• Eng

Guest post: feeding the world depends on educating farmers

02.07.2013
Vladislav Baumgertner (FT blog Beyondbrics) / The Financial Times (UK)
Guest post: feeding the world depends on educating farmers

Just last week US President Barack Obama spoke in Senegal about private sector commitments to tackle food security issues in Africa. Indeed the problem of food security is one of the most pressing global issues. Around 925m people, including over 200m children under five, are going hungry. The food riots we witnessed in 2008 and 2011 in more than 20 countries highlight how food vulnerability is a serious destabilising factor for economies. With UN predictions that there will be 10bn people on earth by 2050, by which time demand for food will have risen by 60 per cent, it is vital that governments, companies and civil society find solutions to meet this higher demand.

A number of long-term efforts are already underway to deal with the food security problem – and this includes a focus on increasing crop yields. However, in terms of what we can do now, there are essentially only two general approaches: first, expand the use of agricultural land; and second, intensify agricultural production.

There are only a few areas left around the world where it is possible to significantly increase the amount of land employed for food production. These are in sub-Saharan Africa, the Amazonian part of Latin America, and Russia. Yet each of these locations has limits and drawbacks. The use of lands in South America for agriculture is associated with heavy costs and negative consequences for the environment. In the Amazon any significant expansion of agriculture would be accompanied by damage to forest ecosystems. Africa has shown that it is susceptible to drastic changes in climate, as witnessed in the East Africa drought of 2011-12. Russia, in contrast, has high potential for growth without a negative environmental impact because there are still large reserves of unused arable lands. However it requires significant investments into new agricultural technologies and an improvement in the general level of farmers’ education.

The most apparent and environmentally-friendly decision is still to intensify agriculture in existing lands. There is a good precedent and success story: India, which was on the verge of starvation in the early 1960s when the rice yield was 2 tonnes per hectare, introduced new intensive technologies in land-clearing and started using fertiliser which increased yields by up to 6 tonnes per hectare in the mid-1990s.

The introduction of new technologies, seed varieties, increased mechanisation of agriculture, and more sophisticated and balanced usage of nitrogen, phosphate, and potash fertilisers – for which consumption has increased globally by one and a half times since 1980 – have almost doubled the world’s average grain yield from 2.3 tonnes per hectare in 1980 to 4.3 tonnes in 2011.

The task of intensification requires various approaches involving a range of stakeholders – government, business and the scientific community. In order to bring together the efforts of these stakeholders, it is crucial to develop strong and mutually beneficial partnerships. Whilst governments can focus on policy, businesses and scientific institutions can work with governments to improve the education levels of farmers on new technologies and production techniques.

The use of fertiliser, for example, requires specialist on-the-ground agronomic expertise to ensure that it is applied to crops in the right quantities at the right time. Such education would benefit the farmers who are not aware that the crops they grow would be responsive to certain fertilisers, which is usually the case in many developing countries. It’s not improbable: we have just to consider that a vast number of those farmers have had very little formal education, and require additional agricultural training and easy-to-use applicable recommendations. To put this into context, 57 per cent of the population in Bangladesh is illiterate and this number is even higher in sub-Saharan Africa where there is a serious problem in feeding the population.

So what can be the role for a socially responsible business in helping to solve these global problems – beyond supplying the farmers with machines, seed, fertilisers and crop protection? First, business is developing new technologies and application practices that are gradually introduced for everyday usage in agriculture. Second, business is stimulating the use of intensive technologies even by the least educated farmers in the most distant quarters of the world through demonstration test programmes. Third, and probably the most important, business should pay more attention to improving the educational level of farmers working in partnership with governmental authorities and scientific institutions. Improved literacy, agricultural knowledge and financial basics can contribute substantially to increasing yields from the existing arable lands.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the coarse grain yield in 2010 for developing regions was 1.3 tonnes per hectare in Africa and 2.6 tonnes across the developing regions, whereas in North America it was 8.5 tonnes. If we bear in mind that agriculture comprises up to 30 per cent of GDP in developing countries, the use of fertiliser can do much more than increase the amount of food produced, and it can have a fundamental positive impact on a country’s economic strength.

While the change in population numbers in the coming decades is significant, the solutions to tackle food security are very much within our grasp. In the long term, we need to ensure that partnerships lead to appropriate policies and incentives for farmers, companies, research institutions and governments to work together. In the short term, education for farmers on modern technologies and fertiliser application provides the most cost-effective and sustainable solution we know about – the positive effects of which can be seen within a relatively short period of time.

More food is in our hands.

Vladislav Baumgertner is CEO of Uralkali and was a participant in the June 2013 St. Petersburg International Economic Forum panel discussion on food security.

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