A smarter way to combat hunger

Pedro A. Sanchez1

  1. Pedro A. Sanchez is senior research scholar and director of tropical agriculture at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, 61 Route 9W, Palisades, New York 10964, USA.
    Email: psanchez@ei.columbia.edu

Traditional approaches to supplying food are an inefficient ‘band aid’, says Pedro A. Sanchez. New evidence shows that helping farmers to help themselves is more effective and would be six times cheaper.

After decades of progress in the fight to vanquish world hunger, the number of undernourished people is growing again. Estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations suggest that 963 million people1 in poor countries are chronically or acutely hungry — up 109 million from 2004 estimates2. The underlying causes — changes in food and energy prices3 — have been exacerbated by the financial crisis and obsolete development policies.

Policies should shift from prioritizing food aid to providing poor farmers with access to training, markets and to farm inputs such as fertilizer and improved seed. In addition to being cheaper, such investments allow farmers to grow food to feed themselves, to sell the surplus and to diversify into high-value crops, livestock and tree products. This creates a sustainable exit from the poverty trap, thereby decreasing the requirement for aid. Although marginal populations, or those affected by disasters, will still require assistance, procuring this food from within developing countries provides a cheaper alternative than shipping it from abroad.

A smarter way to combat hunger


The predominant policies to tackle hunger epitomize a ‘band-aid’ approach — quick fixes that fail to address the causes of hunger. In 2006, the United States spent US$1.2 billion in food aid for Africa, but only $60 million on agricultural development there4. The international response has generally been similar. But according to estimates from 2004, only 10% of those who are hungry in poor countries are acutely hungry — those facing famine caused by wars, natural disasters or sheer destitution. The other 90% are chronically hungry, leading to malnutrition that compromises immune systems and contributes to the prevalence of diarrhoea, malaria and other diseases that result in high child mortality2. Most of those who are chronically hungry live in rural farm households in Africa and South Asia.

Food aid fails to provide a sustainable solution to hunger and poverty and it is comparatively expensive. It costs $812 to deliver one tonne of maize as US food aid to a distribution point in Africa5. As part of the Millennium Villages project, which I co-direct, smallholder farmers (those who farm 0.1–5 hectares) in hunger hot spots across Africa were provided with access to fertilizers, improved seed, technical support and markets. As a result, maize yields more than doubled — from 1.7 to 4.1 tonnes per hectare6. And following a national ‘smart’ subsidy programme for fertilizer and hybrid seed in Malawi, average maize yields increased from 0.8 to 2.0 tonnes per hectare in two years7.

The fertilizer and improved seed required to produce an additional tonne of maize grain by Millennium Village farmers cost an average of $135 at April 2008 prices6, six times less than through food aid. Purchasing that same tonne of maize locally — in an African country or a neighbouring one — costs approximately $320 (ref.5). If farmers in Africa raise their average cereal yields to 3 tonnes per hectare, the additional 200 million tonnes grown in the 100 million hectares of smallholder crop land will more than compensate for the 3.2 million tonnes of food aid8.

Although estimates of efficiency vary, they indicate a major leap for development assistance. Shifting 50% of the current US food-aid budget to ‘smart’ subsidies or credit could help millions supply their own food and meet much of the aid demand. Such a move would be budget neutral.

Even buying food locally represents an important step away from the inefficient food-aid approach. Some institutions have already begun to change their methods. In 2007, CARE International, a leading relief organization headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, announced that it would stop monetizing food aid (selling some of the food to fund their operations), essentially losing $46 million a year. Also in 2007, the World Food Programme procured 43% of the 2 million tonnes of food required for its Africa relief operations from farmers in Africa at an average cost of $280 per tonne — compared with the average cost of $436 for purchases elsewhere9. The new Purchase for Progress programme, launched in September 2008 and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation further empowers the World Food Programme to purchase food from African farmers.

Most importantly, the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon is leading the development of a coordination mechanism for large-scale financial support for poor countries seeking to provide farm investment. The Spanish government has pledged euro dollar1 billion (US$1.3 billion) over five years for this effort, which should begin this year, and the European parliament has promised a similar amount. With more programmes aimed at merging food aid with reliable farming investment, the numbers of those who are chronically hungry should begin to fall.

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  1. Diouf, J. Speech at High-Level Meeting on Food Security for All Madrid, 26–27 January 2009. Available athttp://www.ransa2009.org/docs/docs/speech_DG_FAO_ransa2009.doc.pdf
  2. Sanchez, P. A. & Swaminathan, M. S. Science 307, 357–359 (2005). | Article | PubMed | ChemPort |
  3. von Braun, J. Nature 456, 701 (2008). | Article | PubMed | ChemPort |
  4. The Chicago Initiative on Global Agricultural Development Renewing American Leadership in the Fight Against Global Hunger and Poverty(Chicago Council on G
    lobal Affairs, 2009). Available athttp://www.thechicagocouncil.org/globalagdevelopment/pdf/gadp_final_report.pdf
  5. Garrett, L. A. Food Failures and Futures Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies Working Paper (Council on Foreign Relations, 2008).
  6. Sanchez, P. A., Denning, G. L. & Nziguheba, G. Food Security 1, 37–44 (2009). | Article |
  7. Denning, G. et al. PLoS Biol. 7, e1000023 (2009). | Article |
  8. http://one.wfp.org/interfais/2008/tables/Table10.pdf
  9. Jury, A. New Roles for Food Assistance: How Can Food Aid Support Agricultural Growth and Productive Safety Nets in Africa? Presentation at the World Food Prize Symp., 22 October 2008 (World Food Programme,2008).

