human face." Also,
because it is much cheaper, ELISA is "Economics with a human face."

Thinking out all of the above, it occurs to me that I can translate "With a human face" into a modern, popular catchword of computer nerds: "User-friendly." African and Asian farmers are users of science and appliers of economics, so these must be friendly to them. I can see that ELISA is hardware and software with a human face (check out photo again). Having said that, I notice that, inadvertently, ICRISAT has shown the way the Information Highway should travel:

"Software with a human face."
"Hardware with a human face."

And the economists of this world? They should learn from ICRISAT and come up with their own models of "Economics with a human face." Easily comprehensible, Paul Samuelson's Nobel-Prize Economics was reader-friendly; Modern Global Economics must be shown to be user-friendly.

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