Feeding the world in 2050 has been described as the greatest challenge in human history. By then, there will be an estimated 2.3 billion more mouths to feed. How will the world manage to ensure that all of the 9.6 billion people on the planet have reliable access to safe and nutritious food when, today, more than 800 million are chronically undernourished? The decisions that governments take today on how to meet that challenge have profound implications for the shape of human societies and economies for decades to come, as well as for the health of the Earth’s ecosystems.
Meeting the challenge of feeding the future is not simply a matter of growing more food. It is often forgotten that today’s production levels are actually more than adequate to feed every woman, child and man on the planet. The causes of chronic hunger are complex, and usually closely tied to poverty, isolation, weak governance, disenfranchisement and deprivation.
Given that more than three-quarters of the world’s poorest people and most of the hungriest live in the rural areas of developing countries, efforts to end hunger must start in these areas and must tackle poverty as well as hunger. No country has ever achieved lasting social or economic progress without harnessing the power of science in dominant sectors. Agricultural research has a crucial role to play by making it easier for small-scale farmers in developing countries to feed their families and communities, and to benefit from the growing demand for food from the world’s rapidly growing cities.
For developing countries, agriculture is a critical driver of economic and social development. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, growth in gross domestic product (GDP) through agriculture is 11 times more effective in reducing poverty than growth from other sectors, and overall GDP growth through agriculture is estimated to have at least three times the impact on poverty reduction as growth in other areas. There is also evidence that growth derived from staple crops has more impact on poverty reduction than growth from export crops such as coffee, tea and tobacco.
Small-scale farming and entrepreneurship
Today, there are around 500 million small farms in the developing world, generating around four-fifths of agricultural production and supporting around 2.5 billion people. Rural areas are also home to pastoralists, forest dwellers, fishers and herders, who all depend on small-scale agricultural activities for their lives and livelihoods. These small-scale producers are expected to remain the main producers of food in developing countries for decades to come.
Yet, too often, smallholders in developing countries do not get the attention or credit they deserve. Often, they are cut off from markets and resources. Those farmers who are net buyers go hungry when they cannot sell their produce for a reasonable profit. Although commonly portrayed as poor subsistence farmers, many smallholders are actually dynamic entrepreneurs. In fact, smallholders collectively are the single biggest on-farm investors in developing-country agriculture. And, when given access to technology and the right agro-ecological conditions, small farms are often more productive than their larger counterparts. Food is, quite literally, a growth industry. Not only is the global population growing, but so is the level of wealth, spurring a spike in demand for a greater volume and variety of foods. Inclusive agricultural development can provide smallholders with the tools to help meet this demand, and in so doing transform the landscape so that rural areas contribute to food security, economic growth and a stronger social fabric. But in order for agriculture to have this transformative impact, research must respond to the needs of small-scale farmers.
There is good evidence that smallholders, particularly when working together in cooperatives, can successfully meet demand and generate a good income for themselves. One example is India’s Amul Model dairy system, which for more than 50 years has worked with smallholders – some with only one cow – who are organised into cooperatives to supply milk to the Indian market. Today, they produce around 23 million kilograms of milk per day and generate revenues of around $2 billion a year. These small-scale dairy farmers are thriving, and young people now have employment opportunities and are under less pressure to migrate to urban areas in search of employment.
Responding to the needs of farmers
For agricultural research to drive development, it must respond to the needs of small-scale farmers, not the desire of researchers to develop exciting new products. In Timor-Leste, where the ‘hungry season’ lasts seven months of the year, low crop productivity has long been a problem. Yet local farmers surprised scientists by hesitating to adopt higher-yielding maize seeds. Greater productivity meant little to farmers who were losing 30 per cent of their stored maize every year to rodents and weevils. When farmers were provided with better storage facilities, they became more interested in adopting improved, higher-yielding seeds because the storage allowed them to sell their surplus for greater profit in the off season. This combination of better yields and lower post-harvest losses is expected to increase food availability by as much as 70 per cent.
Agricultural research cuts a wide swathe. New vaccines are helping farmers manage a range of evolving problems that can wipe out poultry stock overnight, including, in Asia, Marek’s disease and Newcastle disease. Science has also controlled the cassava mealy bug and the green spider mite that caused havoc in Africa. Promising agroforestry techniques, such as ‘evergreen agriculture’ – where so-called fertiliser trees are interspersed with crops for better soil management – are improving soil quality while also leading to higher and more sustainable yields.
Emerging biotechnologies are helping scientists meet the economic, social and environmental needs of farmers. Tools such as marker-assisted selection and breeding, tissue culture and embryo rescue, for example, are improving the tolerance of seeds and plants to drought, temperature and pests, as well as enhancing the efficiency of nutrients.
But why give a poor farmer in Africa a new seed that increases yield when that farmer has never irrigated or fertilised her or his land? In Africa, for example, only about six per cent of the total cultivated land is irrigated, compared with 37 per cent in Asia. It is estimated that irrigation alone could increase output by 50 per cent in Africa. Similarly, small increases in fertiliser use in sub-Saharan Africa could produce dramatic improvements in yields without risk to the environment.
In some contexts, science can best serve development by optimising conventional approaches. A fertiliser micro-dosing technique developed by ICRISAT and its partners is helping farmers to grow more food without exploiting the soil by using a bottle cap to measure out small, affordable amounts of fertiliser, and placing that fertiliser precisely, with or nearby the seed.
Even modest innovations can generate impressive returns, not only for smallholder families, but also for economies and the environment. In Bangladesh, rice farmers are pioneering a technique of placing mini-briquettes of urea fertiliser near the roots of rice plants rather than spreading urea over the soil. This allows for the steady release of nitrogen to fertilise the plants throughout the growing season, at the same time as reducing run-off and greenhouse gas emissions. Using this strategy, farmers have increased rice yields by between 23 per cent and 70 per cent.
A post-2015 world
The proposed Sustainable Development Goals, which will succeed the Millennium Development Goals at the end of this year, recognise that rural people – including smallholder family farmers, women and indigenous people – are crucial to achieving these collective goals. Agricultural research and innovation, in turn, have a critical role to play in reducing poverty, building community resilience and promoting inclusive, participatory development in rural areas.