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Why Should U.S. Farmers Care About Small Farmers in Poor Countries?

January 10, 2013
By: Boyce Thompson, Editorial Director google + 
Farm Journal Forum International
Panel discussion on international development at Farm Journal Forum 2012  

Agriculture in developing countries may hold the key to economic prosperity here and abroad

At first blush, the notion of helping poor farmers in developing countries may sound like a bad idea to American farmers concerned about burgeoning international competition. But helping small holder farmers may be the key to unlocking foreign demand for U.S. agricultural products, according to a panel of experts speaking on modernizing agriculture in a developing world at Farm Journal Forum 2012.

"The best market development strategy that American farmers have is to be stronger advocates for developing the agricultural sector and turning the general economy in low-income countries," said Bob Thompson, senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. "Very few developing countries, even if they increased productivity at the absolute fastest rate, have the resources to be self-sufficient in food supply."

At the same time, Thompson said, foreign demand for U.S. agricultural products in these countries will only increase with broad-based economic development. Most of the world's poorest people are small farmers who live in rural areas. They are "grossly under-performing relative to their potential," said Thompson, noting that most need to buy food to feed their family.

Food shortages can a huge source of political discord in developing countries, noted Randy Van Kooten, an Iowa farmer who has traveled the world as a board member of the World Soy Foundation. Van Kooten provided some compelling visual evidence -- a photograph of a riot in the streets of an African country. Explosives had been set off.

"This is what happens when you raise the price of electricity by 5 percent and 50 percent of disposable income goes to food," said Van Kooten. "It’s a very ugly sight; I can assure you of that. We did get out of this safe and sound. The reason the picture is crooked is that my head was down at my knees."

The cruel irony is that many of the hungriest people in Africa are farmers themselves. Roger Thurow, author of The Last Hunger Season, who moderated the panel, noted that many of Africa's small farmers, who make up two-thirds of its population, farm the same way their predecessors did in the 1930s. They work without mechanized equipment, using primitive storage facilities, and lack working capital.

 Thurow spent a year living with four farming families in western Kenya who participated in the One Acre Fund, a program that provides farmers in East Africa with seed, fertilizer, financing, training and marketing tools.The organization, which has assisted 130,000 farmers in six years, attempts to help farmers double their income per acre. He showed the following trailer for a documentary about the subject of his book.

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