As drought becomes increasingly common, farmers worldwide are struggling to maintain crop yields. In the US, farmers are experiencing the most severe drought in more than a half-century. As a result, global corn, wheat and soybean prices rose in July and last month, and remain high.
However, the severe dry spell parching croplands across the US is only the latest in a global cycle of increasingly frequent and damaging droughts. In Africa’s Sahel region, millions of people are facing hunger for the third time since 2005. Lack of rain in the region and volatile global food prices have made a bad situation worse. Indeed, it is the world’s poor — particularly those in rural areas — that suffer the most from these combined factors.
This does not bode well for our future. By 2050, global food production will have to increase by 60 percent to meet demand from a growing world population with changing consumption habits. To ensure food security for all, we will have to increase not just food production, but also availability, especially for those living in developing countries. That means breaking down barriers and inequalities, building capacity and disseminating knowledge. In Africa, smallholder farmers — who provide 80 percent of the sub-Saharan region’s food — need infrastructure for agricultural development, including irrigation and roads, as well as better market organization and access to technology.
The International Fund for Agricultural Development sees enormous potential in Africa’s agricultural sector, which experienced 4.8 percent growth in 2009, compared to 3.8 percent in the Asia-Pacific region and only 1.4 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean. Given that agriculture amounts to roughly 30 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP, and accounts for more than 60 percent of employment in most African countries, the sector’s development could reduce poverty in the region substantially.
Not only in Africa — in countries like Burkina Faso and Ethiopia — but also in emerging countries like China, India and Vietnam, experience has repeatedly shown that smallholder farmers can lead agricultural growth while stimulating broader economic development. Small farmers, both women and men, are Africa’s biggest agricultural investors. Agriculture-driven GDP growth is more than twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth in other sectors.
However, African farmers encounter significant barriers to achieving their potential. On average, they apply less than 10kg of fertilizer per hectare, compared with 140kg in India. Furthermore, less than 5 percent of agricultural land is irrigated and improved crop varieties are rarely used.
Therefore, agricultural development efforts should focus on promoting the growth and sustainability of smallholder farmers and small rural businesses. This requires a more supportive regulatory environment, technical assistance as well as connections to suppliers, distributors, and finance providers.
Countries that are experiencing significant agricultural growth, such as Brazil and Thailand, have benefited from public-sector investment in research and infrastructure development. We should consider not only how to improve the ability of smallholder farmers to grow food; we also must strengthen their ability to participate in markets, while improving the way those markets function.