Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Board: David Spielman

Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet.

“Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group” is a regular series where we profile advisors of the Nourishing the Planet project. This week, we’re featuring David Spielman, who is a Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Name: David Spielman

Affiliation: International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

Location: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Bio: David Spielman is a Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and is based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His research agenda covers a range of topics including agricultural science, technology, and innovation policy; seed systems and agricultural input markets; and community-driven rural development. Prior to this, David worked in agriculture and rural development for the World Bank (Washington, D.C.), the Aga Khan Development Network (Pakistan), and several other organizations. His regional emphasis is on East Africa and South Asia. Spielman received a Ph.D. in Economics from American University in 2003, an M.Sc. in Development Studies from the London School of Economics in 1993, and a B.A. in International Relations from Tufts University in 1992.

Recent Publications:

• David J. Spielman et al., “Policies to promote cereal intensification in Ethiopia: A review of evidence and experience,” Food Policy, vol. 35 (2010), in press;

• Anwar Naseem; David J. Spielman, and Steven Were Omamo, “Private-sector investment in R&D: A review of policy options to promote its growth in developing-country agriculture,” Agribusiness, vol. 26, no. 1 (2010), pp. 143-73;  

• David J. Spielman, Javier Ekboir, and Kristin Davis, “The art and science of innovation systems inquiry: Applications to Sub-Saharan African agriculture,” Technology in Society, vol. 31, no. 4 (2009), pp. 399-405;

• David J. Spielman and Rajul Pandya-Lorch, Millions Fed: Proven Successes in Agricultural Development (Washington, DC: IFPRI, 2009).

On Nourishing the Planet: “Nourishing the planet” means investing in growth, development, and the improvement of human livelihoods in new and more sustainable ways than what we have done in the past. This means encouraging greater innovation in how we produce food, manage our natural resources, steward our environment, and assist those least able to benefit from innovation.

What is the relationship between agriculture, the environment, and global hunger and poverty? Agriculture is a fundamental source of both sustenance and income for many of the world’s poor, whether directly or indirectly. Their long-term ability to earn a living from agriculture depends acutely on how we manage the environment that provides agriculture with its essential inputs-soil, nutrients, water, light, and so many other elements. With the world waking up to climate change, there is more recognition that agriculture and the environment are inextricably linked, and thus that our lives and livelihoods are similarly linked.

What is the role you see small-scale farmers playing in the eradication of global poverty and hunger? There are skeptics who argue that small-scale farming is not a viable livelihood option in developing countries, and that the consolidation of land holdings and the expansion of capital-intensive farming will eventually push small farmers out. Yet there is ample empirical evidence indicating that small farmers-particularly small farmers who are able to innovate, commercialize, and compete in the marketplace-have some real advantages over more corporate-style agriculture. But realistically, creating a new generation of competitive and dynamic farmers will take more investment in rural education and health services, market institutions and infrastructure, and science in the interest of the smallholder. The new generations of small farmers should not be bound to the drudgery and uncertainty of agricultural life; rather, they should be sharp, savvy farmers endowed with the skills and education needed to compete successfully.

When you met with Nourishing the Planet co-director Danielle Nierenberg in the fall of last year, you said that “farmers are now faced with decisions that it would take a Ph.D to solve,” but that there are enormous opportunities for creative innovations that can help lift farmers’ incomes, protect the environment, and increase food security. Can you provide examples of what you mean? Policymakers, administrators, and development practitioners seem to expect that farmers will readily respond to their concerns about sluggish agricultural productivity growth, rising food prices, poor household nutrition, climate change, and a host of other complex challenges. But the solutions on offer-a new cultivation practice here, a new market niche there-are not always an obvious opportunity for every farmer. The ability of a farmer to seize an opportunity-to cultivate her crops in a new way, or to sell her farm surplus in a new market-depends acutely on her sense of household security now and in the future, her perceptions of risk, and her level of education and degree of experience.

