One world, one health, one airspace

Iceland’s recent volcanic eruption gives the international agricultural research community a welcome pause

Seldom has the world experienced a more dramatic demonstration of the interconnectedness of the modern world. Like the volcanic dust that since 14 April has spewed and spread from southern Iceland south and east over the upper airspace of northern Europe, air flights, and more than one million travelers and their planned activities, were suspended.

Three men who have likely not had three consecutive unplanned days for more than three decades were trapped by these unprecedented events for three glorious sunny days in Ethiopia’s highland capital of Addis Ababa. The three, all with veterinary backgrounds, are members of the board of trustees of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which had just completed its 33rd meeting on ILRI’s large leafy campus in Addis. They had just signed an agreement for ILRI to join a new Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres, signaling a new phase in the nearly four decades of operations of ILRI and its two predecessors, the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases and the International Livestock Centre for Africa.

Knut Hove, Rector of the University of Life Sciences in Norway, was trying to fly back to Oslo. Jim Dargie, chair of the program committee of ILRI's board, was trying to get to his home in Austria. Dieter Schillinger was trying to get to Lyon, France, where he heads public affairs at Merial, one of the world’s largest animal health companies. All three men took this remarkable occasion to get out and about in Ethiopia, first taking a day trip into the farmland countryside. This was the first time many staff had seen these men in jeans and other casual wear. And it was the first for many to have extended, relaxed conversations with them. Indeed, many things during these abnormal days seemed hyper normal on ILRI’s Addis campus.

Hitting the pause button
We will never know the full human costs of this volcanic eruption near the Arctic Circle, far from most human habitation. But we at ILRI already have quick and ready evidence of some of its human benefits. For once, the ILRI research community was forced to slow down, with many staff and board members experiencing enough time to take time with, and for, one another, getting to know each other better and in new ways. We would not go so far as to say that the busy ILRI community managed to approximate the civilized ‘slow time of the plough’ in the great livestock-keeping communities that ILRI’s research serves here in the Ethiopian highlands. But in the unexpected space that opened up this week, it did appear that ILRI took a moment to take a breath—and take stock, as it were.

This was doubly fortunate as ILRI’s scientific team leaders are now in the thick of marathon writing tasks as they prepare white papers on the roles of livestock research for ‘Mega Programs’ being fashioned by the new Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres, which works to enhance agricultural livelihoods and lives in poor countries of the South. Much about these new global and long-term Mega Programs, and the roles of livestock research in them, apparently will be determined over the next two to three weeks. Much thus appears to be at stake for this research community and its many partners and beneficiaries.

It would thus appear advantageous that an icy volcano far to the North should have erupted when it did, giving members of the pro-poor international agricultural research community pause before embarking on their speedy development of frameworks for new research programs with and for countries of the South. For when all the drafts of all the white papers being developed are finalized, and when all the hard choices are finally made about what research will be funded and what not in the new Mega Programs of the new Consortium, one factor will have remained unchanged—that is the human factor. The volcanic pause this week serves to remind us that who and how we are for one another in this large and diverse community of agricultural scientists is likely to matter far more than what ideas we get onto paper, and embedded into proposals, over the next few weeks.

Livestock goods and bads: Two European views

On 10 April, we interviewed ILRI Board Chair Knut Hove, from Norway, and Program Chair Jim Dargie, from the UK.

HOVE: In the last year media attention on livestock ‘bads’ has gone away in Norway. It has not had an impact on meat production in Norway. My country’s strategy to use the whole country, and we are located so far north, with such large grasslands, that ruminants will always have a place there.

DARGIE: In the UK, people are still questioning why so much of our crop area should be used for producing food for livestock. They have concerns about using so much energy for this in this era of climate change. Questions are being raised by the government about what should be its appropriate response to meet the rising meat requirements. There is going to be greater emphasis on home-grown food production to lessen the greenhouse gas emissions due to transporting foods. Bear in mind that people in our countries are overfed, and in that context, meat production is often seen as a public bad.

HOVE: On the other hand, in our countries diets like the Atkins are very popular, which encourage you to eat more protein and less carbohydrates. In Norway, the focus of most people’s concerns are the high levels of methane produced by industrial livestock production practices and the treatment of animals in these intensive systems, such as raising battery chickens and using feedlots for beef cattle. In the Scandinavian countries, we haven’t reached this industrial level yet—we tend to have small, family run farms that make use of grazing and grass production. We have strict controls on how many chickens or cows a farmer may raise. Norwegians are given many incentives for practicing small-scale sustainable agriculture.

DARGIE: This was the European Union’s response to overproduction of livestock foods—the milk mountains and so on. Governments rather than farmers have been paying for the environmental costs of agriculture in Europe. HOVE: The rising human populations need to be fed and they need to be fed efficiently. And that is the hard problem we face. As long as we have this wealth of fossil energy, we in Europe have been able to scale up, scale up, scale up, to mechanize our agriculture, with most of us having left the farm. (In the seventeenth century, everybody was producing food here.)

DARGIE: What’s going to suit one country is not going to suit many others. Many rich countries have turned food production into big business—they are producing food to sell elsewhere. And this is depressing incentives for sustainable agriculture elsewhere. The question is, if we include the costs of environmental services, are these rich food producers really efficient? One of the problems at the moment is putting a dollar sign in front of environmental services, or environmental bads. That is a big big issue. And how we cost factors will vary enormously from one country to another.

HOVE: Many researchers are working to get these figures. We in the developed world have lived on polluting and we have had strong economic growth. Now we have to pay for that. Now we have to pay for our wealth by cleaning up. That’s the chance for developing countries.

This post is part of a series associated with the ILRI Annual Program Meeting in Addis Ababa, April 2010. More postings …