In this essay, the author discusses the right approach to combating the problem of hunger – an attribute shared by closed to 900 million people worldwide. He takes issue with the arugula-eating liberal elites, like Food First, a California-based organization that opposes the technological advancements of the Green Revolution. Modern improvements in agricultural technology and sciences create higher crop yields. When land ownership is limited to a few hectares, it is critical to maximize the output on these small plots, which is what industrial improvements in agriculture enable. It is true that there are downsides to the Green Revolution, including further marginalization of subsistence farmers and, in some regions, a widening of the income gap in the agricultural community. But what cannot be said about this approach is that the food it produces is either inferior to organically-grown crops or that the process is any less sustainable. Industrial technologies, chemical fertilizers, and improved seeds generate more food, feeding more mouths, reducing malnutrition and generating income.
Poverty — caused by the low income productivity of farmers’ labor — is the primary source of hunger in Africa, and the problem is only getting worse. The number of “food insecure” people in Africa (those consuming less than 2,100 calories a day) will increase 30 percent over the next decade without significant reforms, to 645 million, the U.S. Agriculture Department projects.
What’s so tragic about this is that we know from experience how to fix the problem. Wherever the rural poor have gained access to improved roads, modern seeds, less expensive fertilizer, electrical power, and better schools and clinics, their productivity and their income have increased. But recent efforts to deliver such essentials have been undercut by deeply misguided (if sometimes well-meaning) advocacy against agricultural modernization and foreign aid.
In Europe and the United States, a new line of thinking has emerged in elite circles that opposes bringing improved seeds and fertilizers to traditional farmers and opposes linking those farmers more closely to international markets. Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that “sustainable food” in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn’t work. Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic. High transportation costs force them to purchase and sell almost all of their food locally. And food preparation is painfully slow. The result is nothing to celebrate: average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished.
If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system we’ve developed in the West. Without it, our food would be more expensive and less safe. In other words, a lot like the hunger-plagued rest of the world.
The Green Revolution and its improvements in yield are not the only ways to improve agriculture and fight hunger. Investments in training, equipment, and infrastructure, enabling access to markets, and providing real-time updates of crop prices can all make farmers more competitive and more productive. The issue of hunger is a big one. Around 30% of children in the developing world are underweight, with the majority in Africa and South Asia. The other day, the Department of Agriculture in the Philippines published the results of a program that encouraged farmers to use hybrid seeds for growing palay (pre-milled rice):
Despite the El Niño phenomenon, farmers in the El Niño-hit provinces of Isabela and Cagayan were able to double their income and increase their yields by an average of 200 percent by planting hybrid palay seeds, the Department of Agriculture (DA) said.
Malabanan said the DA has encouraged the farmer-beneficiaries from Isabela and Cagayan to use the various hybrid rice seeds available to them so they could see for themselves the benefits of cultivating superior genetic materials.
“This translates into an increase in profit of at least P30,000 per hectare from only P15,000. Hybrid rice achieves greater yields and thus farmers earn more without increasing their cultivation area,” Malabanan said.
Using genetically-modified seeds led to a doubling of farmers’ incomes. This is a good thing. One particularly innovative organization is the One Acre Fund, dedicated to “using markets to eradicate hunger permanently.” It is a start-up that offers a suite of four services – capital, technical training, market linkage, and crop insurance – to empower subsistence farmers in East Africa. Truly a modern approach to an old problem. Embrace the wonders of modern science and the power of the invisible hand and use it to the advantage of those most in need of the benefits.
Also, check out the photo gallery, “An Ode to Farming.”