Ending World Hunger, The 3rd Way: Listening

Humanity has a hunger problem. We grow crops to produce food, animal feed, fiber, and increasingly, fuel, but have a current crop deficit, as evidenced by the fact that every day millions of people around the world experience food insecurity. Couple this with the fact that the global population is growing to a projected 9-10 billion people by 2050 –with the fastest growth rates often occurring in the areas already afflicted by food deficits – and the obstacles facing civilization rapidly come into stark contrast.Image

Three prime strategies address these problems:

  1. Improve the productivity of existing crops via genetic modification
  2. Improve the conditions conventional crops are cultivated in so as to increase productivity
  3. Identify new crops that can utilize underproductive land

TerViva, the company I work for, is pursuing the 2nd (indirectly) and 3rd strategies as we work to domesticate the tree species Pongamia pinnata by selection and breeding, as opposed to genetic modification. I will dedicate a subsequent blog post to delve into pongamia as a 2nd strategy option, while focusing this post on the intricacies of introducing a new crop.

The process of adding a new crop to society’s agriculture is arduously difficult from a technical perspective. The outstanding team of scientists at TerViva has made unprecedented progress on the technical front, and has enabled TerViva to reach the point where we are currently transitioning from pilot plantings to commercial scale acreage of our proprietary lines of high-yielding pongamia trees.

Also challenging, and of crucial importance when expanding with unconventional crops into new geographies, getting buy in from the local community can be crucial.

As a case study to caution against charging ahead without learning about local customs and cultural norms, one can consider seed corn companies. A quick internet search reveals abundant examples where these companies have been demonized as a result of cultivating genetically modified crops (GMO’s) in communities where these crops were not welcome. Relatively straightforward community outreach would have revealed local antipathy toward GMO’s, allowing the seed companies to employ mitigating strategies, or select alternate geographies to avoid damage to their reputation.Image

Outreach to understand local conventions and cultural norms need not be carried out solely to avoid negative outcomes such as community aversion to particular types of crops or cultivation techniques. A key part of TerViva’s business strategy lies in communication and collaboration with local farmers wherever we work. This strategy is prudent as it is one of the most effective methods of leveraging local knowledge. Expertise derived from experience cultivating land in unique geographies can bring more utility to an agricultural endeavor than an entire textbook full of generic best practices for farming.

The two reasons above should be sufficient to make community outreach compelling. From TerViva’s point of view there is another purpose: introducing yourself, learning about the local culture, and asking for feedback is an indicator of a certain type of internal philosophy. While this ethos is not quantifiable or tangible, it suggests several attributes. First, a degree of humility in that the organization is willing to listen to suggestion as opposed to believing it already has all the answers. Second, openness demonstrates that there are no nefarious intentions or motivations. Finally, from our perspective, outreach shows that we wish to work with the local community, as opposed to residing and operating in a segregated enclave.

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