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In looking at the wide gap that separates relatively prosperous Canadian farmers from their African and South Asian counterparts, Anwar Naseem happened upon some promising news in the form of an unlikely but popular new farm implement -the cell phone.
The McGill agricultural economics professor, one of only four social scientists at Macdonald Campus, has been analyzing the factors that have kept developing countries from making significant advances in farming. He considers the lack of communication technology to be one of them.
Naseem says many remote farmers do not know if they are getting a fair payment for their crops, but advances in telecommunications have allowed them to shop around for the best price.
"A big breakthrough in developing countries has been the cell phone. In Bangladesh, even the poorest farmers are using cell phones to communicate with buyers in the cities," says Naseem, who has also seen more growers going onto the internet to compare crop prices.
A recent arrival at Macdonald, Naseem spent last year in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at the International Food Policy Research Institute, where he worked as a postdoctoral fellow. He says Ethiopia illustrates well the conundrum that is African agriculture. On the one hand, it has a thriving region that exports flowers, while farmers in other regions face financial hardship or experience malnourishment. "People are not getting the right signals," he says, adding that market mechanisms need to be established to help point farmers toward crops with greater potential.
Also, government support for public research needs to be strengthened, political governance issues need to be worked out so private sector investors can feel more confident, and regulatory agencies need to be improved in order to assess the safety of various biotech innovations being tested on local soils.
Naseem is well aware that the issue of biotech has been contentious, and sees both sides of the argument. On the one hand, he worries about the immense changes that the industry has brought on, in part by patenting seed varieties and smaller life forms. He co-wrote a paper (to be published in the Journal of Development Studies) that examines the consequences of the emergence of a few large companies as leaders in the commercialization of biotechnology. These multi-nationals now rule in the area of field trials and inventions. Naseem questions their commitment to agricultural innovation in developing nations. The paper recommends policy measures that would allow for the transfer of current technology to the poor, as well as generate more biotech research that focuses on the problems of the poor.
Although he sees biotech's positive side, in which yields can be improved using genetically modified seeds with no scientifically proven harm to health, Naseem also thinks the situation would improve if developing-nation farmers had more access to advances in conventional farming methods, such as breeding new non-biotech varieties of seeds. He suggests that developing-country farmers could buy better seeds if they had access to more micro credit loans from local loan circles.
Naseem, 35, who was born in Pakistan, raised in Thailand and did his undergraduate degree in microbiology at McGill, comes to agricultural economics after some frustration in scientific circles. In the early '90s he spent a few months at the National Agriculture Research Centre in Islamabad - his first job after graduating from McGill - where he tried unsuccessfully to get Pakistani farmers to adopt a promising fertilizer that the centre had helped develop. He realized then that it was not the science that was in need of improvement but rather the economic mechanisms that would act as incentives for farmers.