My favorite “innovation” example is conservation agriculture which, loosely defined, is a set of cultivation practices designed to improve soil fertility and water retention that depend on the adoption of closely related farming techniques-residue retention, minimum tillage, land leveling, strategic crop rotation, improved or specialized varieties, etc. The idea is to conserve the natural resource base of agricultural production while also improving yields or lowering costs for the farmer. There are a range of crop-specific technologies designed to make these approaches work (direct seeded rice, zero tillage wheat, etc.), but they are pretty complicated. I have seen it practiced in Zambia, India, and several other countries, and I take my hat off to these farmers. It doesn’t look that easy.

I’m not much of a farmer myself, but if you gave me a half hectare of land and asked me to try some of these techniques out, I would fail miserably. And even if I got the techniques right-preparing the land correctly, planting seed, managing the irrigation, and harvesting at the right time-who knows what would happen when I tried to sell my output in the market. Being a good farmer, a good agronomist, and a good businessperson all at the same time is challenging. That’s why I focus on the need for greater investment in agricultural science, rural education, and rural infrastructure, so that tomorrow’s farmers are better equipped with the skills and education needed to experiment, adapt, and ultimately, compete.

What sorts of innovations, policies, etc. would you like to see implemented to reduce global poverty and hunger? Reducing global poverty and hunger hinge on several key policies and investments. First, continued and accelerated investment in science and technology is critical. This means not only “high” science like genomics and crop genetic improvement, but also the more “day to day” science of soil fertility and water management, as well as the managerial and organizational aspects of how we actually do science.

Second, greater investment in the hardware and software of innovation are also needed. This means physical infrastructure like roads and power; market infrastructure like price information systems and laws to effectively settle commercial disputes; rural education and health services; and many other areas that are often lacking in the lives of small farmers and rural entrepreneurs.

Third, investment in communities is essential because collective action can often contribute dramatically to social and economic change. There is much to be gained from encouraging communities to identify their own development priorities, marshal their own resources to effect change, and act as independent but constructive partners to both state and non-state actors.

Can you describe the Millions Fed project and your involvement? “Millions Fed: Proven Successes in Agricultural Development” is a project that examines “what works” in agricultural development-what types of programs, policies, and investments have had a proven impact on hunger and food security. The project looks at 20 proven successes in Africa, Asia, and Latin America during the last 50 years that have played an important role in reducing the proportion of people suffering from malnutrition from about one-third to one-sixth of the world’s population. The project, commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was undertaken by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in 2008-09.

Our flagship output from this project is a book by the same title. The book-along with the website, video, booklets, technical papers, and seminar presentations-has helped inform the debate on the future of the global food and agriculture system by focusing attention on large-scale successes that have had a demonstrated impact on hunger and food security, and on the importance of accumulating real evidence on where, why, and how interventions succeeded.

Can you discuss the relationship-if you think there is one-between food consumers in the United States and global hunger? Increasingly, consumers in both industrialized and developing countries are driving the choices that farmers in developing countries make. About 30 years ago, this was not necessarily the case, as policymakers with food self-sufficiency targets, local administrators with subsidized inputs, or scientists with new plant varieties held sway. Of course, this shift to a more consumer-driven global system offers many opportunities. Think about the small farmer in Tanzania who is able to make good money producing organic green beans for export to Europe, or the small farmer in India who is enjoying high returns on his mango and grape exports to the Middle East.

But I often wonder whether there is a need for us to cautiously interpret the gains associated with the expansion of this global system. The natural skeptic in me would ask whether we are simply replacing cacao, tea, rubber, and other colonial cash crops with pesticide-free strawberries, shade-grown coffee, or organic broccoli for wealthy consumers in industrialized countries. The economist in me would ask whether poverty reduction and global hunger can be effectively reduced by these products (and interventions to promote these products), or whether there are better uses of our scarce resources.

In some countries such as Ethiopia, research shows that greater poverty reduction can be achieved by investing in the improvement of food staple and livestock productivity. Although this doesn’t preclude investment in high-value export crops, it should be a warning message to policymakers and development practitioners who are overly enamored with the idea that quaint fruits, organic vegetables, or pretty flowers will end poverty.

