This four-part article appeared in the English-language version of the German news magazine Der Spiegel on Sept. 20, 2010. Read part one below. Click here to read parts two-four online. Click here to read the article in German.
World leaders are meeting in New York this week to discuss progress on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. The world’s nations have failed miserably in addressing one of the main goals, the fight against hunger. Researchers believe that small farmers, not large-scale farms, are the key to feeding the planet.
Food was scarce for Dorca Mutua last summer. No rain had fallen for months. Mutua, 35, watched as first her calf and then her cow died. “There was no more grass,” the farmer says. What little she was able to coax from the ground was only enough to provide her family with one meager meal of corn porridge a day.
In 2004, Mutua had moved with her eight children and her mother-in-law to Vololo, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) east of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, where she bought two hectares (five acres) of land. Her husband had died, and land in their home village was too expensive.
Mutua had little knowledge of agriculture and no money for expensive tools or modern seeds. Irrigation was out of the question. When the nearby river ran dry — and it ran dry often — Mutua set out with a donkey and a few canisters and walked to the next river, which was 20 kilometers away. She went there and back every two days.
She tried everything. She constructed terraces to help keep moisture in the soil, with no success. She tried planting trees to retain water, but in vain. Three small mango trees on her plot of land have borne no fruit and are slowly withering.
The Backbone of Food Production
Dorca Mutua’s family reveals the modern face of hunger. Along with the urban poor living in slums in the developing world’s megacities, small farmers often suffer the most from poverty and deprivation, laboring all day without ever having enough to eat.
Yet it is these small farmers who form the backbone of global food production. Despite miserable conditions, around 2 billion farmers produce the daily bread for most of humanity.
“More than half of the world’s grain demand is produced by small family farms,” says Carlos Seré in Nairobi, one of the leaders of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). These small farmers, Seré says, will prove crucial as the global population increases by a further 2 to 3 billion people during the coming decades.
This Monday, world leaders are gathering at United Nations headquarters in New York City to address the UN’s “Millennium Development Goals.” The fight against hunger, along with education and healthcare, tops the list.
The delegates have failed categorically on the first point. Leaders at the UN summit in New York in the millennium year 2000 declared food security their top priority, setting a goal of reducing the number of hungry in developing countries by half by 2015, compared to 1990 levels. That would involve reducing the total to around 600 million people.
No discernable progress has been made toward this goal. In fact, quite the opposite is true — the number of hungry has increased sharply in recent years, at times to over 1 billion. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 925 million people currently suffer from hunger and malnutrition. Estimates say a further billion are undernourished, suffering from so-called silent hunger. Undernourished children grow more slowly, their mental development is often delayed and they are more susceptible to diseases. One study showed that people who had received insufficient vitamins and minerals as small children later earned 40 percent less than those who had been well nourished.
If the world leaders gathering in New York are serious about changing course and reducing hunger in a sustainable way, they must answer a crucial question: What actually helps?
German Chancellor Angela Merkel needs to confront the same question. Germany is both the world’s third largest agricultural exporter and the third most important donor country for development aid. The country also carries significant weight when it comes to decision-making within the international community. Merkel’s cabinet, though, shows little interest in relieving hunger. The Development Ministry under Dirk Niebel of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) considers support for rural development a “fad.” Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner, who belongs to the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union, generally acts in the interest of German agriculture alone, while Research Minister Annette Schavan (CDU) ranks agricultural research low on her agenda.
The challenges, though, are enormous. By 2050 the world’s population is projected to increase from its current level of 7 billion to 9 billion. Food production will need to increase by about 70 percent to meet demand, according to the FAO.
“We don’t know yet how such an immense increase in yields can be achieved in a sustainable fashion, which makes it important to invest more in agricultural research,” says agricultural economist Joachim von Braun, one of the directors of the Bonn-based Center for Development Research (ZEF). “What we do know,” von Braun adds, “is that young small farmers, especially women, are some of the world’s most underestimated innovators.”
Progress at a Price
The “Green Revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s advanced agriculture in Asia and Latin America enormously, employing modern methods of plant breeding and massive use of fossil fuels for fertilizers, pesticides and equipment.
This agricultural revolution saved millions of lives, but it came with a price — environmental consequences that are becoming steadily more visible. Today, the creation of new agricultural land is generally possible only through the destruction of essential ecosystems such as rain forests and savannas.
The warning signs are accumulating. Ten million hectares (25 million acres) of grain monocultures fell victim to drought and fire in Russia this summer, partly because large tracts of peat bogs had been drained. Climate change means that extreme weather events such as droughts and floods may become more frequent in the future.
The recent floods in Pakistan illustrated starkly what these developments can mean. Floods overwhelmed 7 million hectares (17 million acres) of agricultural land and a significant portion of the country’s infrastructure disappeared under water.
Increased meat consumption is another factor contributing to agricultural shortages, as immense areas of land are given over to the cultivation of animal feed.
There is serious disagreement among experts on the best way to address impending shortages. Some are counting on genetic engineering. “What we need is nothing less than a second Green Revolution,” says Friedrich Berschauer, the CEO of Bayer Cropscience, a leading agricultural company. Berschauer is referring primarily to genetic engineering, a view that meets with resistance.
“We should be skeptical when agricultural corporations tell us genetic engineering will boost crop yields and feed the hungry,” says Peter Rosset of the California-based nonprofit organization Food First.
Both sides in the debate tend to approach the matter ideologically, overlooking the interests of small farmers. These farmers become victims of agricultural policies whose results are double-edged at best — even in cases where they can be measured in terms as concrete as centimeters.