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Symposium 2015

Solution for Food Security through more Intense Crop Production

The Challenge

In order to secure the demand for food and biomass by a growing population, the production of biomass needs to double by 2050. Recent studies agree that better crop management on today’s cropland co ...

In order to secure the demand for food and biomass by a growing population, the production of biomass needs to double by 2050. Recent studies agree that better crop management on today’s cropland could increase biomass production by only about 60% (Bruinsma 2011, Tilman et al. 2011). This may be achieved by, for instance, expanding cropland, changing diets, adopting more efficient agricultural practices, or by using current cropland areas more intensively. This choice involves trade-offs. For instance, expanding cropland into non-agricultural ecosystems may reduce other ecosystem services such as biodiversity, and release greenhouse gases. Therefore, intensifying the use of current cropland areas may be a preferred option. In fact, current studies are able to identify regions where there is a capacity to intensify agricultural production (Zabel et al. 2014). Measures aimed at closing the gap between production possibilities and current production, however, are not sufficiently addressed.

Implementing site-specific agriculture to combat poverty and hunger

795 million people in the world are suffering from hunger. At least 70% of the food insecure population live in rural areas of developing countries and depend on agriculture. Most of them are smallholder farmers or landless, laboring in agriculture. Ironically, they produce 80% of the food consumed in developing countries and, at the same time, constitute two third of the world’s undernourished people. Women comprise an average of 43% of the agricultural labor force of developing countries up to almost 50% in Eastern and Southeastern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.


Although the number of hungry people in cities is increasing rapidly in many parts of the world as a result of urbanization, the majority of hungry people will still be living in rural areas by the middle of this century. The solution to the global food problem both today and in coming decades lies foremost in the hands of small-scale farmers: 85% of 525 million farming units around the globe farm fewer than two hectares of land. Agriculture in developing countries has been neglected for many years because it was assumed that global, deregulated markets would be a sufficient stimulus for local agricultural production. The emphasis was placed on macroeconomic development rather than investments being made to improve the production conditions of small-scale farms. This was not only the failure of national governments. The international community (e.g., Development Aid, World Bank, IMF) has also paid too little attention to agriculture and rural development for many decades. The assessment of public development aid (Official Development Assistance (ODA)) for agriculture in the last few years shows that a trend reversal towards more support for rural development and smallholder agriculture has taken place but financing is still lagging behind promises that have been made. Recently the UN agreed on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which include a target explicitly committed to the promotion of small-scale food producers and in particular women. This underlines their relevance for the achievement of global food security.


Agriculture has many functions: it must provide food, create income and contribute to the conservation of natural resources. If cultivation methods are to be appropriate to the location, they must be adapted to local environmental conditions, take cultural context into account and be based on existing knowledge. In developing countries, increasing and stabilizing yields and income through site-specific agriculture is an important driver of rural development and poverty reduction. One of the most important factors in overcoming hunger and poverty is the development of poor peasants to farmers whose production is economically, ecologically and socially sustainable.


There are no global solutions to this issue and no blueprints for success. Environmental conditions, the level of development and the cultural background in the different locations demand specific agricultural solutions. Above all, agricultural strategies should secure sustainable and nutritious food supplies—even when the population is growing. At the same time, the local economy, in particular the creation of effective markets and processing structures of agricultural produce should be supported, including technologically appropriate processing and storage to reduce postharvest losses. Implementing site-specific agriculture to combat poverty and hunger requires improved access to necessary resources, including availability of financial means for investments (irrigation, mechanization etc.), reliable access to land, seeds, to relevant information (knowledge transfer, weather forecasts, market data) and to education and research.


Food security and rural development are usually assumed to mean diversifying production and increasing productivity in agriculture. Both factors are indeed worthy of support, as long as they are carried out in a sustainable and appropriate manner. Technological progress coupled with increasing labor productivity, however, also means that agricultural working capacities are set free, hence, new jobs and income opportunities must be created. Support for businesses and services, in particular in respect to postharvest processing of agricultural products, is essential for a socially and economically balanced development in rural areas. In this way new sources of income can be created for the rural population. Economic diversification is essential for additional value creation (propoor growth) that reduces poverty and promotes a sustainable and socially viable structural change.


The following example demonstrates how systemic and site-specific approaches can contribute to environmentally, socially and economically viable development: The chilli peppers of the “African Bird’s Eye” variety are among the hottest in the world. They are ideal for chilli sauce. For 519 farmers in Gokwe District in Zimbabwe who regularly have to live on just one US dollar a day, the hot peppers were the beginning of a better future. They cultivated the chillies and the first harvest brought many farmers a profit of over US$1,000. Another innovation also arrived in the countryside—mobile banking. As the transport of large sums of money is so insecure, the chilli farmers were issued with a cash card. Many of the predominantly female farmers had a regular income for the first time. It all began with a project with the name “Sustainable Intensification of Market Based Agriculture,” or SIMBA, which means “power.” In simple terms, it is about using sustainable growing methods to produce agricultural products for marketing. With the chillies the company Better Agriculture produces a sauce for a South African restaurant chain. The European Union is financing the project that is being implemented by Welthungerhilfe and the Zimbabwean nongovernmental organization Agricultural Partnership Trust. Vegetable cultivation is also part of the project. Without chemical fertilizers, with just manure and compost, many farmers are achieving good yields. In the Harare supermarkets there are no longer only carrots from South Africa, but more and more from local producers.


In the last years, an increasing number of private—but also state—investors from threshold and industrial countries have acquired farm land in developing countries. The aim is to achieve large-scale production for export. Our experiences show that small-scale farmers rarely benefit from these investments, and are often driven off their land. The development of small-scale farmers rather depends largely on public funds than on private investments. At the World Summit for Food Security in 2009, FAO presented estimates according to which an ODA spending of US$44 billion per year in agriculture and rural infrastructure would be necessary to eradicate hunger by 2025.


It should be highlighted that the FAO proceeds on the assumption that donors stick to their promise of spending 0.7% of GNI on ODA, so that other sectors also receive sufficient public investment. The achievement of the 0.7% goal has to be linked to a substantial increase in funds for investment in the agricultural sector. In international development cooperation, hunger elimination should focus on agriculture and rural development. Long-term concepts (10 to 15 years) to promote site-specific farming are an important means of realizing the Human Right to adequate Food.

In countries affected by hunger, national agricultural policies aimed at eliminating poverty and achieving food security should be given greater priority and implemented more energetically. This means securing land rights, providing access to resources and advice, supporting extension services and marketing structures—cooperative as well as private.


To be able to cover the increasing demand for agricultural products, crop yields must be higher and more reliable. Agricultural research and extension is the key to poverty elimination if they incorporate local and indigenous knowledge and research focuses on smallholder and sustainable farming methods in developing countries. Only a locally self-determined intensification of agriculture serves for self-reliant regional food security.


A resume: Looking at the rather low level of productivity in Africa, an intensification, like the doubling of crop production, should from the technological point of view not be impossible—quite the contrary: Welthungerhilfe and other Development Cooperation Organizations have a lot of examples that show that it is possible. However, it needs more than just technology to reach the goal to end hunger and ensure access by all people to nutritious and sufficient food all year round, whereby the realization of the Human Right to adequate Food is a shared challenge, involving actions that must be undertaken by governments, science, the private sector and civil society. It is everyone’s responsibility.

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