Politics of Poverty

Experts agree: enhancing farmers’ knowledge, access to markets, and rewarding their efforts are critical to ending hunger

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Ylvert Monfiston Clerturde in his field in Marchand Dessalines, where he grows onions, okra, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and pepper. Oxfam is helping farmers grow vegetables in the off season for rice, and we provided farmers in this area with seeds and other agricultural inputs after Hurricane Isaac destroyed their seedlings. Photo: Anna Fawcus / Oxfam America

At the Oxfam-sponsored panel during World Food Prize week, one thing was clear: we’ll only bring an end to hunger and poverty if we focus on farmers’ needs.

Emmanuel Tumusiime is a researcher on economic justice and agriculture at Oxfam America.

World Food Day is an occasion to celebrate progress and achievements of all those around the world who produce the food we eat every day. This year we can celebrate the fact that the international community has set a goal of eradicating hunger by 2030. Leading up to this celebrated day, I spent last week at the World Food Prize  in Des Moines, Iowa. The theme for the symposium this year was Fundamentals of Global Food Security.

Around this time is an opportunity to reflect on the solutions that could ensure everyone has greater access to nutritious food—and sustainably so.  A silver bullet solution is yet to emerge and will likely not.

But the fundamental fact is that the contribution made by smallholder farmers who produce most of the global food supply will continue to be crucial, and that it must be reinforced.  At the qualitative level, this implies finding sustainable models that fit the needs and resources of, as well as empower, smallholder producers is where the lion’s share of effort must go. So what are these models and efforts?

Oxfam organized a side event as a part of the World Food Prize festivities, featuring thinker and actors from the academia and private sector. Our panelists included Caryl Levine, Co-founder and Co-owner, Lotus Foods;  Vara Prasad, professor and program director, Feed the Future Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab, Kansas State University; Norman Uphoff, Professor of Government and International Agriculture, Cornell University.

At issue was the potential of sustainable intensification (SI), an approach that has garnered much political and investment support—through Feed the Future, for example—as fundamental to the realization of the zero hunger goal. The concept is typically associated with producing more with fewer resources but this can mean different things in practice. Panelists agreed that SI, if it is to help rather than hinder the ultimate goal, will need to be understood and implemented in a way that goes beyond simply promoting new seed varieties and inorganic fertilizers.

According to Prof. Prasad, SI includes ecological and socio-economic aspects, which call for more systematic methods.  Incidentally, genetic improvement programs, although important, are attracting far more funding and focus both from governments, donors and private sector at the expense of its complement —ecological and socio-economic intensification. Speakers noted that even when new varieties are produced, they remain inaccessible to most smallholders worldwide. And what’s more, even in cases where they do have access to new varieties, poor adaptation to local contexts has always hindered farmers from adopting them.

Alternative and accessible innovations that are effective exist, Norman explained, making a case for innovations like Systems of Rice Intensification (SRI), which rely on ecological processes and changing how the plant is managed in the field.  Indeed, the large yield gains achievable with SRI dispel the urgency for larger investments in genetic intensification, in support of greater investment in knowledge and capacity enhancement of smallholder farmers.

Carly Levin, whose company sources traditional organic rice produced under SRI approaches underscored that smallholder farmers have the ability and interest to implement sustainable agriculture; but require clear incentives that show how changes to their farming practices can lead to improvements in their livelihoods. Her company has sourced from Cambodia, Madagascar, and Indonesia and pays a price premium which in turn gives farmers greater support.

Insights offered by our panelists are by no means exhaustive on SI but certainly suggest the real foundation for global food security is not in new seed varieties, but unlocking smallholder farmers’ productivity potential with connections to knowledge and markets that truly reward their efforts.

After all, the investments in science won’t mean much without equal or greater investments in the people who use it.

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