Why should food consumers in the United States care about the state of agriculture in other countries? During my undergraduate studies, I had an international relations professor who published extensively on the theory of deterrence and mutually assured destruction-key principals during the Cold War. But recognizing that the Berlin Wall was falling at the same time as he was lecturing, he talked a bit about interdependence-the idea that the security of all countries would depend not on rival military might, but on the depth of their economic and social relationships. I think we are moving closer and closer to a tightly interdependent world. This means that food consumers in the United States need to care more about the state of the world because their choices at the supermarket, in the kitchen, and in the voting booth affect the livelihoods of millions beyond their borders.

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News & Notes April 2, 2010

I caught a few friends napping late yesterday afternoon when I posted to Facebook that I would be moving to Santa Fe and changing the name of the blog to “The New Mexico Pennsylvanian.”  I hope everyone enjoyed a good April Fools Day!  Google had the best gag I saw.  They announced that since Topeka, Kansas was changing its name to “Google, Kansas” the least they could do was change their name to “Topeka.”  The Onion also was good as they went “straight” for the day.

The progressive online journal Common Sense 2 is up with its April edition.  Go read some good stuff.

Contributor Walter Brasch was our guest on yesterday’s Democratic Talk Radio program.  We discussed the recent Federal Court ruling which says Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program was unconstitutional, his article on pigeon shoots and other relevant topics.  Walter is a fine writer, author and professor and we had a great hour.  You can support Democratic Talk Radio by being a sponsor and keeping us on the air.

The Sestak campaign really took it to Arlen Specter yesterday by celebrating April Fools Day by Tweeting a different Specter foolish position or statement every hour.  They remembered his support of the Bush tax cuts, opposition to EFCA, his Kanye moment, and other greatest hits all day long.

Berks County DA John Adams, already under fire for refusing to enforce the state’s law against cruelty to animals, busted another massage parlor yesterday.  He simply loves getting the free publicity these minor annoyances create.  Yes, human trafficking is awful but Berks County residents would prefer he end the gang violence in Reading.  The Reading Eagle loves covering the busts while, all the while, accepting ad revenue from the houses of ill repute.

I see Kate Gosselin is on some reality show again.  I thought we’d gotten rid of these mindless, boring creatures?

As baseball’s opening day approaches the Phillies announced Joe Blanton has a sore muscle.  Joe Blanton has muscles?

I’m off to do a little kayaking on this beautiful Good Friday.  Everyone have a good holiday weekend whether you’re celebrating Easter, Passover or spring.  I’ll catch up on the comments when I get home later today.

Pennsylvania Father Forced to Pay Fred Phelps

Imagine the horror of losing your son to war.  Imagine the pain of having to bury a child, someone you shouldn’t by nature, outlive.  Now imagine after losing your son to the War in Iraq, having to bury him, going through all that grief, anguish and torment then having Fred Phelps and his band of misfits show up at the funeral with signs saying he died because God Hates Fags…

This is what  Albert Snyder was out through by Phelps and his merry band of lunatics.  Snyder sued Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church for the outrage and should have won.  Not all speech is free, especially that which is extremely offensive ina time of great sorrow.  A court has determined that the father now must pay all of Phelps’ legal fees incurred by the lawsuit, some $16,000.  The real travesty here is that Fred Phelps finances his treks across the country offending people by suing people right and left.  The defrocked “man of the cloth” showed up at many military funerals with his followers telling the grief stricken parents, friends and relatives their sons and daughters were killed by God because America tolerates homosexuals.  

This is a Pennsylvania story because Mr. Snyder is from York and the funeral was there.  It is time for Pennsylvanians to unite behind this man, especially the gay community, and support him.  He vows to take the case to the Supreme Court and that will cost money, maybe more than the $16,510.  Bill O’Reilly, in the only decent move he’s ever made, has offered to pay the judgment.  If you can contribute you can do so here.

