Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke

Tag: Agriculture

In the World Capital of Vanilla Production, Nearly Three out of Four Farmers Say They Don’t Have Enough to Eat

A new study investigates why and what they can do about it

Madagascar, famous for its lemurs, is home to almost 26 million people. Despite the cultural and natural riches, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. Over 70% of Malagasy people are farmers, and food security is a constant challenge. Rice is the most important food crop, but lately an internationally-prized crop has taken center stage: vanilla. Most of the world’s best quality vanilla comes from Madagascar. While most Malagasy farmers live on less than $2 per day, selling vanilla can make some farmers rich beyond their dreams, though these profits come with a price, and a new study illustrates it is not enough to overcome food insecurity.

In a paper published June 25, 2021 in the journal Food Security, a team of scientists collaborating between Duke University and in Madagascar set out to investigate the links between natural resource use, farming practices, socioeconomics, and food security. Their recently published article in the journal Food Security details intricate interactions between household demographics, farming productivity, and the likelihood of experiencing food shortages.

Vanilla beans, Wikimedia Commons

The team interviewed almost 400 people in three remote rural villages in an area known as the SAVA region, an acronym for the four main towns in the region: Sambava, Andapa, Vohemar, and Antalaha. The Duke University Lemur Center has been operating conservation and research activities in the SAVA region for 10 years. By partnering with local scientists, the team was able to fine-tune the way they captured data on farming practices and food security. Both of the Malagasy partners are preparing graduate degrees and expanding their research to lead the next generation of local scientists.

Farmers harvesting the rice fields in Madagascar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The international research team found that a significant proportion of respondents (up to 76%) reported that they experienced times during which did not have adequate access to food during the previous three years. The most common cause that they reported was small land size; most respondents estimated they owned less than 4 hectares of land (<10 acres), and traditional farming practices including the use of fire to clear the land are reducing yields and leading to widespread erosion. The positive side is that the more productive the farm, especially in terms of rice and vanilla harvests, the lower the probability of food insecurity. There was an interaction between rice and vanilla harvests, such that those farmers that produced the most rice had the lowest probability of food insecurity, even when compared to farmers who grew more vanilla but less rice. Though vanilla can bring in a higher price than rice, there are several factors that make vanilla an unpredictable crop.

The vanilla market is subject to extreme volatility, with prices varying by an order of magnitude from year to year. Vanilla is also a labor- and time-intensive crop; it requires specific growing conditions of soil, humidity, and shade, it takes at least 3 years from planting to the first crop. Without the natural pollinators in its home range of Mexico, Malagasy vanilla requires hand pollination by the farmers, and whole crops can be devastated by natural disasters like disease outbreaks and cyclones. Further, the high price of vanilla brings with it ‘hot spending,’ resulting in cycles of boom and bust for impoverished farmers. Because of the high price, vanilla is often stolen, which leads farmers to spend weeks in their fields guarding the vanilla from thieves before harvesting. It also leads to early harvests, before the vanilla beans have completely ripened, which degrades the quality of the final products and can exacerbate price volatility.

In addition to the effects of farming productivity on the probability of food insecurity, the research revealed that household demographics, specifically the number of people living in the household, had an interactive effect with land size. Those farmers that had larger household sizes (up to 10 in this sample) had a higher probability of experiencing food insecurity than smaller households, but only if they had small landholdings. Those larger families that had larger landholdings had the lowest food insecurity. These trends have been documented in many similar settings, in which larger landholdings require more labor, and family labor is crucial to achieving food sovereignty.

The results have important implications for sustainable development in this system.  The team found that greater rice and vanilla productivity can significantly reduce food insecurity. Therefore, a greater emphasis on training in sustainable, and regenerative, practices is necessary. There is momentum in this direction, with new national-level initiatives to improve rice production and increase farmers’ resilience to climate change. Further, many international aid organizations and NGOs operating in Madagascar are already training farmers in new, regenerative agriculture techniques. The Duke Lemur Center is partnering with the local university in the SAVA region to develop extension services in regenerative agriculture techniques that can increase food production while also preserving and even increasing biodiversity. With a grant from the General Mills, the Duke Lemur Center is developing training modules and conducting workshops with over 200 farmers to increase the adoption of regenerative agriculture techniques.

