The first-ever official meeting of Ministers of Agriculture from G20 countries, to be held in Paris on June 22-23, presents an extraordinary opportunity. Tasked with developing an action plan to address price volatility in food and agricultural markets and its impact on the poor, the ministers are uniquely positioned to not only tackle the immediate price volatility problems, but also to take on a more fundamental and long-term challenge—extreme poverty and hunger.
As experts in agriculture, the ministers no doubt know what extensive research confirms: Investing in agriculture and rural development, with a focus on smallholder farmers, is the best bet for achieving global food security, alleviating poverty, and improving human wellbeing in developing countries. During their upcoming meeting, the G20 ministers should seize the opportunity to call attention to this essential fact and propose a corresponding plan of action.
Three years after the 2008 food crisis, expanding biofuel production, rising oil prices, U.S. dollar depreciation, extreme weather, and export restrictions have once again led to high and volatile food prices, threatening the wellbeing of the world’s poorest consumers, who spend up to 70 percent of their incomes on food. Any plan to curb volatility and protect the poor will require decisive action on a number of fronts, including measures to control speculation on agricultural commodities, promote open trade and export bans, establish emergency food reserves, curtail biofuels subsidies, and strengthen social safety nets, especially for women and young children.
In addition to these critical steps, achieving food security requires long-term investments to increase the productivity, sustainability, and resiliency of agriculture, especially among smallholder farmers, many of whom live in absolute poverty and are malnourished. Millions of poor, smallholder farmers struggle to raise output on tiny plots of degraded land, far from the nearest market. Lacking access to decent tools, quality seeds, credit, and agricultural extension, and being highly susceptible to the vagaries of weather, they work hard but reap little.
These challenges, however, are not insurmountable, and many actually present opportunities. Successes during the Green Revolution in Asia and more recent accomplishments in Africa show that rapid increases in crop productivity among smallholder farmers can be achieved, helping to feed millions of people. When smallholder farmers have equal access to agricultural services, inputs, and technologies, including high-yielding seeds, affordable fertilizer, and irrigation, they have often proven to be at least as efficient as larger farms.
Exploiting the vast potential of small-scale agriculture would increase productivity and incomes where they are most needed—Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The two regions are not only home to the majority of smallholder farmers and people suffering from extreme poverty, hunger, and malnutrition, but they also have rapidly growing populations. Improving smallholder agriculture could take pressure off global food and agricultural markets and cushion the negative impact on poor people who are most vulnerable to volatile markets.
Harnessing the promise of smallholder farmers, however, will require concerted action in a number of areas. First, investments that improve farmers’ productivity—such as better access to high-quality seeds, fertilizer, and extension and financial services—should be increased along with spending on roads and other rural infrastructure to improve farmers’ access to markets. Investments in agricultural research should focus on new agricultural technologies that are well suited for smallholder farmers, as well as other innovations, including insurance schemes that can reduce the risk small-scale farmers face due to extreme weather and high price volatility.
Second, while increasing productivity and incomes is crucial, it is not sufficient. Agricultural development among smallholders should also improve nutrition and health. Growing more nutritious varieties of staple crops that have higher levels of micronutrients like vitamin A, iron, and zinc can potentially reduce death and disease, especially of women and children. Producing more diverse crops, especially fruits and vegetables, can also help to combat malnutrition, and selling more nutritious food could increase incomes and provide additional employment.
Third, since smallholder farmers are extremely vulnerable to weather shocks, including escalating threats from global warming, promoting climate change adaptation and mitigation is important to protect against risks and potential crop loss. With the right incentives and technologies, smallholder farmers can invest in mitigation efforts, including managing their land to increase carbon storage. Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, has 17 percent of the world’s potential for climate change mitigation through sustainable agricultural practices.
Finally, policies and programs need to narrow the gender gap in agriculture and address the specific constraints faced by women. Although female farmers do much of the work to produce, process, and sell food in many countries, they frequently have less access than men to land, seeds, fertilizer, credit, and training. When women obtain the same levels of education and have equal access to extension and farm inputs, they produce significantly higher yields.
When the G20 Ministers of Agriculture develop an action plan to address food price volatility and its impact on the poor, they should focus on both urgent actions and the vital role of smallholder farmers. But before the international community issues any new recommendations, they first need to make good on previous commitments, including the G8’s L’Aquila pledge in 2009 to invest $22 billion in agriculture, which must be targeted to small-scale farmers. When it comes to achieving food security and reducing poverty, poor farmers in developing countries might be part of the challenge, but they are definitely indispensable to the solution.