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Food security

Educate farmers

by Cathrine Schweikardt

In brief

The world according to the most recent Global Hunger Index published by Welthungerhilfe, IFPRI and Concern Worldwide

The world according to the most recent Global Hunger Index published by Welthungerhilfe, IFPRI and Concern Worldwide

Population growth and its consequences are global challenges. Small farmers could contribute to food security by intensifying production. But how? By embracing high-tech concepts or opting for more traditional approaches?

The world population has grown from 3.3 billion in 1970 to 6.8 billion today. But the exponential trend – the progressive doubling of the population – is broken. Peter Kenmore of the FAO points to studies that indicate there will be around 9.5 billion people on the planet in about 2050 and that the population will gradually decline after that. Kenmore’s conclusion is that ever-higher yields are not necessary for food security in the long run.

Of the one billion people who are classified as undernourished today, around 80 % are small farmers. So, as Kenmore points out, the situation of these people needs to improve if headway is to be made on reducing poverty and hunger. In his view, agricultural intensification should longer be an issue of improving productivity on large enterprises. Experts should consider instead how small-scale farmers can boost their yields in an environmentally sustainable manner, which would also serve goals of environmental protection and biodiversity conservation.

Two different models promise bigger harvests for small farmers. On the one side are large corporations like Bayer, that argue that high-yielding hybrid varieties are the key to securing large and stable harvests. Such seed, however, necessitates the use of expensive fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation.

In the other camp are civil-society organisations that team up with small farmers in breeding programmes to improve the yield of genetically diverse land races that have been cultivated for thousands of years. This side believes that agrobiological diversity offers farmers protection from risks such as extreme weather events in the wake of climate change. „In this model, the farmers are researchers and breeders,“ says Ditdit Pelegrina of SEARICE (Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives on Community Empowerment). Hybrid seed, she adds, cannot be used for breeding and makes farmers dependent on industry.

ICRISAT (the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics) is running seed initiatives which are commercial version of the low-tech model in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. ICRISAT is working with local partners to improve the yield of crops such as sorghum and millet, the staple foods of West Africa’s poor. The model has introduced a division of labour between farmers and breeders, but they cooperate closely. Bayer Manager Philippe Dumont concedes that there is no private-sector interest in these varieties because they are not commercially attractive.

Small farmers certainly need more education in order to understand the various options. In the words of Christian Witt of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, information about seed, fertilisers and sustainability as well as marketing leads to “smarter farming”. In the final analysis, it is local farmers that implement agricultural intensification and actually make the contribution to food security.

Fertiliser, in general, needs to be used with caution. “Environmental intensification and food security are not possible without fertiliser,“ says Johannes Kotschi of the Association for Agriculture and Ecology (AGRECOL), “but a fundamental change is required in the way fertiliser is used.” Kotschi underpins that assertion with figures: every kilo of nitrogen fertiliser has a carbon footprint of 320 kilos, he reports, which amounts to a massive impact on global warming. Incorrect use of fertiliser, Kotschi says, leads to acidification of soil, groundwater and the food we eat.

Ditdit Pelegrina calls for longer engagement by development agencies. Most projects run for only two or three years, she points out, whereas training farmers requires a long-term perspective. “Sustainable intensification entails more investment in people than in harvests or seed,” Pelegrina emphasised, summing up her viewpoint at the end of a GTZ workshop on “ecofunctional intensification of agricultural production” in early October.

(Cathrine Schweikardt)