Make It Easy For Tea Partiers to Burn Their Medicare Cards

I have an idea for exposing the hypocrisy of Tea baggers:  when they show up outside post offices on April 15th to protest having to invest in their communities provide a way for them to truly show their commitment:  a small grill for burning their Medicare cards.  If these people are so committed to getting rid of government health care, if they so hate and fear a “government takeover” of health care they should be very willing toss their Medicare cards into afire shouldn’t they?

Organize your local activists and have a small Weber grill or Hibachi, you won’t need anything big because none of these windbags will actually burn their cards, and some signs telling them this is the repository for their anger.  This should provide a good visual for your local media and be sure to tip them off so they send a camera person.

Candidates For Governor “Get” Reform, Don’t They?

Six candidates for Governor shared a stage in Harrisburg last evening to answer questions which largely focused on reform issues.  Next month this blog will be four years old and I feel as if I’ve spent that entire four years preaching about reforming state government.  Though it was refreshing listening to these men publicly support most of the proposals I’m not about to hold my breath anticipating enactment of anything.  The Governor can only do so much and until the legislature gets serious about reforming itself nothing will be done.  The chances of that are similar to a the chances of a snowball surviving in hell.

More has to happen than just convicting Mike Veon of public corruption or indicting former Speakers John Perzel and Bill DeWeese before anyone there will be willing to enact public financing of campaigns, caps on lobbying expenditures and transparency in the state legislature’s budget and expenditures.  I heard talk about capping campaign contribution limits but nothing about actually eliminating pay to play by public financing.

Some responses struck me as simply stupid.  For example Sam Rohrer said campaign contributions need to be transparent and documentable.  They already are.  Reports are mandatory and are posted online for anyone to peruse.  The issue is strict penalties for non compliance which is non existent.  Those who don’t file, file late or willingly attempt to obfuscate where their money came from should be charged with a felony and thus disqualified from office.

Tony Williams admonished a student questioner on the topic of gerrymandering by saying there is no such word in the law.  The law doesn’t recognize “rude” or “condescending” either Senator but you’re obviously quite familiar with the terms.  Sen. Williams also embarrassed himself when the only credit he could award himself for reform was saying he voted for the Open Records Act.

Sam Rohrer, on the issue of making voting easier said he favored making it hard by requiring all voters produce photo ID.  This from the same man who rails against Real ID…  Voter ID’s is designed to keep poor and minority people (Democrats) from the polls and is, in actuality, a poll tax.  The Bob Jones University alumnus is against government in principle so why does he want to be Governor?  You cannot run government when you don’t believe in government.

Tom Corbett says young adults approaching age 18 should be allowed to register before their actual birthdays.  That’s already the law.  Most of the other candidates supported allowing 16 year olds to register so when 18 they could vote.  I’m not sure why that’s needed.  One candidate even said teens under 18 go to war.  I don’t believe anyone under 18 can enlist.

Jack Wagner, who was late for the event, addressed the redistricting issue by pandering to the debate sponsors.  Talk about transparency!  Dan Onorato said ethical standards and enforcement need to be stronger.  No, I believe the penalties need to be stronger.  We already have ethics rules and laws but people ignore them because there isn’t a high enough price to pay.  Once these are all made felonies Pennsylvania law dictates no felon can hold public office.  If you put their jobs on the line they’ll pay attention.

Tom Corbett advocated term limits as a possible reform but term limits have been a huge failure wherever they’ve been instituted.  The issue is one of experience.  It takes time to learn the art of governance, of being able to work with others, form coalitions and compromising.  Term limits has meant no one in government knows how to govern.  Term limits is one of the stupidest ideas of all time.

Joe Hoeffel drew a line when he said he wouldn’t sign an interim budget and no one should get paid until a budget is passed.  Last year lawmakers and staffers all got paid while the budget dragged on for 101 days.  Sam Rohrer, who would simply cut all state services except for police, prisons and special grants for his fellow BJU alumni, said there’s no reason for budgets to be late.  I suppose so once you eliminate almost all of state government Sam.