Further, at government levels, improved land tenure and infrastructure for securing land rights is needed because farmers perceive that the greatest cause of food insecurity is their small landholdings. Due to the current land tenure infrastructure, securing deeds and titles to land is largely inaccessible to rural farmers. This can lead to conflicts over land rights, feelings of insecurity, and little motivation to invest in more long-term sustainable farming strategies (e.g., agroforestry). By improving the ability of farmers to secure titles to their land, as well as access agricultural extension services, farmers may be able to increase food security and productivity, as well as increased legal recognition and protection.

To move forward as a global society, we must seek to achieve the United Nation (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). One of the SDGs is Goal #2, Zero Hunger. There are almost one billion people in the world who do not have adequate access to enough safe and nutritious food. This must change if we expect to develop sustainably in the future. Focusing on some of the hardest cases, Madagascar stands out as a country with high rates of childhood malnutrition, prevalence of anemia, and poverty. This year, more than one million people are negatively impacted by a three-year drought that has resulted in mass famine and a serious need for external aid. Sadly, these tragedies occur in one of the most biodiverse places on earth, where 80-90% of the species are found no where else on earth. This paradox results in a clash between natural resource conservation and human wellbeing.

Achieving the UN’s SDGs will not be easy; in fact, we are falling far short of our targets after the first decade. The next ten years will determine if we meet these goals or not, and our collective actions as a global society will dictate whether we transform our society for a sustainable future or continue with the self-destructive path we have been following. Further research and interventions are still needed to conserve biodiversity and improve human livelihoods.

All Ears for Corn Genetics

By Nonie Arora

“Technology is progress” and “new is better” seem to be mantras in some fields of research. However, when it comes to fields of genetically modified corn, we might be wise to think otherwise.

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Dr. Mary Eubanks and Students at the Campus Farm. Credit: Nonie Arora

Duke biology professor Dr. Mary Eubanks spoke to a group of Duke students, community members, and a farmer from Togo about corn genetics in a workshop held Friday, Oct. 24 at the Duke Campus Farm. Dr. Eubanks founded her own seed genetics company (Sun Dance Genetics LLC) and is a leading advocate for changing the way we grow corn.

Dr. Eubanks became intrigued by the origins of corn while studying the origins of agriculture and the start of American civilization in an archaeology PhD program. She realized that she wouldn’t be able to answer her questions about what she considered to be this “great botanical mystery” without an understanding of genetics. To uncover this mystery, she pursued a postdoctoral program in corn genetics. Based on her experimentation, she developed the hypothesis that maize domestication involved something called intergeneric hybridization, or crossing between plants in different genera.

European Corn Borner attacks Maize. Credit: Wikimedia commons

European Corn Borner attacks Maize. Credit: Wikimedia commons

During her career, Dr. Eubanks also worked in regulatory affairs and learned about the devastating effects of chemical pesticides. She became an advocate for sustainable agriculture: finding ways to develop pest-resistant corn without genetic engineering. She has successfully transferred natural resistance to the worst insect pests of corn — corn rootworm and European corn borer.

In contrast to using natural breeding methods to create new lines of corn, genetically modifying organisms could have negative effects on human health, according to Dr. Eubanks. Dr. Eubanks believes that the inserter and promoter sequences that are used to get the genes to express the foreign proteins can lead to antibiotic resistance and intestinal issues for humans.

The group was surprised by her description of her own anaphylactic shock reaction to Bt-corn, a GMO. Her own personal history of the allergic reaction made her think of the potential reactions our bodies could be having to GMOs. Dr. Eubanks described how it was problematic that genes being introduced to the crop came from other organisms and that humans haven’t evolved a tolerance to the proteins the genes encode. This could lead to potential allergenicity in humans. According to Dr. Eubanks, it is possible that there has been horizontal gene transfer between plasmids — small molecules used to insert genes from one organism to the next — and the human gut.

When asked about the regulations regarding GMOs, Dr. Eubanks explained that the FDA is in charge of the labeling and GMOs are generally regarded as safe so long as they are substantially equivalent to the other food product. The industry is very opposed to the labeling of GMOs and 90% of the corn, cotton, and soy available has some GMO product in it, according to Dr. Eubanks. She believes that not enough is being done to regulate the industry.

We were intrigued by her discussion of food security and funding for interventions. She described that a lot of international work on food security highly promotes technology and the big industry agricultural model. Dr. Eubanks believes we need to change our paradigm from thinking that the most advanced technological options are always best to considering an ecological intensification approach. Such an approach seeks to design more productive, sustainable production systems that are well suited to their environments by better understanding how nature functions. Her current work is helping bring food security to South Sudan through corn that is pest-resistant and drought-tolerant.

 

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