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The Obama administration says it will spend $3.5 billion over the next three years to help developing-world farmers produce more food and get their products to market. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sketched out the administration's plans during the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York.
The plans are a response to an ongoing food crisis that has pushed the number of hungry people worldwide to a record 1 billion. The U.S. contribution is part of a $20 billion dollar pledge announced by the G8 group of industrialized nations in July.
Grace Ndung'u may provide an example of what the aid could mean for developing-world farmers. Ndung'u farms about one hectare in Murang'a, Kenya, an hour or so outside Nairobi. She says that, like many African farmers, she used to grow just one crop: maize.
Success through diversification
That's a risky strategy that puts farmers at the whim of weather, insects, diseases, and fluctuating markets. But about three years ago, Ndung'u started working with a non-governmental organization that helps educate farmers and improve their productivity. With the program's assistance, she says, "I've diversified. [Before,] I was growing only maize. But now I grow beans….I also grow horticulture products [like] tomatoes, kale, indigenous vegetables, and also various types of fruit."
And she says she is growing more maize, too. "Before, I used to get about eight bags of maize," she says, "but currently, I'm able to get about 17."
And because of all this, Ndung'u says she's making more money – enough to buy another farm and hire more workers.
Experts say if you want to end world hunger and lift people out of poverty, this is the kind of program that deserves support. And they believe that investing in farmers does more to reduce the number of poor and hungry than any other investment.
Agriculture is a good investment
Joachim von Braun, Director-General of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, says if agricultural research and development were to increase from $5 billion a year to $15 billion, "10 years later we will have…300 million [fewer] people among the hungry poor. This is the largest benefit one can achieve with this type of investment."
But investments in agriculture have fallen sharply in recent decades. For example, international donors devoted about 17 percent of their aid budgets to agriculture in the 1970s, compared to about 5 percent today.
Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, heads the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network, a non-profit consulting group. She says the decline in agricultural aid budgets is partly behind the recent food crisis in Africa.
"As a result of diminished resources and lack of funds for agriculture," she says, "we saw declines in productivity, we saw people moving out of farming to rely more on commodities like minerals, and rely more on imports of food rather than produce their own."
Food prices in parts of Africa today remain significantly higher than they were before the food crisis.
Speaking at a summit on food security at the United Nations Saturday, Sept. 26, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. hopes to reverse the recent trend away from agriculture investment.
"International support for agriculture has declined, while contributions to emergency aid have increased," she said. "We will continue, of course, to invest in the crises and the emergencies. But we want to begin to try to alleviate the crises and the emergency by once again enabling people to feed themselves."
The strategy Clinton sketched out includes many of the elements experts say developing- world farmers need most: investments in research and development, access to improved seed and fertilizer, insurance programs for small farmers, as well as improved infrastructure such as roads and storage facilities to help farmers get their products to market.
The Obama administration's $3.5 billion commitment is part of a $20 billion pledge made this summer by G8 group of industrialized nations at their summit in Italy. Many in the agriculture community welcomed the declaration…to a point.
"It's not a big amount"
Ajay Vashee farms 1000 hectares in Zambia and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Producers. When he heard about the G8 pledge, he says, "My reaction was, 'Great, at least it's on the agenda. People are thinking about it.'"
His wish list for agriculture aid lines up pretty well with what Secretary Clinton has said the U.S. wants to do. But he says the G8's pledge of $20 billion over three years won't be enough.
"If you look at the number of developing countries spread over the number of years this kind of money will be available," he says, "it's not a big amount. I'm not saying it in a condescending way or in a negative way, or being ungrateful. But what I'm saying is, the impact which people might think it's going to generate might not happen."
Vashee adds that climate change is expected to take a toll on African agriculture in particular. So while experts welcome the renewed interest from the United states and other countries, they say investments in agriculture must be both serious and sustained if the war on hunger and poverty is ever to be won.