YouTube: https://youtube.com/watch?v=Tynfe-kaPMg
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Duration:07:18
Uploaded:2014-08-26
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In which John Green flies in a helicopter with Bill Gates in Ethiopia, investigates a new form of cursing, and discusses agricultural reform--specifically, how the UN's World Food Program is trying to improve maize yields in Ethiopia. If you can break the vicious cycle of low incomes leading to low harvests, agricultural productivity per hectare (NOT HECTACRE) can increase dramatically, as we've seen in China and Brazil. It seems boring, I know, but this is a big reason hundreds of millions of people have emerged from poverty in the past 30 years. So hopefully it will happen in Ethiopia! But, as usual, the truth resists simplicity.

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The Gates Foundation: http://www.gatesfoundation.org/
The United Nations World Food Programme: http://www.wfp.org/

(Why all those extra letters in Programme, United Nations? AMERICA CAN SPELL PROGRAM IN JUST SEVEN LETTERS. WE'RE NUMBER ONE. WE'RE NUMBER ONE. No one reads to the end of the description so I can just ramble on down here and say whatever I want.)
Good Morning Hank, it's Tuesday. Thank you for my birthday present. Hank, Nerdfighteria got me 174.3 llamas through heifer.org that will go to families in need. I'm a little concerned about the family that's going to get the point three llamas, but I think everyone else is going to be delighted.

Okay, so I've promised for weeks that I would to fly in a helicopter with Bill Gates, and now I shall. I was pretty scared flying in a helicopter for the first time. 

Bill Gates: This is John taking off.

John: If this is my last message I love my family.

But it turned out to be kind of awesome. For one thing we didn't crash, but also up there on our way to visit farmers working with the World Food Program, I could see families tilling individual plots of land, and that was kind of a cool entree into thinking about agricultural economics. Now I know that this stuff is complicated and some people find it kind of boring, but you know what's not boring: food. Delicious food.

So it's really important to think about, like, maize production per hectare because someday that corn will turn into the corn syrup in your Pizza Hut pizza dough. Wait, does Pizza Hut pizza dough really contain corn syrup? It does, pickled rota virus, that is disgusting. By the way, Hank, I'm trying this new thing where instead of cursing I name a way of cooking food and a disease I dislike. You know, like, baked malaria or, steamed Ebola.

Anyway Hank, I live in Indiana where the state motto is "All corn all the time, occasionally soybeans". And our corn plants are like taller than me and they're extremely productive. They produce 6000 kg per hectare. In Ethiopia, they get around 2000 kg per cultivated hectare and that's with dramatic improvements in the last 20 years.

So why are our fields so much more productive than their fields?  Well, I don't know much about agriculture, but according to people who do, it has a lot to do with good seed and fertilizer.

So as these farmers explained to us, you can grow maize with seeds from last year's harvest and no fertilizer but it ends up producing a lot less corn per hectare, like it's usually about waist high. To get the taller than me American-like corn, which I did see some of in Ethiopia, you need good seed and good fertilizer which costs money.

Okay, these are made up numbers, but lets say that with bad seed and no fertilizer you'll make $500 per harvest and with good seed and fertilizer you'll make 1000. Now seed and fertilizer cost $100. So this is a no brainer right? Definitely seed, definitely fertilizer. Except last year you only made $500 and you don't have that $100 because you spent all of your money on like Tom Baker era Doctor Who DVDs and also like food and medicine. But no problem right? Because you can just go to the bank and explain to them that if they loan you $100 you're going to make 500 extra dollars so won't have a problem paying them back.

Yeah but one, it's not like that bank has a diversified portfolio of loans. I mean in a country where almost everyone is a farmer, almost all loans are farming loans. So if there is some bug that eats all of the corn or it doesn't rain that year, no one can pay back their loans which can cause the banks to go under, which makes them hesitant to make loans.

Also, two, if everybody gets a loan and everybody gets good seed, then harvests go way up and the price of maize will plummet.  There will be too much maize in the marketplace, you don't have the resources to store your maize until prices go up, so you wont make $1000 in the end.  