On the issue of “walking around money” or WAM’s, an issue rife with corruption and hated by taxpayers, Sen. Williams said he was offended by the term “slush fund.”  Then end them Senator.  A slush fund is a slush fund is a slush fund.  Anything which is hidden, unaccountable, unreviewable and unauditable IS a slush fund.  Too much of this money goes directly back to campaign contributors.  If you want to help your local fire departments make a budget item in the budget which helps all of them.

The state pension system is a financial bomb waiting to explode.  Pennsylvania stopped making contributions to fund pensions due to the budget fiasco.  This was one way the legislature and Governor cut expenditures.  Unfortunately, by law, these must be funded.  State workers and teachers are contractually guaranteed these retirement funds and have sacrificed wages in return for the pensions.  Not funding them is totally egregious and Pennsylvania must address the issue.  

Judges also came up and a discussion of electing versus merit selection was a good query.  It isn’t an easy issue because electing appellate court judges means they must campaign and meet the voters, get feedback and hear what issues are important to everyday Pennsylvanians.  On the other hand money corrupts the process and women and minorities tend to get shut out.  The Luzerne County corruption case continues to fuel this debate but none of the Gubernatorial candidates touched on the real, underlying issue involved:  privatization.  Without the privatization of government services and obligations the profit motive to corrupt the Judges wouldn’t have existed.  Sen. Williams did use the scandal to lambaste Tom Corbett who, as Attorney General, should have discovered and prosecuted the cases instead of the FBI.

The primaries in both parties are May 18th.  Corbett and Rohrer are Republicans the other four Democrats.

Homegrown Solutions to Alleviating Poverty and Hunger

Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.


"We’ve got hundreds of local foods, almost 600 that we’ve categorized through our research," said Kristof Nordin in a January interview with Nourishing the Planet project co-Director, Danielle Nierenberg, at the permaculture project he runs in Malawi with his wife, Stacia (see also: Malawi’s Real Miracle). "But we are starving because we are only planting one crop: maize, which came originally from America."

Many efforts to combat hunger and drought across Africa emphasize boosting yields of staple crops such as maize, wheat, cassava, and rice, which can provide much-needed calories as well as income to millions of farmers. These staples, however, lack many essential micronutrients, including Vitamin A, thiamin, and niacin. That is why many communities rely on indigenous vegetables such as amaranth, dika, moringa, and baobab to add both nutrients and taste to staple foods. These vegetables are rich in vitamins and nutrients and are often naturally resistant to local pests and climatic fluctuations, making them an important tool in the fight against hunger and poverty.

"We are not saying stop growing maize, we grow maize as well," continued Kristof. "But we try to show people how it can be part of an integrated system, how that integrated agriculture can be part of a balanced diet."

Greater variety can lead to a better tasting diet, too, according to Dr. Abdou Tenkouano, the World Vegetable Center’s Regional Director for Africa in Arusha, Tanzania. "None of the staple crops would be palatable without vegetables," he told Danielle when she visited the center last November. For almost 20 years now, the Center—part of the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center based in Taiwan—has been working in Africa to breed cultivars that best suit farmers’ needs (see Listening to Farmers).

In addition to providing the vitamins and nutrients needed for a complete diet, indigenous vegetables are more affordable and accessible to farmers who might otherwise be forced to pay for costly imported staple crops and the inputs they require. According to the Center’s website, vegetable production also generates more income on and off the farm than most other agricultural enterprises.

Indigenous vegetables help to preserve culture and traditions as well. "If a person doesn’t know how to cook or prepare food, they don’t know how to eat," said Edward Mukiibi, a coordinator with the Developing Innovations in School Cultivation (DISC) project in Uganda, in a December interview with Danielle. The DISC project, founded by Edward and Roger Serunjogi in 2006, hopes to instill greater environmental awareness and appreciation for food, nutrition, and gastronomy by establishing school gardens at 15 preschool, day, and boarding schools. By focusing on indigenous vegetables, the project not only preserves Ugandan culture, but also shows kids how agriculture can be a way to improve diets, livelihoods, and food security (see How to Keep Kids Down on the Farm).

