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Howard Buffett: Small, large farmers both boost global food security

WFP's Ambassador Against Hunger, Howard Buffett, argues that both commercial production and smallholder farming are essential to end world hunger. This article was first published by the Omaha World Herald on 23 July 2010

African farmers and American producers have different motivations and face unique challenges, but they are crucial to global food security and negatively affected by misinformation and innuendo that shape the current debates on how to feed the future.

Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people derive their livelihoods by farming small plots of land. These resource-poor farmers typically farm fewer than 3 acres. They are vulnerable to hunger periods, experience post-harvest losses, depend on family labor, lack access to extension services and may be net buyers of food.

With limited access to affordable inputs, they use slash-and-burn to access new, fertile soil when topsoil is depleted. This cycle occurs every few years and yields temporary benefits. However, these techniques consume and degrade natural resources.

Commercial farmers, on the other hand, use both family and hired labor, utilize new technology, have access to improved seeds, benefit from extension services and are net sellers of food. They typically depend on synthetic inputs to maintain regular yields and face increased pressure to reduce their environmental footprint. Commercial farmers usually have access to storage facilities, markets, credit, land title, crop insurance, infrastructure and favorable government policies.

Both groups are crucial to reducing global hunger. This is the rub for some critics. It is popular to simultaneously romanticize poor farmers and attack commercial production.

However, U.S. farmers produce the most abundant food supply in the world, providing for domestic consumers as well as exports. American farmers help meet the needs of a growing global population. But they will not provide the primary solution to feeding 500 million Africans whose survival is dependent on small-scale farming.

Enhanced crop varieties, increased use of no-till, strip-till and cover crops, variable-rate technology, remote sensing and GPS make U.S. agriculture more efficient. High-output agriculture has been key to preserving biodiversity and irreplaceable ecosystems. U.S. agriculture produces five times the amount of crops on 20 percent less land than was used in 1930, preventing more than 6 billion acres of habitat from being cleared for crop production.

Regenerative agriculture techniques, including cover crops, legumes, crop intermixing, mulching and integrated pest management systems, are key to resource-poor farmers. Combining biologically based systems with technological advancements will facilitate improved yields. New crop varieties can increase production and protect against pests, disease and drought.

However, Western thinking and corporate strategies must not overshadow the need for increased public capacity and development of more resilient, low- and medium-input systems. Dependence on expensive fossil fuel inputs, reliance on mono-cropping and abandonment of hunger mitigation strategies increases this population’s vulnerability.

It is erroneous to conclude that the U.S. approach to increased productivity should be applied across Africa. The Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s increased crop production in certain parts of the world conducive to monoculture growing conditions — wheat in India and rice in Southeast Asia. However, African farmers rely on crop diversity as a lifeline to survive pests, droughts, disease and floods.

The Green Revolution also benefited from government support, subsidies, irrigation, fertile soils and predictable land tenure systems. These conditions are not widespread in Africa.

Africa suffers from some of the world’s poorest crop production as a result of weathered soils, poor farming practices, a lack of investment and inefficient land use. It needs affordable and replicable systems. Soil must be stabilized through increased carbon and microbiological activity to address compaction, erosion and plant deficiency. Africa needs a brown (soil) evolution, not a green revolution.

There is a contingent that continues to glamorize century-old farming techniques. However, some of these traditions keep African farm families at constant risk of starvation. These groups also blast U.S. agriculture — one of the most successful economic enterprises ever built. These critics are neither poor farmers, nor are they American producers, but they have full stomachs.

Global food security lies in the hands of both U.S. producers and small-scale farmers. Without high-yield systems, many more people would go to bed hungry. With the proper investment and appropriate solutions, resource-poor farmers can attain food security and self-reliance.

To achieve this, we cannot continue to follow 30 years of failed policy. We must be more inclusive, more innovative and more engaged with farmers for practical solutions.