Now there are tons of other problems and complexities here, but in general the point I'm trying to make is that food is a weird commodity. Like say you make too many Cabbage Patch dolls and they're like clogging the aisles of toy stores, then you can just stop making Cabbage Patch dolls. But if you do that with food, eventually people are going to need food and not in the way that they need Cabbage Patch dolls. So you have this vicious cycle - you could produce more food with capital intensive products like seed and fertilizer, but you can't get the capital to use them. And if you did somehow increase production, the price might drop so much that it wouldn't be worth it, at least not in the short run.

And there's also a vicious circle on the buyer's side. Buyers are afraid that farmers won't be able to fulfill their contracts, so they don't give them big contracts and don't allow them the opportunity to become large suppliers.

But let's say you somehow break those vicious cycles, well lots of good things start to happen. Like in China, rice yields quadrupled between 1960 and 1990 and then, boom. And in Brazil, agricultural yield tripled between 1970 and 2005. Here's what poverty rates in Brazil and China look like over the last 40 years. Now I don't want to conflate correlation and causation, but fried meningitis that is some nice looking correlation.

So how do we break those vicious cycles? Well in Ethiopia there's a fascinating project with the World Food Program whereby farmers are guaranteed a fair price for however much corn they can produce. And then the surplus goes to Food Aid. Now traditionally in Ethiopia most food aid comes from the United States. Now almost half of Ethiopia's food aid comes from within Ethiopia, which makes it cheaper and more efficient and also it increases yields. So the World Food Program offers these farmers a contract that allows them to go and get a loan for good seed and fertilizer because you know, the UN is generally good for its debts.

Yields increase, there's more food, and there's less malnutrition.

And then the hope is that over time, if these higher yields become sustainable, that Ethiopia will see the kind of growth and poverty reduction that we've seen in, like, China and Brazil and India.

From what I can tell, this program seems to be working, but it is extremely complicated. Like I met this woman, who used to be a recipient of food aid imported from the U.S., but now is a producer of food aid, and that is awesome! After I talked to her I was feeling very happy, but then, when Bill Gates and Sue Desmond-Hellmann dug deeper, it became clear that she doesn't get to keep any of the money from her land. It all goes to her husband.

Now, the increased yield and increased family income is definitely good. But another mission of the project, to help empower women farmers, and let them keep the proceeds of their work, isn't as effective. On the other hand, she is a founding member of this farmer's cooperative, which gives her power within her family.

Similarly, I talked for a while to these women, whose job it was to sort through the corn by hand to pull out anything other than corn kernels, so that it would pass WFP standards for food purity. I was told that they were also farmers, who did this for extra income, but the women told me that they weren't farmers and that this was their primary work and that it was exhausting and difficult, but that the money was pretty good.

I don't know what "good money" was for them, but the men loading these bags of maize onto trucks made about five dollars a day.

So, Hank, it's easy enough to know the privilege of my particular life, with its helicopter rides and video blogging. What's much harder is to think about how each of us can contribute toward making a world in which more people can lead healthy and productive lives. The truth about that is complicated and messy, and any easy narratives you may hear are, in my opinion, overly simplistic. There is no magic bullet when it comes to poverty. It is a tangled and many tentacled beast.

Like, to return to my birthday llamas for a moment, Hank, the actual sourcing and distribution of those llamas will be tremendously challenging and complicated. The work doesn't end when the money gets raised; it begins. And no program works perfectly or succeeds all the time. Hank, I think the WFP project is really interesting, and I think that it can help. But I might be wrong, and I've been wrong before, and there are also other things that would help. Like, for instance, it would help if the Ethiopian government lifted its ban on corn exports. But there's no question that agricultural yields have been rising over the last ten years in Ethiopia, and that is very encouraging. But still, 44% of Ethiopian children are stunted due to malnutrition. That is unacceptable, and it's also unnecessary. If Ethiopia's cultivated land produced as many calories per hectare as China's or Brazil's, no Ethiopian would have to starve. So I know that increasing, like, calories per cultivated hectare isn't the sexiest problem the world is facing, but it is one of the most important.

Nerdfighteria, thank you again for my birthday llamas. They just made me so happy.

Hank, DFTBA, I will see you on Friday.