Small Farmers: Key to Relieving Hunger and Povery World-Wide

November 5, 2012 11:00 PM
Small Farmers: Key to Relieving Hunger and Povery World-Wide

An International farming expert outlines best practices for improving agriculture conditions around the world

Prabhu Pingali remembers the day when there were no supermarkets within the tiny, rice-growing coastal village of eastern India where he grew up. "Today, there are about eight within a one-mile radius of my old house," he says.

This was one of several personal anecdotes that Pingali, deputy director of agricultural development for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, used to illustrate trends in developing nations during a speech last month at the Future Farm Americas conference in San Francisco.

Pingali, who worked for the United Nations from 2002-07, thinks that improving the lot of small farmers is the key to alleviating hunger and poverty in developing countries. Most of the poorest people in the world derive their food and income from farming small plots of land that are typically the size of a football field or less.

The town where Pingali grew up, located within the state of Andhra Pradesh, was a tiny village when he was young. Its path to prosperity can be traced to improved farming practices. "I have seen the village transform itself from growing a single crop of low-yielding rice, mainly for subsistence, to producing two crops of high-yielding rice."

What has the experience taught him?

"Our focus needs to be on small holders and small holder productions. Not just for producing the staple crops, but finding ways to link small holders to the modern supply chain. That’s where you are going to get the big bang, in growth opportunity and improving the health of the community through better access to fresh food."

As supermarkets have proliferated, so has access to processed food, much of which is coming from developed countries in the temperate zone, he says. As middle-class populations get more integrated into the workforce, and time to cook at home diminishes, families turn to food such as pasta and bread for meals.

Pingali estimates that 30% to 60% of the food consumed by middle-class families in developing countries comes from supermarkets. The issue for developing countries is whether local farmers, often the biggest driver of local economies, will be left out of the equation.

"In India, I can buy three Washington state apples for every locally supplied mango," says Pingali, who attributes that to inexpensive international transportation costs and better farming techniques used in developed countries. When he returns to his former home, he doesn’t have to shop at the grocery for meals. "There’s rotisserie chicken on every corner. You can make a call and have pizza delivered."

The Gates Foundation thinks agricultural technology, including biotechnology, is a big part of the solution to world hunger and poverty. It has given $2 billion over the last five years to fight poverty and hunger, and much of the money has gone to improving agricultural productivity. That includes grants to seed companies to support development of drought-resistant plants that will work in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

As reported by The Associated Press, the decision has drawn criticism from some environmental and food-safety groups that would prefer the support go to soil enrichment, organic fertilizer and other farming methods they think are more sustainable.

Pingali thinks both approaches are needed. He urges seed companies to focus on traits and crops that are important to the world’s poor. In sub-Saharan Africa, that means maize, millet, sorghum, rice, cowpeas and cassava, among other crops. In South Asia, rice and groundnuts need to be added to the list.

He says better crop management, sustainable farming techniques and post-harvest practices will be needed in those regions, as well. The foundation devotes grant resources to knowledge transfer. It supports local farming organizations, mobile-phone adoption and training, among other initiatives.

Pingali expresses concern that the rapid increase in biofuel production is exerting a drag on food supplies, at least in the short term. But he’s optimistic that an impending switch to non-food grain alternatives for biofuels, along with improving yields around the world, will make that a non-issue in the long run. Nevertheless, the near-term effect of biofuels on food price volatility is a "real issue."

Likewise, Pingali notes that "many people are concerned that to meet the growing demand for developing countries to be self-sufficient with food, you need to massively expand the overall areas of the population. I actually don’t think that’s true.

"Productivity is very low in areas with the most hunger and poverty. Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, does only 1 ton per hectare in average yields. You could double, even triple that without expanding areas of population."

Poor soils are a major impediment to improving yields in many impoverished countries. Productivity could be enhanced with the use of more fertilizer. Only 10 kg per hectare of fertilizer is used on average in sub-Saharan Africa. "Just imagine what it would mean to overall production if you went to 20 or 30 kgs per hectare," he says.

"There are also parts of sub-Saharan Africa with highly acid soils and very low potential for increasing production. People would argue that there’s no hope for these regions. But just think about what happened in Brazil, the cerrados of Brazil."

Much of the soil in sub-Saharan Africa is like the soil in Brazil's cerrados, which for centuries people labeled as wastelands. After a systematic fertility upgrade, the former bush lands now produce record amounts of soybeans.

"They applied lime to eliminate acidity. They used micro-nutrients, high levels of fertilizer and high levels of levels of organic matter. They went to conservation tillage practices….The cerrados of Brazil have converted Brazil into one of the largest agricultural exporting country in the world."

Pingali is less optimistic about whether enough water will be available to meet the agricultural needs of developing countries. Water waste, he says, is high even in developed countries such as the U.S. Existing technology can provide better water management; water use in Israel is a case in point.

"What we don’t have today is a policy environment that gives incentives for families to change their behavior, to improve their overall efficiency. We need water policy to enhance productivity."

The foundation thinks that helping farm families grow is the smartest way to fight hunger and poverty. Agricultural development, it notes, is two to three times more effective at reducing hunger and poverty than assisting any other economic sector.

When it comes to alleviating poverty and hunger around the world, "we need to keep our focus on agriculture," Pingali says. "We’re not going to solve this problem with one, single silver-bullet solution. It’s going to be a long slog, something that we need to keep focus on for decades to come."

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