The goal is ambitious. The impulse to feed the world is a healthy one. Even if we suspect the goal will be difficult to meet, we must rise to the challenge. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) will attempt to formalize its objective next month, at a meeting in Rome.
Before then–next week, in fact–another gathering will try to point the way forward. Truth About Trade and Technology (TATT) will host nearly two dozen farmers from six continents at a unique event during the festivities surrounding the World Food Prize and Norman Borlaug International Symposium in Des Moines.
The purpose of the Global Farmer to Farmer Roundtable is to provide farmers from around the world the opportunity to share their ideas and experiences with each other through face-to-face contact and conversation. Meetings such as this are essential if we’re ever going to meet the FAO’s objective, or come anywhere near attaining it. The key to agricultural success in the 21st century must include the cross pollination of information, expertise and support – farmer to farmer – around the planet.
I had this lesson affirmed firsthand last month on a trip to Kenya, where I met Gilbert Bor. He grows maize (corn), vegetables and dairy cows on a 25-acre farm near Eldoret, Kenya. Collaborating with other farmers and ACDI/VOCA, a non-profit group that’s dedicated to ‘putting more money in farmers pockets’ by raising productivity and increasing access to agricultural markets for smallholder farmers, Bor has adopted modern agricultural technologies, such as improved seeds, fertilizer and better irrigation. As a result, he has boosted his yield dramatically. Maize production has gone up by about 50 percent.
Higher yield on existing farmland is an important part of the solution to the world’s growing demand for food. The FAO estimates that 90 percent of the increased productivity we’ll need must come from land that farmers are already working. Only 10 percent will come from the introduction of new farmland.
Bor will attend the Global Farmer to Farmer Roundtable and share his experiences with farmers from Brazil, Honduras, India, Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere. He hopes to learn lessons for himself, too. For all the gains he has made, he plans to make more. He’ll be able to do it, too, if scientists can improve drought tolerance in staple crops. Bor lives in an area that occasionally suffers from a lack of rainfall.
Researchers can attain breakthroughs in conventional breeding or, better yet, by unleashing the full potential of biotechnology. Although much of sub-Saharan Africa is reluctant to take advantage of genetic modification, due to irrational hostility in European export markets, Bor is open to the idea. He’s bound to learn more about it in Des Moines.
We hold these meetings annually. Each year, farmers who don’t have steady access to biotechnology want to hear more about its benefits from farmers who plant it routinely.
The stakes are high. The late Norman Borlaug used to point out that the lack of an adequate food supply sparked civil unrest. It’s impossible, he said, “to build a peaceful world on empty stomachs.”
Bor knows this reality: His region was the center of political violence last year following Kenya’s disputed presidential election.
When we arrived at Bor’s village, an assembly of schoolchildren greeted our group with songs and asked each of us to plant a tree with them. Their presence illustrated what Bor is working for. The products of his farm are feeding his family and others. Now he is collaborating with like-minded organizations, using his experience to share information and skills with local youth through a program that encourages teams of football players to collectively plant and harvest 1 acre of maize and drip-irrigated vegetables. Bor’s success will give them a future.
When Gilbert Bor comes to Des Moines, he’ll talk to other farmers, sharing his story and experiences. The FAO’s hunger-elimination project will rely on commitments from presidents and prime ministers, in classic top-down fashion. Its success, however, will require work from the bottom-up. Leaders must listen to the farmers themselves, who know best what they need in order to succeed.
Mary Boote serves as Executive Director for Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org Ms. Boote traveled to Kenya and Tanzania to visit ACDI/VOCA agribusiness programs that provide practical on-farm training to increase productivity, food security and profitability for smallholder farmers.