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

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.

By , Staff writer , Staff writer

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    Elvira Portillo was persuaded by neighbor Porfirio Bastida to try conservation agriculture on her farm in Texcoco, Mexico. So far they are the only two of some 300 local farmers to do so.
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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.

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“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.

This is not the first time the world has urged a major rethinking of agriculture. The Green Revolution begun in the 1940s dramatically increased world agricultural output with new high-yield varieties of wheat. CiMMYT in Mexico, under the leadership of the late Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, played a central role in the revolution, which later played out in India.

But after its successes, the international development community turned its attention elsewhere. By 2008, before the food crisis, USAID devoted only 1 percent of its budget to agricultural programs. Developing nations also focused elsewhere; India's attention, for example, was on its high-tech sector and growing cities.

But price spikes for food, stagnating farm yields, and the revelation that nearly 1 billion people are facing hunger today have spurred major reinvestments in agriculture. Yet the challenges this time around are different from the days of the Green Revolution. If the goal then was to dramatically boost food production, today experts say that reducing ecological impact must go hand-in-hand with increased production.

An 'Evergreen Revolution'

India calls its revamped agricultural efforts – watched closely and supported by the US – an "Evergreen Revolution." "The Green Revolution should become evergreen by increasing productivity in perpetuity without ecological harm," says M.S. Swaminathan, India's top agricultural expert.

Small farmers in regions like the Punjab, he says, used to barely grow enough to feed their own families. With the introduction of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, these farmers finally could sell excess crops for cash. But with little land to work, they kept increasing the chemicals and irrigation to squeeze more out of it. Now the water is polluted – and running out.

Mr. Swaminathan says Indian farmers are scaling back on chemicals for this reason. But they need help in adopting smarter farming practices that increase yields in more sustainable ways. And the US also is sounding the same message. “We must encourage the adoption of proved technologies such as biotechnology, conservation tillage, drip irrigation, and multiple cropping practices for farmers where appropriate,” said US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Visack this spring.

Such practices are well underway in Mexico. CIMMYT and the government rolled out a program called MasAgro last year, to train small and mid-size to use conservation agricultural practices.

Yet technology and education are only part of the battle. Of the world's hungry, 40 percent to 50 percent are small-scale farmers, says Mr. de Schutter.

"The small farmers are the solution part of this, and they are also the problem. Right now the small farmers in general can't feed themselves," says William Garvelick, former head of Feed the Future.

Farmers also resist trying new practices. In Mr. Bastida’s community of over 300 farmers in Central Mexico, for example, he alone adopted conservation agriculture, recently bringing another neighbor on board. Nearby, in the state of Hidalgo, farmer Ricardo Canales, who farms barley, has set up a 50-hectare experimental field using conservation agriculture in an attempt to persuade other producers to adopt similar practices.

“The only way to change their minds is to show your neighbors that what you are doing works,” he says.

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