One-Third of the World's Population
Today, there are some 500 million small farm units in the developing and emerging nations. These small-scale farms of two hectares or less support about 2 billion people, almost one third of the world's population.
Right now, many of these smallholder farmers are trapped in subsistence, barely able to feed even themselves with what they grow. In fact, one half of the one billion malnourished people in the world are smallholder farmers or their families. For much of the world, therefore, enabling these smallholder farmers to boost the yields on their farms, produce a surplus, and create profits for reinvestment is the key to broader economic development and participation in the world economy.
Women and Weeds
To understand how the subsistence trap works for smallholder famers, consider how agriculture is currently practiced in much of Africa, where the main means of weed control is hand-weeding.
- Only 3 to 5 percent of African farmers use herbicides regularly, and smallholder farmers spend 50-70 percent of their total labor time hand weeding.
- Even so, crop losses due to weeds reach from 40 percent to total crop failure.
- Weeding a typical one-hectare plot (about 2.5 acres) requires 200-400 hours of backbreaking labor.
- Women perform most of this work, for which they have to walk 6 miles in a stooped position. This posture can permanently deform their spines.
- Weeding is such a big job that 69 percent of the children of African smallholder farmers are forced to leave school to help with the weeding.
In other words, weeds and the lack of modern herbicide technology are literally strangling Africa's future. The application of relatively inexpensive herbicides, however, can radically reduce the damage done from weeds, boost yields, and free women and children from this backbreaking labor.
- It's estimated that the judicious application of herbicides in African farming could raise rice yields by 400 percent and boost maize yields by 800 percent.
- Studies throughout Africa have demonstrated dramatic yield gains and/or reductions in labor for wheat, cassava, cotton, groundnuts, cowpeas, sorghum and other crops as well.
- Overall, smallholder use of herbicides could raise production in Africa by 30 million tons of crops per year and reduce the world load of some 135 million women.
A Holistic Solution
The ultimate solution must respond to the full spectrum of smallholder needs. These include:
- Modern herbicide and other crop protection technologies to protect farmers from the scourge of weeds, disease and other pests.
- New hybrids and biotech varieties that can better withstand pests-including weeds, insects and disease--survive extreme weather conditions, such as rainstorms and drought, and thrive in sub-optimal soils.
- Improved infrastructure, including simple, cost-efficient irrigation solutions, and better storage and transportation that allows farmers to reduce waste and spoilage and deliver their produce to market in an efficient and cost effective manner.
- Educational outreach that helps smallholders modernize farming practices and apply better solutions in the field and in bringing their products to market.
- New forms of micro-finance and insurance that reduce the disproportionate risks that these small farmers bear in sustaining the overall food chain.
Pilot Projects Show the Way
The private sector, together with the non-profit NGO community and national governments are currently engaged in a number of pilot projects designed to demonstrate a sustainable path to smallholder profitability. Some examples, being spearheaded by Syngenta and the Syngenta Foundation include:
- Laikipia, Kenya: Some 30,000 smallholder farmers in the Laikipia region are being helped to make the leap from subsistence farming into commercial enterprises through comprehensive training programs, guidance from trained agronomists, and the application of simple, low-cost technologies such as greenhouses, rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation. The methods disseminated have raised yields some 50 percent. One farmer saw her potato crop grow from 2 to 6 bags per year, hiking her income from $61 to $186 per year. In Laikipia that $125 increased profit is the difference between living on the edge of starvation, vulnerable to disease, and opening a bank account and buying more land.
- Crop Advisory Through Mobile: In India, 5 million farmers in 19 states now receive timely advice on crops, weather, pest and disease alerts, and other critical information on their mobile phones for a nominal subscription cost. A similar start-up program in Indonesia now reaches over 2,000 farmers with SMS texts.
- Pani-Pipes in Bangladesh: Pani-Pipes are a simple, low cost pipe that enables farmers to monitor the level of soil saturation in a rice paddy. In conjunction with new methods of irrigation, it can enable farmers to decrease water use by as much as 30-50 percent. In 2010, Pani-Pipe technology was shared with 480,000 farmers, increasing yields by 4.5 percent and boosting profitability by 27 percent.
- "Safe Farming" in Kenya: In order to offer affordable weather insurance, the Kilimo Salaman project (kilimo salaman means "safe farming" in Swahili) allows farmers to insure inputs with half the premium covered by the input company themselves. In a revolutionary break with old insurance practices, payouts under this program are triggered by weather conditions, such as drought, rather than the farmer having to prove crop or economic loss. Currently 11,000 farmers are covered. The goal is to expand throughout all key farming areas in Kenya.
Divided Policies - The World Community Needs to Speak with One Voice
Today, the critical role of smallholder farmers in powering economic development and achieving global food security in the 21st century is widely recognized. Unfortunately, shortsighted policies in the developed world too often undermine the developing regions' efforts to achieve their goals.
A case in point is the European ban on GM traits and increasing restrictions on the use of biotech products, which actively discourage developing nations from adopting these critical technologies. This is particularly true in Africa, which historically looks to Europe for leadership and which counts on Europe as its chief export market for agricultural goods. A recent article in the East African, for instance, highlighted how Kenyan farmers faced having their produce blocked from European markets after new EU pesticide regulations came into effect in 2011.
If we are enable struggling nations to become full members of the world economy, we must keep our markets open and allow smallholder famers to use all the tools they need, including safe, modern crop protection and revolutionary new developments in advanced hybridization and biotechnology.