At Farm's hand


At farm’s hand

An assured income for farmers will make agriculture viable and ensure food security
In his budget speech finance minister Pranab Mukherjee claimed that agriculture, services, manufacturing along with trade and construction were drivers of the country’s growth in the past few years. But actually agriculture should not be slotted in the same bracket as manufacturing and services. Agricultural growth averaged 2.5 per cent in the past five years. This pales in comparison to the 10 per cent growth achieved by manufacturing and services in the same period.
Agriculture, in fact, touched a terrible low between 1997 and 2008 with 182,936 farmers committing suicide—according to government records. The returns from agriculture are paltry in comparison to other vocations. Let us consider some figures. Between 1997 and 2007, salaries of government employees increased by over 150 per cent—we are not even looking at the hikes proposed by the sixth pay commission and the earnings of our mlas increased by 500 per cent, but the farmer could manage only a 25 per cent increase in the prices of his produce. Prices of non-agricultural commodities, meanwhile, shot up by 300-600 per cent. The prices of agricultural inputs went up by 400 per cent.
This disparity has struck the farmer hard. The Arjun Sengupta committee on the unorganized sector reckons that an average Indian farmer’s monthly income is Rs 2,115 while his expenditure is Rs 2,770 every month.
Successive governments have tried to keep agricultural prices low to ensure cheap labour—the rationale being that cheap food will make labour cheap. But the farmer’s bill on other inputs has gone spiralling. The minimum support prices do not ensure a fair return to the farmer who has to spend a fortune on hybrid seeds, GM crops and new generation pesticides. And in any case, the government announces msps for only 33 agricultural commodities and intervenes in market operations only for rice and wheat. So farmers growing other crops are left to the mercy of markets.
The National Commission on Farmers has stated the government should ensure farmers earn a “minimum net income”, and also make sure that agricultural progress be measured by the increase in that income. It should appoint a statutory body—a Farmers Income Commission—to examine the real income of farmers every year across the state.
The government should ensure remunerative prices for agricultural produce. The prices for agricultural commodities should be based on the real cost of production and linked with inflation. msps should be announced before the beginning of each crop season and procurement must be timely.
Today agricultural workers don’t find employment and at the same time farmers cannot afford to pay for labour. The government should provide input subsidy in the form of labour wages (up to 100 days in a calendar year) to farmers to monetize family labour or to pay other farm labourers. This subsidy should include all agricultural operations from sowing to harvesting. It can be operationalized on similar lines as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, or by extending the scheme to agricultural work. This will also help agricultural workers.
The net income of farmers can be increased by promoting post-harvest oerations at the village level. Agriculture-centered small scale industry can give the rural economy a boost
But these measures will only help partially. It is essential to provide direct cash payment to make up for the shortfall. All cultivators should be given fixed cash support to ensure them a fair living standard. This could be set at Rs 15,000 per family and revised every year by the commission.
If we consider the 9 crore farmer families in the country, the government’s annual expenditure on this support will come to Rs 1.35 lakh crores. If we add the labour wage support, the government’s subsidy bill will go up by another 1 lakh crores. But by spending Rs 2.35 lakh crores, the government can extricate more than 50 per cent of people from the below poverty line trap.

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G V Ramanjaneyulu is with Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad. He can be reached at gvramanjeyulu@gmail.com

NREGA barrier to economic development


NEW DELHI: The World Bank has described the much-acclaimed National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREGA) scheme of the UPA government as a policy

barrier hurting economic development and poverty alleviation.

Various schemes of the Indian government like NREGA, watershed programmes and schemes for development of small and medium towns are acting as “policy barriers to internal mobility”, the bank said in its ‘World Development Report’ 2009.
The internal mobility, the report argued, is necessary as “lifting people out of poverty requires shifting populations from villages to cities”. The process of migration should be encouraged, the bank said.
“Negative attitudes held by (the) government and ignorance of the benefits of population mobility have caused migration to be overlooked as a force in economic development,” it said.
The report said economic benefits of migration are not always recognised by policy makers and, in fact, two forms of policy have been attempted in India to counter migration.
“The first response has been to increase rural employment, in an attempt to stem movement out of rural areas … These measures include the recently introduced National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme,” it said.

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Film on Farmers' Suicides won prizes in film festivals

The film on farrmers’ suicides ‘I Want My Father Back’ by Suma Jossan (70 min) has won two first prizes one at the the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival and at the Karimnagar festival run by Anand Varivala.  Please contact the Film Director Ms. Suma Jossan (sumajosson@yahoo.com) for copies