Political and business leaders along with individuals focused on our global food system gathered in Rome and virtually this week for the Food Systems Summit sponsored by the United Nations. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres promised an event “to raise global awareness and land global commitments and actions that transform food systems to resolve not only hunger, but to reduce diet-related disease and heal the planet.”
This is a high-level, ambitious mission that requires action.
Meetings of this nature are valuable as they contribute to creating awareness of the challenges that are being faced globally.
I’m a supporter of what the UN is trying to do. As a farmer who grows food and as a campaigner for the use of science-based production of as much food as possible to feed a world population of 7.5 billion, I joined the UN summit to meet like-minded people who can help each other in calls to action.
When these meetings are done properly, they can become effective ways for farmers who spend most of their time in the fields to inform policymakers what we do, what problems we confront, and the appropriate tools needed to deal with these immediate challenges.
Yet there are also risks. The aims and promises of these grand conferences easily can float away like hot-air balloons, becoming disconnected from the lives and challenges of ordinary farmers.
In Kenya, farmers can’t spend much time thinking about the UN’s sustainable development goals, let alone striving to meet them, when we don’t have a good sense of whether it will rain next week.
We listen to forecasts on the radio, but we lack the infrastructure that can deliver accurate predictions on a local level.
This starts with smartphones. Some groups claim that Kenya enjoys a “mobile penetration rate” of 119.9 percent. In other words, for every five Kenyans, there are about six phones.
It sounds like we have more phones than we need. Yet this obscures an important reality: Unfortunately, only about 30 percent of these phones are smartphones, and they are concentrated among elite town and city dwellers, none of whom are farmers. In rural areas, they are much less common.
The Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) offers a downloadable app that provides weather information on the county, sub-county, and even the ward level. Users of this app can gain a sense of what to expect over the next two weeks: Increases or decreases in temperature, changes in rainfall patterns, appearance of extreme weather events, reductions in water availability, and more.
Every one of these factors affects agricultural productivity. If we hope to achieve food security, farmers need this information—but first they need the phones that can provide it.
We all understand and accept, weather predictions aren’t always accurate. Yet they’re based on the real science of meteorology, and they’re much better than random guessing. Accessible apps can help farmers make good choices and allow them to become better at what they do.
Farmers will be able to deal with the challenges even better as we build weather forecasting and recording stations on more farms, compiling and interpreting data over longer periods so that we can improve our understanding of cycles and trends in weather.
We need more than phones and forecasts, of course. In the developed world, farmers use state-of-the-art machinery to plant, protect, and harvest their fields. Many of them could not imagine doing their jobs without this powerful machinery. They take it for granted.
In Kenya and across Africa, smallholder farmers own on average about a hectare of land, which is less than three acres. They account for about three-quarters of the continent’s agricultural production. Most will never own nor have use for the large-scale machinery, as most of the work done on African farms are by manual labor for planting, weed protection and harvesting.
Smallholder farmers need access to scale-appropriate machinery essential for improving production efficiency, multiplying farm-worker productivity, removing drudgery, increasing timeliness of operations, decreasing the cost of production, and improving the quality of farm produce. Rather than owning equipment, innovative programs that provide farm machinery on a “pay-per-use” basis are needed to address the concerns of financial viability and farm sustainability—but right now, for most farmers, even this is not an option.
We can’t expect farmers in poor countries to catch up with the wealthier world quickly, but perhaps the goal shouldn’t be to catch up. It simply should be to do better—and to leave the next generation of farmers better off than we were when we started these jobs ourselves.
That’s the message I brought to the UN Food Systems Pre-Summit. I hope my fellow summiteers were listening.