Traditionally, the study of agriculture in American higher education has been confined to the land-grant universities, the network of public schools founded with the mission of boosting the nation’s agricultural prosperity. Increasingly however, there is a greater recognition of agriculture’s intersection with poverty alleviation, climate change, and other pressing global concerns. As a result, the topic has been a focus of policy-relevant scholarly work beyond just the ag schools.
Stanford University’s Center on Food Security and the Environment (FSE) is a leader on this front, working to influence public debate and build innovative collaborations with policymakers. Despite the dichotomy often drawn between academic and policy-oriented research, FSE has positioned itself as a key voice on issues directly applicable to the policy arena.
Take, for example, biofuels, whose expansion in recent years has emerged as a hotly contested topic in global agriculture.
“FSE engages with the debate on biofuels through careful science and analysis on some of the most complex questions,” said Roz Naylor, the Center’s director and the William Wrigley Professor in Stanford’s Department of Earth System Science. “How can we measure the environmental impacts of biofuels? Who are the winners and losers in biofuels policymaking? Do biofuels help or hurt food security? What determines the objectives of policymakers? Ideally, the answers to these questions are what informs and shapes good policy.”
In addition to framing research questions in response to key policy debates, Naylor said, FSE also aims to anticipate future big questions in the field. That has led them to devote more and more attention to palm oil, the world’s fastest-growing vegetable oil and a source of biofuel.
A team headed by Naylor has recently been awarded a research grant to examine palm oil commodity chains in West and Central Africa and Indonesia. At the core of their work is how palm oil production can deliver the dual objectives of environmental sustainability and improved livelihoods for smallholder farmers. The study’s focus on the multi-faceted nature of palm oil is enabled by the interdisciplinary make-up of FSE—a composition that, at the same time, promotes a strong link to policy design and implementation.
FSE’s work is part of a long tradition of Stanford’s engagement with key actors on the ground to make a difference on food security issues. Stanford researchers have had a decades-long partnership with the Indonesian government, centered on policy advising and research. It was led by Walter Falcon, who made over 100 trips to the country between 1967 and 2008. Falcon was deputy director of FSE from 2006-2014, now serving as a senior advisor. He is the emeritus Farnsworth Professor of International Agricultural Policy and Economics, and began at Stanford in 1972. Falcon spoke with Food Tank about his work and also chronicled his Indonesia story in a chapter of the book The Evolving Sphere of Food Security.
Among the most enduring impacts made by Falcon over those 100+ journeys was to facilitate collaboration among government ministries to craft sound food policy. In this context, he and his team worked with a group of economists known as the “Berkeley Mafia”—where many of them completed their doctoral studies—who were keen on delivering pro-poor economic growth. These technical experts were largely responsible for the activities of the Ministries of Planning, Finance, and Trade, and the Central Bank. It is hard to find a group of such leaders in another country that can rival the Berkeley Mafia, Falcon notes.
“The technocrats understood the key role of macro economic policy—exchange rates, interest rates, trade policy—on food security,” Falcon writes in the book. “The jurisdictional bridging of the central economic ministries with agriculture, BULOG [the national logistics command], and other sectoral agencies was among their most notable accomplishments.”
Perhaps the most impactful policy outcome of the inter-ministry coordination was the government’s successful price stabilization scheme for rice, aimed at protecting consumers from high food prices—what Falcon told me was “the most important thing we did.” The national logistics command, BULOG, imported rice and stored it in a warehouse system. During periods of low domestic production, these imports were then released into the market to shield consumers from price volatility. This undertaking had to be carried out in a way that didn’t hurt local growers. Overall, it demonstrated the role of smart trade policy in securing access to the staple crop.
Showing a long-term commitment to the country was absolutely vital for getting access to key decision-makers and making recommendations, Falcon said. “We were known by everybody- that’s the advantage of long term relationships,” he said. Indeed, this trust eventually allowed the Stanford team to work with the government without a formal arrangement—“just on the basis of handshakes from one visit to the next,” he wrote.
In his advisory capacity, Falcon told me, he strived to remain in the background, and to seek out perspectives that technocrats couldn’t easily access. “I tried to represent multiple stakeholders by getting out of the capital and talking to people who had vested interests,” he said. Indeed, the Berkeley mafia referred to the Stanford group as “our eyes in the countryside,” “the rice doctors,” and “our trouble-shooters.”
The longstanding relationships cultivated by Falcon and his team in Indonesia resulted in their academic research being directly incorporated into government ministries. They developed a model to connect climate data in the Pacific Ocean to Indonesian rice harvests six months into the future. During occurrences of El Nino, Indonesia experiences reduced rainfall, which may induce rice scarcity and drive prices upwards. This model, which made its way into the Agriculture Ministry, alerted the government that it would have to prepare for substantial rice imports during such periods.
“It was hugely important in terms of planning and imports,” Falcon said.
From the Stanford experience, we can learn that leveraging academic research for policy impact requires building trust among key local actors. It also is a reminder of the tremendous opportunity for American universities to make a long-lasting difference in another part of the world.