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Recap SD-CAB Symposium 2012 "Food and Fuels in the 21st century" - Part I

Today, I attended a symposium organized by the San Diego Center for Algal Biotechnologies. This symposium started three years ago but has grown each year since then. This year the symposium is three days long and titled “Food and Fuels in the 21st Century”. Professor Kay and Mayfield both framed the relevancy of the symposium by mentioning that the increasing world population, our dependency on limited resources (fossil resources such as oil and phosphates, land and water) which are increasingly becoming scarce, coupled with stresses put on by global warming require an adaptive response by increasing the output of agricultural production to meet the need. Agricultural biotechnologies and algal biotechnologies can provide an answer to the challenges mentioned earlier. With this background, professor Mayfield introduced the first talk.

KEYNOTE: Rob Horsch, Gates Foundation
The Importance of Sustainable Productivity Growth Among Smallholder Farmers.

Rob Horsch goal was to introduce the Melinda Gates Foundation to the community, explain its goals and why it was interested in algal biotechnology. According to Rob Horsch, the Gates Foundation was created in 2000 and doubled in size by an endowment given by Warren Buffet in 2006. In the past, the Gates Foundation focussed half of its efforts on global health issues, a quarter went to global development and a quarter to development in the US. With the recent reallocation of funds, half is on spent on global development, and half is spent on global health. The program has focused on a couple of areas especially agricultural development. The reason for this focus came from the observation that agriculture is the source of livelihoods for billions of people but also represented the largest reseroir of poverty. Then in reverse improving agriculture will help the poorest the most. As an example, the first green revolution dropped poverty in India down to 40%. There are two dilemnas:

  1. Farmers benefit from high prices while consumers benefit from low prices.
  2. Poor farmers grow less than they consume and are net purchasers.

The Gates Foundation therefore thinks that the solution is increasing productivity so that more can be sold at lower cost. It matters whose productivity increases. Increasing productivity in the US does not help poor farmers in third world countries. It creates a dependency of poor people on rich countries for food donations. This approach is not sustainable. So there has been a shift to technology transfer to help the poorest. Rob Horsch notes that the US emphasize on biofuels may have helped bring the focus back to productivity. Another reason for helping the small farmer is that they are the ones who are least productive. Making improvements here will have the largest impacts because improvements can often be obtained through simple cheap measures (it is easier to improve something low). In light of the fact that many of the small farmers are net food consumers, increases in productivity here are especially important as it will eliminate the need for food donation programs from rich countries over time. The way the Gates foundation wants to help is by helping to develop a framework that can distribute public goods. Lastly, the Gates Foundation explained the rational for their interested in photosynthesis. Although a high risk approach, the Gates Foundation thinks that engineering photsynthetic organisms could be useful because there are huge potentials in increasing water use efficiency.

More talks will be posted as I write them up over the next couple of days.

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