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Feeding the World

Rio de Janeiro 2012
Rio de Janeiro 2012
Twenty years after the first Earth Summit, Brazil is set to host Rio plus 20, officially known as the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development. Agricultural experts say food security should be at the top of the agenda.

The head of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, or IFAD, said critical decisions on food security should be made at Rio + 20.

“This is an event that occurs perhaps once every decade. It creates a real sense of urgency. I think a lot can be achieved if we can show the same level of determination in alleviating global poverty and food security the way we are handling the global financial crisis,” said Dr. Kanayo Nwanze.

He said that determination should focus on helping the world’s smallholder farmers – something that could not have happened at the original Earth Summit.

“I think our mindset has changed. Twenty years ago we saw smallholder agriculture as being unproductive and unable to feed the world. We now have statistics that show that 80 percent of all agricultural farmland is smallholder agriculture, less than two hectares. And then for the developing world, 80 percent or more of all food that is consumed locally [is] produced by smallholders,” he said.

Frontline farmers

Calls for greater investment in smallholder farms grew following the 2008/2009 food crisis. Agricultural initiatives were launched at the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy and again at the recent G8 summit in Camp David, Maryland.

“The mistake we make is that we see smallholder farmers as just a bunch of people who are working for handouts. On the contrary, they are on the frontline of investors. They are the first investors in agriculture and they’re the most. Number two, they are on the frontline in terms of protecting the environment and saving our biodiversity,’ he said.

And they make up a big part of the world’s population.

“We’re talking about 500 million smallholder farms globally. Now on the average of 4 to 5 [persons] per farm family, you’re looking at anything from between 2 and 3 billion. That’s half of the world’s population,” he said.

Adding value to produce

The IFAD president added that productive agriculture must be climate-smart agriculture.

“Smallholders are smart people,” he said, “When they have access to resources - to land, to irrigation, to inputs, to financial services, to infrastructure - productivity increases. They’re more conscious about preserving their land than anyone else.

He says improving smallholder farm productivity has a direct effect on development. Farmers establish “micro-enterprises” – small agriculture-related businesses.”

“They’re adding value to produce. And they’re adding not only in terms of caloric value, but in terms of monetary value to their produce. They become economically viable entities. And they begin to demand government for infrastructure, for roads, for schools, for clinics. Communities begin to change,” he said.

But farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, currently face many challenges. Nwanze says they lack fertilizers, better seeds, and irrigation, as well as financial and social support. For example, African farmers apply only about 13 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare. Compare that to farmers in India where the average is over 140. In Europe, the average is between 200 and 250 kilograms per hectare. In addition, less than 5 percent of African farmland has irrigation systems. Most of that is in South Africa and North African countries. So, there’s plenty of opportunity to greatly boost crop yields without the need to clear more land.

“Africa,” said Nwanze, “has the potential not only of feeding itself, but of feeding the world.

The head of the International Fund for Agricultural Development said agricultural investment needs to increase by tens of billions of dollars per year. He said delegates to Rio+20 should look for areas of common agreement, adding food security is the most plausible. The summit will be held in Rio de Janeiro from June 20th to the 22nd.