DEVELOPMENT: More Food, Except For That Billion Or So

  • by Paul Virgo (rome)
  • Wednesday, March 31, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

The populations of wealthier countries have abundant cheap food thanks to researchers' efforts and, no doubt, many more people in the developing world would be undernourished if states such as India, Mexico and the Philippines had not imported modern farming practices and technologies. These advances have not done enough, though, to help the rural poor, who account for three-quarters of the world's hungry, to feed themselves or escape from poverty.

'Poor people don't have a voice and rural people don't have a voice, urban tends to dominate and yet all of our food comes from rural areas,' said Noel Magor of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), one of the participants at this week's Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD) in Montpellier, France.

'Often it is considered that technology will magically make its way through to poor households and that doesn't happen. Poorer households actually get ignored by the system and so they fall by the wayside.'

Research failings are only part of the reason why so many people have empty stomachs in a world of adequate aggregate food supplies, along with a series of social, gender, justice, dissemination and economic issues and long- running underinvestment in agriculture as a whole.

Nevertheless, a part of the problem they are and the obvious solution, is to turn agricultural research 'bottom-up', based on the real needs of smallholder farmers, rather than trying to make solutions developed for other demands work for them.

This is necessary for more than the two billion people whose livelihoods depend on the world's 500 million smallholder farms, according to the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) forecasts that world food production must increase 70 percent by 2050 to nourish a human population likely to reach 9.1 billion.

But many experts believe expansion of large-scale farming, which relies heavily on chemicals and irrigation and often entails deforestation for livestock rearing, cannot achieve this target sustainably, given the high toll it has on soil fertility and the environment in general, and the increasing pressure climate change is putting on water resources.

So there is growing consensus, even among organisations such as the G8 and the World Bank, that it is necessary to help the developing world's smallholder farmers become more productive so they can grow themselves out of poverty, feed their families and contribute to meeting soaring food demand at the same time.

'The developing world's agricultural research systems are currently insufficiently developmental-oriented,' says an expert paper laying the foundations for a roadmap that will be approved at GCARD on how agricultural research should be transformed. 'Research organisations have generally not been good at integrating the needs and priorities of the poor in the work of researchers,' the paper says. 'Agricultural research and development efforts that engage farmers and build from the bottom up can release locked-up innovation, become responsive and effective, encourage many different pathways, and result in adequate food for all.'

Smallholders need research to provide them with innovations - new farming and livestock breeding techniques and seeds - that are not only effective in increasing yields in a scenario made more difficult by climate change, but are also affordable, and appropriate to their skills and equipment.

Smallholders are often remarkably quick at changing their practices to adapt them to changing situations on the ground, such as rainfall patterns, and so feedback from them can be excellent input to shape scientific studies.

'Agricultural research plans need to allow for a genuine two-way flow of knowledge and information, between the scientists and the rural communities, including indigenous peoples, to ensure that our response to the needs and conditions in rural areas is truly comprehensive,' said Nwanze.

Good agricultural research should also be increasingly interdisciplinary. Rural insurance and credit innovations are needed, for example, to encourage poor farmers, who are frequently reluctant to take loans for fear of not being able to repay in the event of bad weather or crop price changes, to invest in new resources.

Greater use should also be made of mobile telephones which, among other things, can deliver smallholders with up-to-date information on weather, crops, pest control and markets for them to make better-informed decisions.

'We're looking at how to make knowledge more relevant to the needs of the poor,' FAO's Mark Holderness, who is also executive secretary of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research, told IPS.

'There's no silver bullet here. We are looking for a much greater integration of disciplines, much greater collective action that does not just deal with the (agricultural) input, but also deals with all the pieces needed to get that knowledge to farmers, to get farmers' produce through to market, to create a more viable livelihood for farmers.'

This is where the public sector is being asked to take the lead. 'The private sector will invest in agriculture but only where it sees a profit, which is logical, but it means that it has a strong bias to the richest farmers and will not do much about poverty alleviation,' Emile Frison, Director General of the Rome-based Bioversity International research institute devoted to agricultural biodiversity, told IPS.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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