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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.

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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.

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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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