Sylvia Banda is another cultural pioneer. She founded Sylva Professional Catering Services in 1986 in part because she was tired of seeing Western-style foods preferred over traditional Zambian fare like chibwabwa (pumpkin leaves) and impwa (dry garden eggplant) (see Winrock International and Sylva Professional Catering Services Ltd).What started as a catering business grew into a restaurant, cooking school, and hotel, with training programs that teach farmers in Zambia, mostly women, to grow indigenous crops. Sylva’s company purchases the surplus crops from the farmers it trains and uses them in the traditional meals prepared by her facilities, improving local livelihoods and keeping the profits in the local economy.

"When I first met some of these families, their children were at home while school was in session," Sylvia said during a Community Food Enterprise Panel and Discussion hosted by Winrock International in Washington, D.C., in January. "They told me that they didn’t have money to pay for education. But after becoming suppliers for my business, the families can afford to send their children to school and even to buy things like furniture for their houses."

Women who grow vegetable gardens in Kibera slum outside of Nairobi, Kenya, were among the best prepared for the country’s 2007 food crisis, despite being some of the poorest members of society. Their gardens provided family meals at a time when no other food was coming into the city. With food prices on the rise in Africa and the impacts of climate change becoming more significant, home gardens raising indigenous vegetables that are resistant to extreme weather and are rich in vitamins and nutrients have become even more important (see Vertical Farms: Finding Creative Ways to Grow Food in Kibera).

As these examples illustrate, most parts of sub-Saharan Africa "have everything they need right here," according to Kristof.

Thank you for reading! If you enjoy our diary every day we invite you to get involved:
1.Comment on our daily posts — we check for comments everyday and want to have a regular ongoing discussion with you.
2.Receive regular updates–Join the weekly Nourishing the Planet newsletter by clicking here.
3.Help keep our research going—-If you know of any great projects or contacts in West Africa please connect us connect us by emailing, commenting or sending us a message on facebook.


News & Notes April 1, 2010

The President has officially changed his name to Barack McCain Obama.  He did this to blunt criticism that he was a socialist when, in actuality he has implemented numerous planks from his opponent’s campaign.

Ed Rendell, who suddenly got religion on government reform in his final year of office as Governor has agreed to join The Pennsylvania Progressive when he leaves office next January.

Arlen Specter has secretly told his wife Joan he plans to return to the GOP after the November election.  He said he can’t wait to burn that donkey tie and that slumming with working people makes him feel “dirty.”

Democratic Talk Radio has secured major sponsorship and will soon expand to ten radio stations.  Thanks to everyone who contributes to keep us on the air.

Tom Corbett has agreed his prosecutions of House Democrats was politically motivated and promises not to do it again until after the election.  That is, except for the Steve Stetler trial due to commence soon.

The Pennsylvania Green Party has decided to organize effectively and to mount major campaigns for Governor and Senate this fall.  No more tin foil hat candidates and no more infighting.

There’s good news and bad news on the dredging of the Delaware River.  While digging up the scum on the river bottom an old ship was discovered filled with old gold pieces.  The bad news is that that part of the river belongs to Delaware…

Now that it is April 1st I officially pardon Punxsutawny Phil.

Does God send natural disasters as punishment?

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Attention Tea Baggers: Let’s Make It Simple For You

The Tea Party folks are up in arms over the federal budget deficit.  It’s funny how they were invisible the past thirty years when Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush cut revenues and spent like drunken sailors.  I can’t take these people seriously because of their hypocrisy.  Bill Clinton took a large Bush deficit and turned it into a surplus.  You;d think the tea baggers would love him.  GW Bush took that surplus and turned it into the most massive deficit in our history.  Leaving office with an annual deficit over half a trillion bucks and an economy in a deep recession on the verge of a depression, the only way out was a massive stimulus plan which still fell short of what was needed.

Now the President has created a Deficit Commission to tackle the problem.  The problem is they won’t look at the actual culprit but will return with plans to cut entitlement programs keeping Americans out of stark poverty.  Dave Johnson takes the issue head on with a series of graphs even illiterate Tea baggers can comprehend.