Roger Thurow is a Senior Fellow on Global Agriculture and Food Policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
This commentary is part of a series organized by The Chicago Council's Global Agricultural Development Initiative and the World Food Prize to examine the relationship between water, agriculture, and food security in the lead up to this year's Borlaug Dialogue.
Today is World Food Day. But, I wonder, do the farmers of Africa know it?
Actually, for them, every day is Food Day. Food – growing it, scraping together enough money to buy it – is their daily preoccupation, a primal obsession. Africa’s smallholder farmers – the most common occupation on the continent - rise every day to tend their plots, trying to squeeze enough out of the soil to feed their families throughout the year. Most of the time, they fail, which is why they endure an annual Hunger Season.
When their cupboards are bare, they scramble for income to purchase food on the market. There, prices march relentlessly higher as surpluses from the previous harvest dwindle. The farmers may have to save their earnings for a couple of days before there is enough to buy a meal for the family.
In the Hunger Season, far too many days are No Food Day.
I wonder if Tesfaye Ketema in the Ethiopian highlands knows it is World Food Day. I met him in during the famine of 2003; he was sitting on a flimsy mattress in an emergency feeding tent, praying that his emaciated little boy, Hagirso, would survive. The year before, Tesfaye had carried bags of surplus corn to the same village square; now he had carried his starving son. The markets failed before the weather did; the surplus production of the previous year overwhelmed the markets, triggering prices to collapse by 80% and sapping the farmers’ ability, and incentive, to sustain surplus production. Then the drought hit.
I wonder if Tesfahun Belachew in Ethiopia knows. He and I watched the water of a river flow right past his feet while his crops died in a drought. He couldn’t tap the water for irrigation, because the river flowed into Lake Tana, which fed the mighty Blue Nile, which in turn provides most of the water in the great Nile that runs through Sudan and Egypt. The international community had decided that the Nile water must flow unimpeded to irrigate a cornucopia of crops in the Egyptian desert while Ethiopia, the source of the water, begged for food aid in the drought.
I wonder if all the smallholder farmers who work the soil with their hands know. In our rich areas of the world, we make our toys with Space Age technology, but their rudimentary tools haven’t advanced since the Iron Age. It is one reason their yields are only one-fifth or one-tenth the yields of American farmers.
I wonder if Leonida Wanyama and the farmers of western Kenya who I write about in The Last Hunger Season know. They all have cellphones – Leonida’s ring tone was Flight of the Bumblebee -- which give them the ability to punch a couple of numbers and find out the prices of their crops at local markets. But unless they have access to the essential elements of farming – seeds, soil nutrients, training, and credit to pay for it all – they are unable to produce a surplus to sell on the markets in the first place.
In the twelfth year of the 21st Century, we can do better than this.
For too long, these smallholder farmers have been dismissed by governments and the private sector as too poor, too remote and too insignificant to bother with. Little innovation was applied to their farming; policies that would help them conquer the Hunger Season were rarely considered.
But with our great global challenge of needing to nearly double food production in coming decades, these farmers are no longer too poor, too remote, too insignificant. They are central to our success. It is a grand irony: the neglected have now become the indispensable.
On World Food Day, let’s acknowledge – let’s raise the clamor - that we need all of the world’s farmers, big and small, to be producing as much nutritiously beneficial food as possible.