12) Bias against drylands will affect food security

Correcting the policy bias against dryland agriculture can help solve the current global food crisis and enhance the livelihoods of poor farmers. This was revealed in a policy paper on dryland agriculture issued by Dr William Dar, Director General of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

Dr Dar stated that less than 10% of public spending in developing countries goes to agriculture, even though this sector commonly accounts for about half of their Gross Domestic Product. Moreover, less than 1% of public spending goes to agricultural research, which is vital to the innovation that is the engine for new livelihood opportunities. Of that only a small proportion is invested in dryland agriculture.

Dryland agriculture is struggling against a headwind of policies that are biased in favor of the “favored lands” (those with plenty of water). They also favor the influential urban populations that are concentrated in coastal mega-cities, and the familiar cereal grains that they consume: rice, wheat and maize, Dr Dar said. The bias is expressed in grain price supports for the heavily traded commodities, export subsidies by many nations, preferential research and development investments, and others. By artificially reducing the prices of the major grains, these policies inadvertently hobble poor dryland farmers in their struggle to compete in the local and regional marketplace by growing the drought-hardy grains: sorghum, millet, and food legumes.

According to Dr Dar, a lesson of 2008 is that dependence on just a few globally traded crops can expose developing countries to risks that originate far from their shores. Skyrocketing maize and rice prices caused food shortages and high prices in poor, import-dependent countries. Over-dependence on a few crops also creates agro-ecological risks, such as vulnerability to climate change (which may increase drought frequency) and crop disease epidemics (such as the new Ug99 strain of stem rust currently threatening wheat).

“We suspect that the world may come to regret its under-investment in dryland grain crops as climate change kicks in, increasing the need for more robust, drought-hardy crops and crop traits for plant breeding”, Dr Dar added.

Planting high-value crops

ICRISAT’s studies have shown that crop diversification has been helping dryland farmers. Demand for fruit, vegetable, livestock and fish products by urban dwellers are increasing as their incomes rise. By selling into these markets, dryland farmers are beginning to tap a portion of this growing wealth for themselves. High-value crop culture also earns more “income per drop” of water used, an important consideration in water scarce areas. It is also more labor-intensive, increasing employment opportunities for the poor.

There have also been successful development models that can be replicated in other areas to help dryland farmers. Some examples are:

  • Industry-driven models. Rewarding connections have been built between central highland farmers in Kenya and urban markets in Nairobi and worldwide. Traditional cultivation of maize as well as industrial crops (tea, coffee) since the 1970s has been supplemented with horticultural fresh-produce crops and dairy products. Investments in roads and other infrastructure were key to success. Farmer incomes are now substantially higher than in neighboring countries within the same agro-ecosystems. Industrial contracts from food processing and marketing enterprises, and contract farming are becoming increasingly successful in many developing countries.

  • Marketing boards and cooperatives. In recent decades, governments have launched marketing boards and farmer cooperatives to advance farmer interests. A few were resounding successes, such as the ‘White Revolution’ in India sparked by dairy farmers in Gujarat State and expanded nationally by India’s National Dairy Development Board (NDDB); and the growth of the Kenya Cooperative Creamery (KCC). Both initiatives have been remarkable in overcoming the challenges of collecting mass quantities of highly perishable products over enormous rural areas, adding value and increasing sales through disciplined logistics and cooperation, impressive marketing, and major technical innovations. However, even these successes have evolved over time to ensure more involvement by smallholders.

  • Producer marketing groups (PMGs). These groups are owned and run by the farmers or jointly with private-sector partners, often with assistance from NGOs, research partners, government agencies and others. ICRISAT has engaged closely with PMGs to study their potential and constraints. “We’ve worked with partners to stimulate ten PMGs in Kenya since 2003/04, and in Asia we are closely engaged in consortia to develop sweet sorghum bioethanol and for the integrated management of watersheds,” observed Dr Dar.

Research on PMGs has found that they hold high promise, for example increasing farmer incomes by 23% in Kenya. To fully reach their potential, supportive steps are urgently needed in areas such as legal status, crop insurance, credit access, infrastructure, management skills, and market intelligence gathering capabilities.

Working with farmers to drive change

ICRISAT will continue to draw attention to the policy challenges facing these dryland poor, Dr Dar concluded. “We consider it a privilege and an honor to work side-by-side with them to overcome these challenges. “ The combination of innovative farmers and a supportive policy framework can help correct the bias against dryland farmers.

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