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

January 10, 2013 10:01 AM
Why Should U.S. Farmers Care About Small Farmers in Poor Countries?

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.

Syngenta International supports small holder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and South America with loans to buy inputs (paid back out of sales proceeds), weather insurance, forward contracts, and education. At two hectares or less, these small farms are often no bigger than a U.S. farmer's office, said Kavita Prakash-Mani, head of the food security agenda for Syngenta International. "A big machine from the U.S. may cover the entire farm," she said.

Yet small holder farmers are critical to feeding a growing world population over the next three decades, said Prakash-Mani. Big, developed farms produce 75% of the world's food. Some 500 million small holder farmers produce the rest, supporting 2.3 billion people, she said.

"If there's any way we want to get a sustainable, socially and environmentally responsible world, we have to work with them. They will need to double their productivity to feed everyone by 2050."

Small holder farmers around the world produce only 1 ton of corn or rice per hectare, compared to American farmers who produce 8 to 10 tons. Even though companies like Syngenta know from their experience in the United States how to dramatically improve yields, their advice often falls on deaf ears in the poorest countries.

"They are very risk adverse," said Prakash-Mani. "They are afraid to change their system because they haven't seen [new methods] work." For that reason, a big part of Syngenta's program is providing on-the-ground educational assistance through local organizations.

Helping poor foreign farm families achieve self sufficiency is a major goal of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Arlene Mitchell, deputy director of agriculture for the foundation, said it supports foreign governments and organizations that provide agronomic education and economic assistance.

The Quest for Better Seed

But the foundation is also intensely focused on upstream research that could help produce crops that are more drought- and flood-tolerant. Many of the world's poorest farmers work in the driest climates, some subject to intense flooding. "Whether we believe in global warming or not, we need to develop plants that can withstand climate and weather shocks," she said.

Thompson noted that helping small holder farmers won't be enough to lift developing countries out of poverty. Because these farmers often can't gain access to enough land to feed their family, they need opportunities to diversify their income.

"Every country in the world that has solved the problem of rural poverty has done it by creating non-farm employment opportunities both in far-away cities but also within commuting distance, so that if you cannot get enough more land to be able to grow enough to feed the family and generate an income above the poverty line, at least you can diversify the income sources by becoming a part-time producer."

At the same time, Thompson is a big believer in the power to educate foreign farmers about techniques that can dramatically improve yields. Early in his career, he worked for International Voluntary Services in Laos doing farmer field demonstrations of early high-yielding rice varieties, using improved water, weed and insect controls, along with appropriate fertilization.

"Just think of the incredible educational effect that seeing 6 tons grow where you’d never seen 1 ton grow had on those farmers," said Thompson. "We didn’t have a problem with diffusion of technology. We had to put soldiers to guard the seed multiplication plots so that farmers wouldn’t come in and steal the seed under the dark of night as it approached maturity enough to be able to plant."

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