Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A push to farm smarter – not bigger – to feed the world's hungry

By Sara Miller Llana and Ben Arnoldy, The Christian Science Monitor / September 20, 2011

With famine in Africa and food prices at record highs, governments and agencies around the globe are looking to educate small farmers about more efficient, sustainable agriculture practices.

For more than 30 years, Porfirio Bastida never considered changing the way he farms his 1.2 acre cornfield in Texcoco, in the central Mexican highlands.

But rainfall patterns were changing and water seemed to be scarcer. Each year, he says, he was investing more and harvesting less.

So he joined forces with a nearby research institute called the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). It helped him switch from the practices he'd employed his whole life to conservation-agriculture techniques: rotating crops, not tilling, leaving residue from the previous harvest to act as a sponge atop the land.

“The land gives to us, and we have to give something back,” says the wiry farmer, in dark pants and honey-colored imitation-crocodile boots. The practices, he says, are not only good for the environment. He has doubled his production in three years, he says, and is investing half. “Many are abandoning their land, but for me, this land is sacred. … I am happy to have this little piece of land and conserve it.”

CIMMYT, in partnership with the Mexican government, has reached 3,500 farmers throughout Mexico in the past year alone. While many of the practices they are instilling are not new, aid groups and governments around the world are revamping similar efforts after decades of focusing on different development goals.

The new focus on boosting small farmers is fueled by record-high food prices and renewed attention to hunger with more than 12 million people in the Horn of Africa suffering from drought and famine. Many aid experts also now see the small farmer as the long-term solution to hunger, with the global population estimated to reach 9 billion people by 2050, requiring a 70 percent increase from current food production.

"Food prices and volatility have drawn political urgency to the issue," says Lisa Dreier, the director of Food Security and Development Issues for the World Economic Forum USA. "And with drought-and climate-related events, people have become more aware of the fact that a more sustainable approach to agriculture is needed."

Boosting the small farmer

The United States is rolling out agricultural partnerships around the globe, particularly through its $3 billion Feed the Future Initiative, led by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). It began in 2009 and works with 20 countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. One of its stated goals is "to leverage $70 billion in private investment in agriculture that improves sustainable market opportunities and linkages with smallholder farmers."

The United Nations recently called upon governments to invest some $2 trillion to help small-scale farming. The World Economic Forum has launched a new initiative called "Realizing a New Vision for Agriculture," which works with the private sector to invest in small, sustainable practices. And the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, is promoting agroecology, the study of how agriculture can best fit within ecosystems and efficiently use of natural resources, a push he says has been well-received by governments and agencies around the globe.

“This is a very important victory, and a significant shift away from the oversimplified discourse that hunger and malnutrition shall be effectively combated by seeking to increase production at all cost, whatever the social and environmental conditions,” he says in an email.


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