Today's world hunger crisis is unprecedentedly severe and requires urgent measures. Nearly one billion people are trapped in chronic hunger - perhaps 100 million more than two years ago. Spain is taking global leadership in combating hunger by inviting world leaders to Madrid in late January to move beyond words to action. With Spain's leadership and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's partnership, several donor governments are proposing to pool their financial resources so that the world's poorest farmers can grow more food and escape the poverty trap.
The benefits of some donor help can be remarkable. Peasant farmers in Africa, Haiti, and other impoverished regions currently plant their crops without the benefit of high-yield seed varieties and fertilizers. The result is a grain yield (for example, maize) that is roughly one-third less than what could be achieved with better farm inputs. African farmers produce roughly one ton of grain per hectare, compared with more than four tons per hectare in China, where farmers use fertilizers heavily.
African farmers know that they need fertilizer; they just can't afford it. With donor help, they can. Not only do these farmers then feed their families, but they also can begin to earn market income and to save for the future. By building up savings over a few years, the farmers eventually become creditworthy, or have enough cash to purchase vitally necessary inputs on their own.
There is now widespread agreement on the need for increased donor financing for small farmers (those with two hectares or less of land, or impoverished pastoralists), which is especially urgent in Africa. The UN Secretary General led a steering group last year that determined that African agriculture needs around $8 billion per year in donor financing - roughly four times the current total - with a heavy emphasis on improved seeds, fertilizer, irrigation systems, and extension training.
In addition to direct help for small farms, donors should provide more help for the research and development needed to identify new high-yielding seed varieties, especially to breed plants that can withstand temporary flooding, excess nitrogen, salty soils, crop pests, and other challenges to sustainable food production. Helping the poor with today's technologies, while investing in future improved technologies, is the optimum division of labor.
This investment pays off wonderfully, with research centers such as the International Rice Research Institute and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre providing the high-yield seeds and innovative farming strategies that together triggered the Asian Green Revolution. These centers are not household names, but they deserve to be. Their scientific breakthroughs have helped to feed the world, and we'll need more of them.
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