Letter from Des Moines 3: A World Food Prize Postmortem

Dr. Gebisa Ejeta of Ethiopia accepts the World Food Prize for his work to develop drought- and pest-tolerant varieties of sorghum.

Dr. Gebisa Ejeta of Ethiopia accepts the World Food Prize for his work to develop drought- and pest-tolerant varieties of sorghum.

In the last post, I described the panel discussion that I was a part of at the World Food Prize symposium in Des Moines, Iowa. In a nutshell, the panel agreed that after decades of neglect, the world was shifting its interest back toward agriculture as the base for raising incomes, reducing hunger, and generally improving peoples’ lives around the world. Ecological approaches needed more attention, neglected crop diversity needed more attention, and systems of farming that will thrive will be those that can cope with instability—whether from global climate or erratic world markets. So how do we get from here to there?

Rough estimates indicate that 60 to 80 percent of all investments in agricultural development tend to go to seed breeding, with relatively little going to soils, irrigation, or infrastructure like roads or small-scale processing plants. These neglected areas, with a bit of attention, could blossom and flourish and yield the same sorts of massive returns that investing in seeds yielded decades ago. (According to a new report from the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa, the Millenium Challenge Corporation, an independent foreign aid agency set up by Congress in 2004, has actually become the largest source of agricultural aid in Africa, surpassing US AID, USDA, the World Bank, the African Development Bank and other sources.)

“What about livestock?” one woman in the audience asked, which got little attention among the very crops-focused discussion? (A study in Kenya revealed that 42 percent of all households that moved out of poverty in the last 25 years did so because livestock was added as a source of income.)

“Why doesn’t the World Food Prize focus on crop subsidies in wealthy nations and other impediments to nations feeding themselves?” another attendee asked. (A couple of years ago, an Oxfam report estimated that eliminating US cotton subsidies could raise the income of 10 million cotton farmers in West Africa by 8 to 20 percent.)

“Instead of focusing on increasing production, what about focusing on wastage?” another person asked. It turns out that 30 to 50 percent of what’s harvested in poorer nations goes bad before it reaches the dinner table—a percentage that is eerily similar to the share of food that is thrown away in wealthier nations. (A report from the International Water Management Institute argues that eliminating this waste would save not just massive amounts of food, but also water, energy and other resources.)

And, on a related note, what about “microdosing,” or applying water, fertilizer, and other inputs in small, targeted doses so that it doesn’t get wasted? J.B. Penn from Deere & Co. noted that his company is focusing on smaller scale and more affordable implements that would allow for this. (And I had a conversation that morning with a Gates Foundation director who said he was particularly interested in smallholder mechanization and labor-saving innovations—small-scale weeders, tillers, compost-spreaders.)

Finally, the moderator turned to me and asked what lessons could be learned from the explosion in home gardening, farmers market shopping, and food enthusiasm across the United States. I noted that these “locavores” constituted a vast untapped ally for raising awareness about hunger around the world. These people see food as the way to change the world around them—whether it’s improving their surrounding landscape or their family’s health.

These are the same folks who will be most interested in pushing their elected officials to overhaul destructive crop subsidies schemes or outdated food-aid policies. Marco Ferroni from Syngenta Foundation noted that the long tradition of home gardens in Europe meant that people had a better understanding of the challenges farmers face and a greater respect for farmers.

Which raised an interesting point as this conference came to an end and the organizers started thinking about next year. The World Food Prize has become an important and high-profile coming together on the topic of hunger—a sort of Davos for agriculture. And yet there was little representation from whole swaths of players in the food and agriculture landscape, from African and Asian farmer groups, to the environmental community, to the food security community, to many of the “well-intentioned activists” who were called naïve or counter-productive during speeches. In the interest of a dialogue that nurtures on-the-ground solutions to hunger, perhaps there should be many new names on next year’s invite list.

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