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Class Project

Paul Szauter, World Hunger, 2/5/2012


  1. Starting Project
  2. Statement of the Problem
  3. Separate
  4. Eliminate
  5. Work Backward
  6. The Four-Step Process
  7. Future Work

1. Starting Project: Open-Source Agriculture.

The techniques of crop improvement, including genome analysis and genetic modification, have yet to be fully applied to improving indigenous crops in the developing world. The aim of this project is to identify food crops that would be good targets for improvement in a model where the work is sponsored by a public agency or foundation rather than by a corporation. The project might include open-source collaboration and challenge awards, approaches borrowed from collaborative software development and other crowdsourcing models.

2. Statement of the Problem

The project as stated above is too specific and does not define the problem. The general problem from which the project above was generated in class on 1/30/2012 was simply "Food."

As a more general statement of the problem, consider the first Millennium Development Goal of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations:

Goal one: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.

Here is the FAO's explanation of this goal and its role in addressing it:

The number of hungry people in the world remains unacceptably high despite expected recent gains that have pushed the figure below 1 billion. FAO estimates that the number of people who will suffer from chronic hunger in 2010 is 925 million.

FAO focuses on poverty and hunger reduction through: improving agricultural productivity and incomes and promoting better nutritional practices at all levels and programmes that enhance direct and immediate access to food by the neediest. FAO helps developing countries to improve agriculture, forestry and fisheries practices, to sustainably manage their forest, fisheries and natural resources and ensure good nutrition for all. FAO promotes greater investment in agriculture and rural development and has assisted governments to establish National Programmes for Food Security aimed at smallholder farmers. In emergency response and rehabilitation efforts, FAO's expertise in farming, livestock, fisheries and forestry is crucial. FAO works quickly to restore agricultural production, strengthen the survival strategies of those affected, and enable people to reduce their dependence on food aid. FAO also plays a crucial role in prevention, preparedness and early warning.

3. Separate

One of the strategies recommended on page 85 of Conceptual Blockbusting is Separate. Here we are going to separate components of the Food Problem.

I read more about the Food Problem and looked at the map on the FAO site. I came up with several components of the Food Problem:

  1. War and Bad Politics - Some of the worst affected contries, or countries that have actually deteriorated over the past few years, are affected by war and political instability. This seems to be an overriding factor no matter what is done in other areas of the problem. Creating world peace is beyond the scope of the project and will not be addressed.
  2. Climate Disasters and Crop Failures - This is a problem that will affect the food supply even if crops and agricultural practices are improved. The current solution to this problem is food aid from outside the country, and systems are in place for this. Controlling the global climate to optimize agriculture everywhere around the world is beyond the scope of the project and will not be addressed.
  3. Limitations of Current Crops - Current agricultural crops have limitations. Some highly improved crops are best suited for large-scale mechanized agriculture and are not suited for cultivation in all parts of the world. Other local and indigenous crops have not yet been subjected to scientific crop improvement. All crops can be evaluated for improvement in yield, ease of cultivation and processing, and nutritional content.
  4. Food Preferences and Culture - Many people are reluctant to try new foods that are not part of their culture. In this project, this problem can be taken on as a problem in public education, or it can be accepted as a constraint that requires that crop improvement should be applied to familiar, regionally accepted foods.
  5. Poverty - The FAO goal links poverty and hunger. The project that emerged from class discussion acknowledged an economic component. If food is available but people don't have enough money to buy it, the Food Problem is really a Poverty Problem. In this project, ideas should be evaluated to see if they have a positive role in economic development.
  6. Suggestions from Class, February 6 - There may be other aspects to the problem that emerge from class discussion. The class suggestions were: Money, Politics, Population, Other Resources, Climate, Disease, Transportation (Infrastructure), Education, Disasters, Workforce, Water, Food Preference.

4. Eliminate

One of the strategies recommended on page 85 of Conceptual Blockbusting is Eliminate. Here we are going to gather some data and eliminate areas of the world in which to solve the Food Problem.

We begin with the map showing world hunger by country from the FAO.

One of the elements that we decided was an obstruction was war and political instability. With respect to hunger, some of the worst-affected countries in the world are in Africa. These are areas of ongoing conflict and the breakdown of governments. Despite the need here, we eliminate Africa and Asia from consideration in the scope of this project to concentrate on Central and South America.

I needed to visualize the problem, so I overlaid data from the FAO map on an image of Central and South America, shown below.

Hunger in Central and South America Hunger in Central and South America

The countries colored in RED have High undernourishment (25-34%).

  • Bolivia
  • Haiti

The countries colored in ORANGE have Moderately High undernourishment (15-24%).

