As leaders of the world’s top industrial countries gather for the Group of Eight summit in Canada, they can look to the long-suffering hills of Rwanda to see the fruits – and vegetables -- of their actions.
Corn farmers in the eastern province are receiving assistance in marketing a surplus harvest. Rice farmers in the south are planning for new warehouses. Dairy farmers up north are offering more nutritious feed to their cows and reaping more milk.
And here on the western hillsides near Lake Kivu, more than 2,000 farmers wielding hoes are hacking away at the ground, crafting wide terraces that will increase their arable space and shaping a water management system to slow the relentless erosion which strips away some 40 million metric tons of Rwanda’s valuable top soil each year.
Taking a break from the work, Ezechias Rurahinyuza surveys the hills – and the future. He expects the terraces will hold the rain water and better retain the fertilizer, giving his seeds a greater chance to take root and flourish. He calculates he may be able to triple or quadruple his harvests of corn and potatoes and expand his grove of passion fruit trees. For once, he says, he may have enough to both feed his family of six children and earn a decent sum of money from sales at the market.
“That,” he says, “will be wonderful.”
Ezechias’ vision, and the hopes of Rwanda’s other farmers, are being aided by the commitment of G8 leaders at last year’s summit in Italy, when they pledged more than $20 billion to end hunger through agriculture development in the world’s poorest countries. Several weeks later came the call to create a multi-donor trust fund – the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program -- to finance larger rural development projects that have been neglected for decades. Today, some of that money, flowing under a program called Feed the Future by the Obama administration, is beginning to take root in the fields of Rwanda.
A report from the group ActionAid finds that less than one-third of the $22 billion that was pledged to improve food security during a 2009 G8 meeting in L'Aquila, Italy, is from new funding sources.
According to the report, "there is no proof of an increase in funds for the agricultural sector, over and above figures for the 2006-2008 period – and several signatories are actually reducing their aid to agriculture." The report also notes that "[t]o date, there is no official information on what has actually been spent in countries and whether governments are holding true to their commitments."
Describing USAID's Feed the Future initiative as "central" to U.S. foreign policy, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced plans to "leverage the work" of U.S. researchers to "benefit farmers in developing countries worldwide." During the 2010 World Food Prize ceremony, Clinton remarked that "[i]n a few decades, the world's population will grow to 9 billion people. If we are to feed the future without leveling the forests, draining the aquifers and depleting the soil of all its nutrients, we need science."
Clinton said a funding increase of almost 50 percent had been requested for international agricultural research in 2011. "And we want to target those investments at specific research breakthroughs that, if successful, will not only help save and improve lives, but raise incomes for farmers and generate growth across Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world," she said before providing some examples of the types of agricultural research the U.S. wants to promote.
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Food prices are projected to rise over the next decade, with the cost of some grains increasing between 15 and 40 percent, according to an annual report, released this week by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The report says that while "[f]arm commodity prices have fallen from their record peaks of two years ago," prices are expected to rise again without returning to the average levels seen during the past decade. "For the next 10 years, the FAO and OECD forecast that significant food prices, with the exception of pork, would remain above the 1996-2007 average, in both nominal and real terms – adjusted for inflation," the Financial Times reports. The report cautioned, "if history is any guide, further episodes of strong price fluctuations ... cannot be ruled out, nor can future short-lived crises".
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The challenge before us was laid out in all its daunting intensity:
Current levels of food production in the world will have to double by the year 2050 if we are to feed a growing population and a population that is growing more prosperous – along with eliminating the hunger that already plagues one billion people. We will have to do that with tight land and water constraints. With little land available for agriculture expansion without destroying the environment, yields of existing fields will necessarily need to double. And with agriculture consuming 70% of the fresh water used in the world, farmers will need to triple their “crop per drop” if water supplies aren’t to be exhausted.
For anyone who doesn’t “get” the moral and economic imperative of ending hunger through agriculture development, here’s another motivating imperative: security, both domestic and global.
The phrase “food security” and the mission of helping countries feed themselves are mentioned multiple times in the recently released National Security Strategy of the Obama administration. Its Feed the Future initiative is a key weapon in the deployment of American “soft power” around the world. And “development experts who can strengthen governance and support human dignity” are included with soldiers, diplomats, law enforcement officers and intelligence gatherers as defenders of the nation’s security.
Over the past several decades, the U.S. (along with other wealthy nations) has beaten a hasty and precipitous retreat from the development front. In the extended era of cheap food and impressive gains in rich world agriculture, there had been a disastrous abandonment of the farmers of developing countries. The result was the 2008 food crisis, when shocking shortages of key staple crops and soaring prices led to riots in dozens of countries. (Students of history will know that food riots have triggered many revolutions down through the centuries.)
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