Thursday, October 14, 2010

2010 World Food Prize winners on aiding small farmers

The World Food Prize was awarded today to Heifer International president Jo Luck and Bread for the World president David Beckmann. The prize usually goes to scientists who invent ways to increase food production in the under-developed world. This year, the granters of the prize decided to recognize the contributions of the non-profit community.

One of the major criticisms of the non-profits is that they just give food away, but that is not so of Heifer and Bread for the World. Instead, both organizations give resources and materials that the poor can use to produce more food so they can gain more money from it.

From the Des Moines Register, newspaper for the host city of the World Food Prize, writer Philip Brasher interviews both Luck and Beckmann.

Q: Brazil dramatically increased its agricultural output through large-scale farms, and the Economist magazine recently said that model could likely be repeated in Africa. Why focus on small-scale farmers?

Beckmann: In Africa, poor people are on the small farms and it is feasible to improve their productivity. If you do that, you get more food into the local markets, so that brings down the price of food. Heifer has long demonstrated that you can increase the productivity of these small farmers.

There are situations where large-scale agriculture could do some good. I'm not ideological about this. But most of the poor people in the world are smallholder farmers, so the most direct route to reducing poverty is in increasing their productivity.

Q: So aid to farmers is important not only to increase food production but lift people out of poverty?

Luck: Absolutely. You just give them the animals. They have better nutrition for their children. They use the manure to plant their crops. They're usually relegated to the worst land in the world, slash-and-burn hillsides. I've gone in where the entire place looked like it was painted with tan paint. There was nothing colorful about any of it. I went back just two years later in Honduras and they had terraced those slash-and-burn hillsides. They had planted nitrogen-fixing trees. They had crops going. They had ribbons around the necks of the goats. They had built pens for them to keep them healthy and safe. Children were exercising them. Big companies can't do that.

Q: But doesn't humanitarian aid often foster dependency?

Luck: It does, if they don't help people become self-reliant. Don't just hand it out and deliver it and leave. That is not sustainable. That's why I believe so much in the work we do and others with this kind of approach working beyond the disaster assistance or emergency assistance. Give them a few resources, give them a few animals and some training and you can't hold them back. They may not all be a millionaire, but they're going to be successful. They're going to be proud and making decisions and they're going to be influencing the government.

Beckmann: The U.S. government's world hunger initiative is focused on countries that have good policies in place and are investing their own money in agriculture.

Luck: So it's more sustainable.

Beckmann: Where you have dubious results is where local people aren't doing what they should be doing. In poor countries that have their act together and are using their own money, well, there are lots of opportunities.

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