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Progress Report: Meeting the World Hunger Challenge

January 1, 2014
By: Boyce Thompson, AgWeb.com Editorial Director

One out of eight people in the world lacks the purchasing power to access even 1,800 calories a day, the amount needed to put in the median level of physical activity, said Robert Thompson, senior fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. "And a lot of those people are farmers or members of farm households," he added.

Thompson spoke earlier this month at Farm Journal Forum 2013. He said if the world agriculture community faces a huge future test—feeding an additional 2.5 billion mouths by 2050—an equally pressing challenge is feeding today's hungry.

"What’s not so widely known is that 70% of the extreme poverty in the world is in rural areas," Thompson said, "and the majority of those people are farmers, and the majority of them are net-food buyers."

Several speakers at the conference identified important work being done to help feed the hungry. Seed companies, for instance, are reaching into developing countries with new varieties that better resist droughts, floods, insects and weeds.

Robert T. Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Monsanto Company, reported that biotech varieties were planted by more than 17 million farmers in 28 countries in 2012 on more than 400 million acres. "That’s about 20% of the world’s farmland," he said.

Moreover, roughly 90% of the farmers who have planted biotech crops are small holders in developing countries. "There are very low barriers to adoption of biotech," Fraley said. "Every farmer around the world knows what to do with a genetically modified seed."

The federal government, through its Feed the Future program, is helping to bring better seed varieties to developing countries, said Tjada D’Oyen McKennna, deputy coordinator for the multi-agency program. The agency is working with DuPont, for instance, to make better maize varieties available to 60,000 small-holder farmers in Tanzania.

"Why should farmers here in the U.S. have access to game-changing innovations, like precision farming and insect-resistant maize, while their counterparts in Africa don’t?" McKenna asked. "Some tools and technologies we take for granted now could change thousands of lives if appropriately applied in developing countries." 

In Kenya and Ghana, McKenna said, farmers plant maize varieties that date from the 1980s. Promising new rice varieties haven’t reached the western part of Africa, she said, though they are used elsewhere on the continent. Feed the Future has helped introduce maize and sweet potatoes rich with vitamin A in several African countries.

"It’s not enough to increase productivity," added McKenna. "You have to look at the market side of it. You might raise incomes and productivity one year. But then when prices go down or there’s no market for goods, [farmers] go back to old practices."

Feed the Future aims to coordinate efforts with international development groups focused on building agricultural markets. Kimberly Pfeifer, head of research at Oxfam America, a humanitarian assistance and international development agency, reported on some of the most innovative work being done in this arena, including:

--An Ethiopia commodity exchange that includes small-holder farmers. The exchange, the first of its kind in Africa, provides access to pricing information through mobile phones. "Small may be beautiful, but it doesn’t always get you access to markets," said Pfeifer.

--A company, DADTCO, that brings a factory to the farm to process cassava, an important staple in Mozambique. The small, mobile factory transforms the root into a high-quality cake that can be stored for two years. The company has also introduced forward contracts to guarantee markets for small-holder farmers.

--A Rwandan maize network in that facilitates information sharing about best farming practices. The program began in 2008 as an effort to improve access to knowledge and technology through extension agents. Small holder farmers, however, ultimately created a private company to market their maize. More recently, they established a warehouse receipt system to improve their cash flow.

--A disaster and weather insurance program in Ethiopia. Oxfam, working with the United Nations World Food Programme, has introduced insurance to tens of thousands of Ethiopian farmers. After some farmers said they couldn’t pay for insurance, Oxfam helped establish a work-for-insurance program. Famers may work on community projects, such as planting trees or building water harvesting structures, to pay for their premiums.

--A West Arica Seed Alliance that aims to ensure small-holder farmers have access to high-quality seeds. Instead of taking a "top-down ag extension approach," Pfeifer said, the program focused on reaching into the agricultural community for leadership. As a result, "farmers themselves became breeders and producers," she said.

Thompson made it clear that work needs to be done on all fronts in order to succeed in the war against hunger, which sometimes gets overlooked by the challenge to meet future demand from a growing population. A big boost could come from finding ways to reduce the one-third of world agricultural production that’s lost each year to waste, some of it due to poor access to markets in developing countries.

"We need to maximize the genetic potential of the crops that we are using," Thompson said, summarizing the massive challenge. "We need to feed those crops as well as possible without overfeeding them. We need to minimize competition from weeds for sunlight water and nutrients and minimize losses from insects and disease that detract from that genetic potential. And we need a better supply chain, including infrastructure."

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