23) Cutting edge science helps the poor overcome soaring food prices

The poorest of the poor, especially those in the drylands, are hardest hit by soaring food prices. Even as the urban poor are the most vulnerable, the rural poor also suffer since most of them are net buyers of food. In sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank estimates that more than 100 million people will be pushed back to poverty after seven years of progress. But cutting edge scientific innovations can help the poor overcome this problem.

Fundamental changes are making agriculture more expensive, such as rising fuel costs, a growing middle class that demands more food, and the use of maize (corn) by the bioethanol industry. The cost of production, particularly for fertilizer is going up faster than food prices. Since fertilizer requires large amounts of energy to produce, higher food prices are likely here to stay.

In the drylands, the prices of crops like sorghum, millet and legumes have increased by 20 to 40% in the past year. They continue to increase sharply during this period known as the “hungry season” in sub-Saharan Africa. It is during this time when last year’s food stocks in poor countries dwindle to a minimum before the 2008 harvest is reaped. Price trends are now on a parallel pattern that caused famine in Niger in 2005.

Nevertheless, scientific innovations in crop cultivation techniques can help poor farmers cope with soaring food prices, say experts from the India-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). According to Dr William D Dar, Director General of ICRISAT, “On-farm yields of cereal crops in the drylands can be doubled or tripled with modest inputs, such as low rates of fertilizer combined with highly responsive crop varieties, particularly hybrids, and low-cost rainwater harvesting”. ICRISAT is one of 15 global agricultural research centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

More specifically, Dr Dar cited the scientific innovations that have been found effective in producing food at lower cost. These include: planting-basin cultivation, fertilizer microdosing, use of improved crop varieties and hybrids, improved seed systems, tree-crop integration, gravity-fed drip irrigation, growing new types of crops, integrated pest management and value-added to sorghum by producing bioethanol as well as grain and feed from sweet sorghum.

Planting-basin cultivation begins by scooping small basins by hand-hoe that concentrate rainwater and plant nutrients at the base of the plant, where roots are most dense. Coupled with this, small doses of fertilizer (less than a tenth of the rates used in developed countries), applied in combination with small amounts of manure in these moist basins and planting improved crop varieties (especially hybrids) can double or triple yields.

Improved crop varieties use fertilizer more efficiently, are more resilient to drought, pests and diseases and incorporate grain quality traits demanded by the market. Likewise, h ybrid varieties can turbo-charge yields through their fertilizer responsiveness and robust growth. To make these varieties available to poor farmers at the right time, improved seed systems are required to multiply seeds in the right quantities.

Another new farming system technique is to grow special trees in the same field as crops. The trees collect additional nutrients from the soil, and farmers slice off the branches to allow leaves to drop off onto the soil surface, adding nutrients for the young growing crops. These trees and leaves also protect the soil from erosion by wind and water. While boosting crop yields, the trees also provide higher-value products such as fruits, gums, cosmetics, and renewable energy (in the form of firewood).

Irrigation is a third new technique, but practiced in more efficient ways than in the past. “Drip irrigation” delivers tiny amounts of water drop-by-drop to each plant through a plastic tube, providing just the amount the plant or tree needs for optimal growth. Fertilizer mixed with the drip water also improves its efficiency of usage. ICRISAT has pioneered inexpensive drip irrigation systems suitable for sub-Saharan Africa. It has also identified the matching trees and vegetable crops that deliver high profits when drip-irrigated. Situated near urban areas, these lush ‘m arket gardens’ connect poor farmers to increasingly affluent middle class markets, giving them easy access to better technologies and infrastructure.

A fourth technique is “integrated pest management” which cuts the costs and hazards of pesticide sprays on legumes, allowing farmers to obtain higher prices from organic food markets. The demand for better-quality food from cities in the developing world as well as from overseas markets for dryland crops like chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut can become an engine for development, said Dr Dar. That demand “pull” links farmers to processors and sellers who, in turn provide farmers with new technologies that assure the processors of a constant supply of top-quality produce.

Another “pull” factor that can lift rural areas out of poverty, is the new bioethanol market. Rather than export precious cash to overseas oil producers, it can be invested into the poor rural areas to stimulate development. This need not come at the expense of food production or the environment. Sweet sorghum is a ‘smart’ crop that produces food (grain) and fuel (stalk juice) on the same plant, plus vital livestock feed. After crushing to extract the sugar-rich juice that ferments into bioethanol, the residual stalk material is prized as feed for cattle, goats and sheep.

In the 1990s, the world grew complacent with food security. As food prices declined, it was assumed that investments in agricultural research and development could also be allowed to decline.

“Now we’ve received a harsh wake-up call. Unless we re-invigorate agriculture and lift it to a new level of productivity and efficiency, the world will face more hunger, more poverty, more despair, and more anger,” Dr Dar warned. “We do not have the luxury of an easy excuse. We must not say that “it can’t be done”, because we know it can be,” he added. “Big increases in food production are within our reach, so we must grab this opportunity right now. There is no other choice but to do so, since we will be judged on this choice by the world’s poor and hungry.”

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