  • Dominican Republic
  • Guatemala
  • Nicaragua

The countries colored in YELLOW have Moderately Low undernourishment (5-14%).

  • Brazil
  • Colombia
  • Ecuador
  • El Salvador
  • Guyana
  • Honduras
  • Panama
  • Paraguay
  • Peru
  • Surinam

The countries not colored have undernourishment below 5%.

Now that we have eliminated most of the countries of the world, we gather data on the ones that are left. We look up the population of the remaining countries ( Wikipedia, data from the United Nations, 2011), presented in the table below.

Undernourishment Country Population
HIGH Bolivia 10,426,154
HIGH Haiti 10,085,214
MODERATELY HIGH Dominican Republic 9,378,818
MODERATELY HIGH Guatemala 14,713,763
MODERATELY HIGH Nicaragua 5,815,524
MODERATELY LOW Brazil 192,376,496
MODERATELY LOW Colombia 46,368,000
MODERATELY LOW Ecuador 14,483,499
MODERATELY LOW El Salvador 6,227,000
MODERATELY LOW Guyana 784,894
MODERATELY LOW Honduras 8,215,313
MODERATELY LOW Panama 3,405,813
MODERATELY LOW Paraguay 6,337,127
MODERATELY LOW Peru 29,797,694
MODERATELY LOW Surinam 529,000

If we were to consider the extent of hunger and the population size alone, we might focus all of our effort on Brazil. Brazil is a rapidly developing country with a vibrant economy and vast resources. The population of Brazil (192 million) dwarfs the population of the other countries. Even if only 5% of the population of Brazil is undernourished, that is 9.6 million people, almost as many in all of Bolivia or Haiti, the worst affected countries.

At this point we should explicitly state our assumptions:

5. Work Backward

One of the strategies recommended on page 85 of Conceptual Blockbusting is Work Backward. We will use this strategy on the Food Problem. We will work backward by assuming for the moment that we have already got a good solution in terms of crop modification, a change in agricultural practices, or the introduction of a completely novel crop.

With this innovative solution in hand, we turn to practical considerations. What is the economic model that will be used to cause this innovation to be adopted? These are not mutually exclusive strategies, and implementing our innovations might involve several strategies.

Here we use a bit of lateral thinking to consider all the ways that a change in agricultural production might work economically.

  1. Large Corporate - Large agriculture corporations may have a role in research for one or more solutions. Their research work will be their protected intellectual property. They will pursue solutions likely to be profitable on a large scale.
  2. Government Grant - Researchers in universities and national labs from a number of countries might fund research and development that looks promising if it is aligned to their goals. In this case the intellectual property might be in the public domain.
  3. Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) - Non-Government Organizations, including charitable foundations, might fund research and development that looks promising if it is aligned to their goals. In this case the intellectual property might be in the public domain.
  4. Free Enterprise - Smale-scale entrepreneurs from start-ups to street vendors can be counted on to take advantage of opportunities for profitable innovations.
  5. Community of Users - In the original concept of this project, we collectively envisioned a community of users trading information through the global information network. Such a community might put small amounts of money at stake, either because they profit from growing crops, or because they are interested in the problem. There is room to explore whether this community could engage in research in some way.
  6. Other suggestions from class February 6 - A surprising suggestion from the class was money from drug cartels. Perhaps they would consider investing in crop improvement.

6. The Four-Step Process

We have introduced Polya's (How to Solve It) method for solving problems. Let's review how we have applied the method here:

  1. Understanding the Problem - What is the unknown? What are the data? What is the condition?
  2. Devising a Plan - Do you know a related problem? Look at the unknown. Here is a problem related to yours and solved before. Could you use it? Could you restate the problem?
  3. Carrying Out the Plan - Carry out the plan, check each step.
  4. Looking Back - Can you check the result? Can you use the result, or the method, for some other problem?

Understanding the Problem. We have adopted a simple statement of the problem from an outside source. We have tried to identify elements contributing to the problem of world hunger.

Devising a Plan. We gathered data on the extent of world hunger by country from a reliable source. We reduced the number of countries for which we are attempting to devise a solution by considering various other factors identified in the first step. We began to consider how our plan would interface with various economic solutions.

Carrying Out the Plan. We used our initial considerations to focus attention on Central and South America. Once the extent of undernourishment and the population size of each country is taken into account, we reached the surprising tentative conclusion that we should focus our entire effort on Brazil.

Looking Back. We will present this approach to class for additional thinking. Another way of looking back is to consider which of the processes on page 85 of Conceptual Blockbusting we have used. We have used:

7. Future Work.

We anticipate the follwing kinds of work on this problem over the next week: