Help the poor lift yields to fight food price rises

Agriculture must make leaps in productivity Copyright: Flickr/vredeseilanden

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Small farmers could beat increasing prices in food and fertiliser by producing more of their own crops at lower cost, argues William Dar.

Food has become substantially cheaper over the past half-century, owing largely to new technologies and supportive policies.

But recent price increases are significant. And they remain on a steep upward path as we enter this year’s ‘hungry season’.

Price spikes due to unforeseen events have occurred in the past, most notably with the sharp rise in oil prices in the early 1970s. But grain prices eventually subsided after these shocks had dissipated — and continued to drop.

It’s different this time

This time, it’s not the same. Fundamental factors are increasing the cost of agriculture for the longer term, including rising fuel costs, a growing middle class with greater food demands, and the diversion of maize grain into the bioethanol industry.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI, our sister centre), predicts that real prices of cereals will continue to rise by another 10–20 per cent by 2015.

But don’t rising food prices benefit the rural poor who earn their living by growing and selling food? Not this time. The poorest farmers, because their landholdings are small and their productivity low, tend to be net buyers, rather than net sellers, of food so they are hurt more than helped by rising food prices.

Also, their production costs, particularly for fertiliser, are going up faster than food prices. The price of a kilogram of fertiliser has doubled relative to the price of a kilogram of sorghum or millet grain over the past eight years in Niger. This trend has accelerated over the past six months, far outpacing gains in food prices. As fertiliser requires large amounts of energy to produce, higher prices seem here to stay.

To bring food prices back to levels that the poor can afford, agriculture needs to make big leaps in productivity and in fertiliser-use efficiency. Both are feasible.

Initiatives to boost productivity

At the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-arid Tropics (ICRISAT), we have shown that on-farm yields of cereal crops in drylands can be doubled or tripled with only modest adjustments, for example by using low application rates of fertiliser combined with more responsive crop varieties, particularly hybrids, and low-cost rainwater harvesting.

This can be illustrated by the transformational potential of a few of the exciting initiatives that we are engaged in that involve new technologies and market-chain partnerships.

One is planting basin cultivation — this begins with hand-scooping small basins to concentrate rain water and plant nutrients for the roots at the base of the plant.

Another is to use only microdoses of fertiliser, less than a tenth of the amount applied in developed countries, on crop varieties that can use it more efficiently, causing yields to double or triple.

These hybrid crop varieties are also more resilient to stresses such as drought, pests or disease, and markets will pay more for their grain quality traits. They grow vigorously and yields are greatly enhanced.

We are also working on improving seed systems that deliver more seeds and get them to the right locations at the right time.

Also, tree-crop integration through ICRISAT’s Dryland Ecofarm initiative improves the recycling of nutrients through deep roots and leaf litter, protecting soils from erosion while nutritionally enriching them.

This boosts the yield of crops grown between them, the trees also produce valuable products such as fruits and gums.

Initiatives to improve efficiency

Inexpensive gravity-feed drip irrigation enables farmers to produce more crop per drop, and multiplies their incomes through high-value vegetable and tree products.

Sited near urban areas, lush African market gardens connect farmers to increasingly affluent middle-class markets. The pull of urban and export markets for chickpeas, pigeonpeas and groundnuts connects farmers to processors and marketers, who in turn provide farmers with new technologies that help partners to stay competitive and profitable.

Integrated pest management cuts the costs and hazards of pesticide sprays on legumes, enabling farmers to charge higher prices for their organic produce.

Sweet sorghum is an example of a strategic crop that beats the food–fuel trade-off problem. Both are derived from the same plant. Besides food for humans, the plant can be used for vital livestock feed — after crushing to remove the sugar-rich juice for fermenting into ethanol biofuel, the residual stalks make excellent fodder. When connnected to a huge, growing and remunerative market for transportation fuel through technology-savvy processors, sorghum farming productivity jumps.

Now more than ever

During the 1990s, the world grew complacent. Food prices were in decline for so long that it was assumed that investments in agricultural research and development could be allowed to decline with them.

Now, unless we re-invigorate agriculture and lift it to a new level of productivity and efficiency, the world will face more hunger, more poverty, more despair and more anger.

We can’t say that it can’t be done anymore, because the change that is needed is within our reach, but we have to stretch to grasp it. It is our choice.

William Dar is director-general of the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

In a separate opinion, Robert Paarlberg offers an alternative argument, that donors should help African countries embrace the development of genetically engineered crops by African scientists based in African institutes.