Yellow Rust: Bad News

I♥︎CARDA: Why Low-Tech Biotech Matters

God I love this video. In part, it’s great to see a development organization investing in proper production values for a Boring Development initiative – though the 154 view count on YouTube suggests it may be just a bit too boring to do the trick.

Mostly, though, because the yellow rust resistant wheat story gets to the heart of what the Aid Enterprise should be about: leveraging the knowledge-intensive capabilities that really are in short supply in developing countries to generate interventions that show up right in the poorest people’s bottom line: their income.

But I also like it because it demystifies “biotech” in a development context. Because people have strong – and often negative – reactions to the idea that biotech is a key to development. The tendency is to immediately think of GM-crops. Suddenly, it’s “controversial” and you find yourself in the middle of an ideologically fraught debate.

But GM is a distraction. Often, the most valuable biotech in a development context is kinda low-tech.

The effort to identify and propagate naturally rust-resistant seed featured in this video is a perfect example: there’s nothing there that agricultural scientists weren’t doing in North America 75 years ago.

And the basic idea goes back to the neolithic revolution, really: it’s just that these guys are searching for better adapted varieties in a more systematic way than people 12,000 years ago were able to.

This capacity to seek out and propagate better, more productive seed is irreducibly boring. Even ICARDA’s excellent videographers working in a stunningly photogenic bit of Ethiopia can’t get more than 154 people to want to learn about it. But the absence of this basic, low-tech biotech capacity is one of the most important reasons very poor farmers in very poor countries stay very poor.

Thing is: very poor farmers are 70% of the very poor people in the world today. So this is not a subject we can allow ourselves to be bored by.

7 thoughts on “I♥︎CARDA: Why Low-Tech Biotech Matters”

  1. Much as we marketers and communicators are vilified and in some cases might cause more harm than good (think Kobi) , I do think a lot of initiatives would benefit from people who know how to sell stuff. I see this video and I think, ok, what’s the objective here? Who is the audience? What do you want me to do? Do you want me to donate? It does have some beautiful scenes, the dancing with the wheat, the smiling old farmer’s face, but overall it does not move you. At least the parody of we are the world makes you question something and it’s so well done that it went viral. Making boring sexy is hard work. I market enterprise software for a living, I know how hard it can be. But if the impact on the poor could be increased by having proper communication tools then I think trying to make it more appealing it’s a worthy endeavor.

    1. I agree so much, Moraima – of course, you have to understand the context. The typical production values for this kind of organization looks more like this ->

      …which actually has excellent information but OY VEY it looks bad!

      My guess is that the audience is really the big development organizations, public and private – FAO, USAID, the Gates Foundation – much more than individuals. That’s who pays the bills, in the end.

      But yeah, as a general proposition, the dev. world sucks at marketing itself.

    2. oh gosh! 8 minutes, I can’t even pass the first one. But it the audience is the big donors then it doesn’t matter so much how many views you get in Youtube, the success of that video would be measured by how much money or support they continued getting from them. And not only Dev world sucks at marketing, a lot of big businesses suck at it too, just look at last night super bowl ads and you will see it in action. It’s not easy to do marketing but everybody thinks they know how to do it, it sucks.

  2. I always wonder where this negative reaction to GM came from. There’s basically no food that isn’t GM, and there hasn’t been for centuries. We’re just used to separating selective breeding from genetic engineering, but they’re essentially the same thing. Ten thousand years ago, corn was simply a grass in Mesoamerica. The man-made changes it has gone through to achieve its current form are much more dramatic than any genetic tampering done to increase yields or resist pesticides. And yet I see no hippies complaining about that.

    1. My point is that the energy that goes into the GMO debates is misplaced in a development context. Honestly, even if you’re right, WHO CARES?! There are other technologies that are utterly uncontroversial that can solve the problems that leave farmers hungry.

      The day every smallholder in Africa is planting old-fashioned hybrid seed, that day we should open a debate about GMOs in development. But that day is far off in the future…

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