Analysis & Opinions - Public Service Review

Seeding Diplomacy

| September 2011

Professor Calestous Juma, of Harvard Kennedy School, sheds light on the evolution of agricultural diplomacy, and its potential to benefit economies all over the world

The rising concern over global food price volatility has put agriculture at the centre of international cooperation. But unlike the 1950s, when food aid became a major tool in international food policy, modern interactions among states are being redefined by globalisation and the associated knowledge flows. The interactions are part of a field that can be loosely referred to as agricultural diplomacy. Much of the work on agricultural diplomacy will build on the historical experiences of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Eastern Africa's longest drought in nearly 60 years is threatening the region's agricultural gains. The international community is calling for immediate food relief. Although such humanitarian support is needed, the disaster offers the region an opportunity to focus on radical agricultural transformation to stay ahead of future droughts and climate change.

The new focus on agriculture is emerging at a time when African countries are revising their foreign policies to focus on economic diplomacy. For example, Kenya has announced plans to start appointing foreign nationals as trade representatives in their countries of origin. This approach will enable Kenya to expand trade relations and technology cooperation with Latin American countries. Areas that could benefit from such trade include agricultural products and technology.

As I argue in 'The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa', the continent can feed itself in a generation. To do this, it will need to focus on harnessing existing technologies and expanding technical training, building rural infrastructure, stimulating business development, and fostering regional markets. Coordinating these activities requires high-level political engagement, especially by presidents or prime ministers.

Such an agricultural transformation strategy will involve learning from other countries with similar ecological conditions. Emerging economies are sources of important lessons on how science and technology can be leveraged to revolutionise agriculture.

Let us take Brazil as an example. The country offers unique lessons on how to build an agricultural system across different geographical regions. With an area of 8.5 million km2, Brazil is one of the world's largest countries, containing over 250,000 species of higher plants, of which about 60,000 are native to the country. It has the world's largest tropical forest and over 200 million hectares of savannas. Much of the land is acidic and low in nutrients.

Probably Brazil's most important agricultural innovation was the creation in 1973 of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) to combine technical support with agricultural credit to farmers. EMBRAPA was designed to respond to a diversity of agricultural needs over a vast geographical area. It can serve as a source of vital lessons for transforming African agriculture. In fact, Ethiopia has already emulated elements of the model with the creation of the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency.

EMBRAPA has a number of distinctive features that include the use of a public corporation model decentralised in nearly all states. It operates through specialised research facilities, with 47 research and service centres as well as 14 technology transfer centres. The focus of EMBRAPA has been on human resource development (74% of its 2,200 researchers have doctoral degrees, while 25% have Master's training). EMBRAPA stresses improvements in remuneration for researchers and commercialisation of research results. Its budget has consistently grown over time and was about US$1.1bn in 2011, making it the largest public agricultural research corporation in the developing world.

Some of EMBRAPA's early investments in the sector in the late 1970s served as a platform for the development of the country's biotechnology sector as well as its pre-eminent role in soybean production. It is estimated that for every dollar that Brazil invests in EMBRAPA it gets at least $12 in social returns.

Brazil, through EMBRAPA, is contributing significantly to the field of agricultural diplomacy. The election of Graziano da Silva to head FAO is part of a larger strategy for the country to express its domestic success at the international level. EMBRAPA is operating in a number of countries, including France, Ghana, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal, South Korea, Panama, the UK, the USA and Venezuela.

African countries are increasing their diplomatic presence in Brazil. Most of the West African countries have established embassies in Brazil and this is being followed by Eastern African countries, with Ethiopia being the latest country to do so.

Modern agricultural diplomacy will involve sharing experiences of the use of emerging technologies. The most obvious one is Brazil's leadership in the adoption of genetically modified (GM) crops. As African countries grapple with how to regulate the adoption of such crops, countries such as Brazil will emerge as important sources of regulatory experience.

Other technological fields, such as the use of information and communications technologies in agriculture, will become equally important. In addition, Brazil's experience in the use of satellite technology for natural resource and environmental management provides yet another area of technological cooperation.

Finally, agricultural diplomacy will include sharing experiences on the ecological impacts of farming. Future agricultural systems will need to be sustainable to be able to meet local as well as international performance standards. There are already a wide range of certification requirements for the sustainable use of natural resources that are shaping international trade. Consumers will continue to demand greater compliance to good ecological practices. These will in turn become part of the new agricultural diplomacy.

The technical lessons that Africa can learn from Brazil are obvious. But what is not evident is the degree to which, for nearly 50 years, Brazil's top leadership dedicated itself to championing agricultural innovation.

For nearly every African agricultural challenge there is a Brazilian solution that could be shared. The case of Brazil illustrates the prospects of advancing agricultural diplomacy with a wide range of emerging economies. However, this should not be limited to emerging economies. It should involve all nations around the world. The seed for the growth of a new agricultural diplomacy has lain dormant in the operations of FAO. The election of Graziano da Silva as head of FAO marks the beginning of a new season for its growth.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous.“Seeding Diplomacy.” Public Service Review, September 2011.