By Mumukshu Patel
“Better yielding is better living.”
Bidhu Raut, a small-holder farmer in Odisha, India, summed it up well after record floods hit his village at the height of the global food crisis.
Bidhu had planted two types of rice on his football field size – one hectare – farm. Half the farm was planted with ‘scuba’ rice – swarna-sub 1, a flood/submergence tolerant plant variety - and the other half with Gayatri, a popular brand.
After ten days of flooding, scuba rice was still standing, while Gayatri was wiped out. Bidhu had to struggle that year, but he was still able to feed his family that year and save some to send his kids to school. All because he invested in 20 kilos or roughly 45 pounds of ‘scuba’ rice seed that season – had he not planted that seed, he would have been destitute; unable to send his kids to school or feed his family without incurring enormous debt.
In South Asia alone, floods ravage about 4 million tons of rice. That’s enough to feed 25 million people for a year. In parts of West Africa, where rice is also a staple and the vagaries of weather even more pronounced, one can only imagine the consequences of yield loss.
Rice provides just one example of how farm yield, resilient to climate change, can impact sustainable development for one crop, in one part of the world- millions can prosper or be impoverished. Imagine what would happen if we looked at the variety of global crops - let alone fruits, vegetables, livestock?
Bidhu’s example is important for us, when we think about achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that world leaders committed to in the United Nations in September. The first two goals dedicated to ending poverty and hunger by 2030 cannot be achieved without millions of farmers like Bidhu achieving prosperity, through better yields in their fields.
Achieving sustainable development means achieving sustainable agricultural transformation, driven by small family farms, across the world.
Sustainable agricultural transformation requires doubling agricultural productivity in a manner that is climate and environmentally friendly.
Better yields mean less poverty: We know that growth in agriculture reduces poverty four times faster than any other sector. The most successful growth experiences in the aftermath of the Second World War are driven by agricultural growth as the ‘Green Revolution’ demonstrated. Bumper harvests provide necessary surplus wealth, to enable economic transition to manufacturing and services that help countries develop. From Korea to Taiwan to India and China, the process has unfolded in a predictable, yet context specific manner.
Better yields mean less hunger: growth in agriculture helps defeat hunger. It’s a twisted irony, but most of the world’s hungry are those that produce a large portion of the world’s food: small-holder farmers. Lack of storage, credit market access and infrastructure issues, weather volatility are just some issues they face in the quest for food security and better nutrition.
The challenge before us is to do more with less, when it comes to farming. We need to double food production to feed a global population of nine billion by 2050- that means we need to produce more food in the next 25 years than we have produced in the last 2500 years of human history. And, we need to do this with ever scarce resources.
We need to grow more food without increasing the carbon footprint of our farms.
We need to grow more food without sacrificing our forests.
We need to grow more food without destroying biodiversity and adhering to mono-cropping.
We need to grow more food without wasting water or degrading soils.
How can we tackle this challenge and what lessons can we learn from the past?
A key lesson of the Green Revolution is that indiscriminate use of inputs, like herbicides and fertilizers, can have long-term environmental consequences that threaten future food security and undermine productivity. In the context of climate change, these consequences are multiplied. Droughts and floods are already increasing in the global tropics, hurting the most vulnerable – farmers and the rural poor in Africa, Asia, Latin America; those that contribute the least to greenhouse gas emissions, bear the worst brunt of the weather consequences induced by those gases.
Another lesson from the Green Revolution is that if farm productivity is not equitable – that is if small-holders, many of whom are women today, are not driving the process – then successful economic transformation does not occur. Instead we see high levels of inequality that stifle long-run economic progress.
In many places with low farm productivity, such as sub-Saharan Africa, we can apply these lessons faster due to the advent of digital technologies – such as mobile telephony that can deliver better knowledge exchange and enable greater access to credit to name a few.
We have new opportunities in generating new crop varieties that are bred conventionally, like ‘scuba’ rice, that are not only more climate resilient but also withstand pests to reduce the use of inputs that can help further mitigate the environmental degradation.
As we celebrate the first World Food Day after the SDG Summit, let us bear in mind the centrality of the world’s farms and farmers in achieving the ambitious agenda before us.
Let us learn the lessons of past agricultural development and capitalize on new opportunities, to usher in a world free from poverty and hunger, a world that is greener and more prosperous: a world, where farmers like Bidhu Raut see better yields leading to their having measurably better lives.
Mumukshu Patel is a philanthropy advisor; at present, his principal client is Strive Masiyiwa – Chairman of Econet Wireless and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). In this role, he advises and leads on strategy, partnerships and program activities for a $100 million annual grant portfolio dedicated to sustainable economic transformation.
Mr. Patel has several years of experience working global development and health issues, as a strategist and researcher. Most recently, Mumukshu led partnerships in nutrition and agriculture with the Rome Agencies and Committee on World Food Security (CFS) for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and led policy and advocacy grant portfolios for sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Prior to the Gates Foundation, Mumukshu was a researcher at the Brookings Institution, speechwriter to World Bank President Jim Wolfensohn, and has held positions in various multilateral, governmental and private sector organizations.
Mumukshu is a graduate of the Universities of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) and Cambridge (UK).
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