On Friday, the UN marks World Food Day, meant to bring awareness to the issue of hunger. As the world population continues to grow, there will be more mouths to feed but fewer farmers to grow the needed crops.
Scraping the barrel: the challenges to feed the world are huge
Those farmers are facing a bounty harvest of challenges: climate change, disappearing natural resources, spikes in food and energy prices. Putting foods in bowls, banana leafs or tin cups will therefore require ingenuity and support.
As part of that quest, experts gathered in Rome earlier this week to brainstorm ways to feed the world in the next four decades. No one brought crystal balls or tarot cards, instead aid workers and academics, government officials and farmer representatives debated strategies at the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization. The past is providing them with a road map but they also pushed to take the roads less traveled. With one in every six people suffering from hunger today, the race is on to reverse the course by 2050.
"Agriculture will have no choice but to be more productive," Jacques Diouf, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization said.
The UN says large amounts of food are needed as the world population grows
"Now we have to learn from our past mistakes," Diouf added. "What we're paying for today with the rising numbers of hungry people and rapid spread of malnourishment is our inability to develop or revive local food production in the most needed countries after more than 20 years of neglect of agriculture and underinvestment in the sector."
In 1980, global public spending on agriculture was much higher than today. The devastating pictures of Ethiopians with swollen bellies galvanized the public to end hunger. Live Aid and other fundraising drives helped feed the world. Money was spent on storage facilities, seed production system and fertilizer and about 17 percent of aid donations were funneled into agriculture. Today, the figure has plummeted to five percent.
The FAO claims that agriculture investments will have to increase 50 percent in order to feed the hungry. Experts at the forum on feeding the world almost universally agreed that the focus should be on farmers, particularly small land-holders who need both a hand out and a hand up. Governments and private sources must provide financial support and invest in research and development to keep people on the farm.
Pulling up roots
Many farmers are going hungry despite growing crops because they're not making enough money
Many farmers are going hungry despite growing crops because they're not making enough money
Most farmers in the developing world are hungry. They may be growing crops but the maize or cassava isn't bringing in enough money at the market to allow them to buy other foods for a balanced diet. The push for increased food production often forgets the health and well-being of the farmers who are growing the food.
"If our task is to end hunger, we have to improve their hunger situation if they are half of the hungry in the world," Michael Windfuhr, human rights director for Stuttgart-based Bread for the World, told Deutsche Welle.
"We cannot just say we only have to think about production. We have to invest in the people and the people's ability to feed themselves."
Windfuhr says African countries have to protect the small farmer. Usually farmers don't have a social safety net, unliked developed countries where welfare, unemployment and other benefits are available. A farmer's entire livelihood can be wiped out in a single flood, drought or drop in crop prices. The farmer - and the extended family of a half-dozen others - suffer.
The farmer not only lacks social aid but business support. African governments facing crippling debts have eliminated agriculture extension programs that provided seeds and shared knowledge. Cheap credit is no longer available and governments are also being encouraged to open up their markets.
"Let's take rice farmers in Northern Ghana which had traditionally been supplying Ghana quite well in rice," Windfuhr said. "The opening of the marketplace brought rice from countries that subsidized their farmers. Today they're confronted with a situation that imported rice is so cheap on the market that they had to give up."
Hunger is an income problem and development experts recite this like a mantra. Farmers will continue fleeing their fields for more lucrative opportunities in the urban areas unless incomes improve. The exodus is already underway and only the women remain behind.
Raising crops and children
As experts look toward 2050, Tacko Ndiaye is frustrated that her colleagues aren't looking more closely at the farmers. The person wielding the machete or the hoe is usually a woman and she's probably also carrying a baby on her back.
"It's really rural women who are the backbone of the agriculture sector in Africa," said Ndiaye, a program director with the United Nations Development Fund for Women.
"Who is left there? Mothers and grandmothers are keeping the agriculture going."
She told Deutsche Welle that the women are holding together the farm but often don't even have the right to own the land they till. They're making lower wages and not receiving training or credit. Even though they're the majority of farmers, they are absent in leadership roles where their knowledge could help increase production. "We need also to hear women's voices, leverage women's voices in agricultural policy making," Ndiaye added. "If it doesn't reach women, don't call it development."
Keeping the shelves stocked
A buzzword in development is "food security." The bureaucratic lingo evokes images of armored grain silos or well-hidden cookies jars. The term, however, means ensuring people have enough to eat, even during times of crisis. To feed the world in 2050, food security is required and the challenges make for a bountiful harvest.
Homi Kharas, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institute, said the biggest challenge to reaching the goal can be summarized in one word.
"Uncertainty," he said, adding "to solve this issue we know that we need investment."
Kharas said getting that investment, especially from the private sector, will be very difficult in the current environment. "You've got uncertainty over prices, you've got uncertainty over yields, you've got uncertainty over markets."
He said last year's spike in food prices that prompted riots and widespread hunger came from powerful forces that aren't going to diminish. Rising oil prices, US dollar fluctuations, market speculators and climate change are throwing rocks in the path of the tractor. Climate change alone is forecast to reduce productivity in Africa by 30 percent before the turn of the next century if nothing is done. The developed world's insatiable need for energy is prompting the cultivation of many crops for biofuel. The agriculture market is bound to be affected as food goes into gas tanks.
Green revolution: Act II
A comprehensive approach to agriculture will fill the communal bread basket, according to many agricultural experts. The small-holder farmer, who makes up 80 percent of the farmers in Africa, will lead the charge if provided with adequate support. A poll of experts at the Feed the World forum overwhelmingly said African small farmers will captain the continent's agricultural transformation, a second Green Revolution.
Fifty years ago, the Green Revolution was an effort to grow more food for the world and moderate success occurred, namely in Asia. "In the mid 1950s, there was sort of like a prediction for doomsday. People were supposed to starve," said Kwanchai Gomez, the director of the Asia Rice Foundation.
"But the next 40 years proved that human beings could survive if they put their mind to it. I think that research has been a major factor in making sure that rice production had doubled."
The technology and know-how of the 21st century make her optimistic. "I think we will be able to make it even better in the next 40 years," said Gomez.
Yet many are calling for a more nuanced and modern look at the situation in Africa. A Green Revolution 2.0 might be in order which would take into account the global economy, modern technology, and the diversity in Africa. The continent currently has 17 major farming systems, far more than Asia.
"Yes, we need a Green Revolution," said Kwesi Atta-Krah, deputy director-general of Bioversity. But he warns that Africa can't simply import Asia's model. "What is needed is a rainbow revolution in the sense that we have multiple pathways to development through a revolution."
Agriculture grows development
Depending on who you ask, GM crops are either a blessing or a curse
"I am absolutely horrified at what has happened in Africa," Hans Binswanger-Mkhize said during a panel focusing on the continent.
"Who is steering this fear and this global paranoia about the GM cotton and all these GM crops?" said the Tshwane University of Technology honorary professor.
"I want to challenge those to show us where the corpses are. The corpses of earthworm, the corpses of bees, the corpses of antelopes and the corpses of humans. Nobody has yet ever shown us a corpse."
While the remarks prompted applause, many others took the opposite stance.
"It takes a long time for cancer to develop and by the time you see the corpses on the field, it may be too late," said Ben Ahunu, a professor at the University of Ghana, adding that more research is needed before introducing genetically modified crops.
Even in the face of all these formidable challenges, the officials, academics and agricultural representatives remained modestly optimistic. Slightly over half said that the goal of feeding the world in 2050 will be reached. The food for thought exchanged might make that challenge less arduous.
Author: Nancy Greenleese
Editor: Rob Mudge