Pedro Sanchez, a senior research scholar and director of tropical agriculture at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, will participate in the panel “How Can We Feed Hungry People While Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions” at the sustainability conference on Thursday, April 30, at 10:30 a.m. at McCosh Hall. Following is an article he wrote for Nature in 2008, reprinted with his permission.
After decades of progress in the fight to vanquish world hunger, the number of undernourished people is growing again. Estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations suggest that 963 million people in poor countries are chronically or acutely hungry — up 109 million from 2004 estimates. The underlying causes — changes in food and energy prices — have been exacerbated by the financial crisis and obsolete development policies.
Policies should shift from prioritizing food aid to providing poor farmers with access to training, markets, and farm inputs such as fertilizer and improved seed. In addition to being cheaper, such investments allow farmers to grow food to feed themselves, to sell the surplus, and to diversify into high-value crops, livestock, and tree products. This creates a sustainable exit from the poverty trap, thereby decreasing the requirement for aid.
Although marginal populations, or those affected by disasters, will still require assistance, procuring this food from within developing countries provides a cheaper alternative than shipping it from abroad.
The predominant policies to tackle hunger epitomize a Band-Aid approach — quick fixes that fail to address the causes of hunger. In 2006 the United States spent $1.2 billion in food aid for Africa, but only $60 million on agricultural development there. The international response has generally been similar.
But according to estimates from 2004, only 10 percent of those who are hungry in poor countries are acutely hungry — those facing famine caused by wars, natural disasters, or sheer destitution. The other 90 percent are chronically hungry, leading to malnutrition that compromises immune systems and contributes to the prevalence of diarrhea, malaria, and other diseases that result in high child mortality.
Most of those who are chronically hungry live in rural farm households in Africa and southern Asia. Food aid fails to provide a sustainable solution to hunger and poverty and it is comparatively expensive. It costs $812 to deliver one ton of maize as U.S. food aid to a distribution point in Africa .
As part of the Millennium Villages project (www.millenniumvillages.org), which I co-direct, small-holder farmers (those who farm 0.1 to 5 hectares) in hunger hot spots across Africa were provided with access to fertilizers, improved seed, technical support, and markets. As a result, maize yields more than doubled — from 1.7 to 4.1 tons per hectare. And following a national “smart” subsidy program for fertilizer and hybrid seed in Malawi, average maize yields increased from 0.8 to 2.0 tons per hectare in two years.
The fertilizer and improved seed required to produce an additional ton of maize grain by Millennium Village farmers cost an average of $135 at April, 2008 prices, six times less than through food aid. Purchasing that same ton of maize locally — in an African country or a neighboring one — costs approximately $320. If farmers in Africa raise their average cereal yields to 3 tons per hectare, the additional 200 million tons grown in the 100 million hectares of small-holder crop land will more than compensate for the 3.2 million tons of food aid.
Shifting 50 percent of the current U.S. food-aid budget to “smart” subsidies or credit could help millions supply their own food and meet much of the aid demand. Such a move would be budget neutral.
Even buying food locally represents an important step away from the inefficient food aid approach. Some institutions have already begun to change their methods. In 2007 CARE announced that it would stop selling some of the food to fund its operations, essentially losing $46 million a year. The World Food program procured 43 percent of the 2 million tons of food required for its Africa relief operations from farmers there at an average cost of $280 per ton — compared with the average cost of $436 for purchases elsewhere. The Purchase for Progress program, launched in September, 2008, and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, further empowers World Food to purchase food from African farmers.
Most importantly, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon is leading the development of a coordination mechanism for large-scale financial support for poor countries seeking to provide farm investment. The Spanish government has pledged ($1.3 billion over five years for this effort, and the European parliament has promised a similar amount. With more programs aimed at merging food aid with reliable farming investment, the numbers of those who are chronically hungry should fall.