Enabling poor rural people
to overcome poverty



Food Wars:  How smallholders and producers can help end the conflict

Let me begin by thanking the Barilla Centre for bringing all of us together today.

It is fitting that we are meeting in Milan, a great and forward-looking city that has made “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” the theme for Expo 2015. And of course Milan is the financial and economic heart of Italy, with its rich agricultural tradition.

But more than that, Italy has also made food security one of the pillars of its development cooperation — a commitment reflected in its generous support to the Rome-based food agencies, including the organization which I head, the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

Since IFAD’s inception, Italy has pledged more than US$340 million to IFAD’s resources, as well as an additional US$48 million for specific projects.

Our sister agencies also work closely with Italy. To date, the FAO/Italy Cooperative Programme  has implemented more than 400 projects in more than 80 countries. Italy’s contributions to the World Food Programme have helped fund essential emergency food aid, for example in Somalia.

This morning, we are examining the issue of inequitable access to food in the context of a globalized world. These inequities can lead to conflict.

I want to bring forward two ideas:

First, that investment in rural areas can reinforce food security; and

Second, that agricultural development can and should play a role in ending conflict and building peace.

Before going further, let me paint for you a scenario. Imagine that scorching heat or drought has devastated crop production in one part of the world, leading to a spike in global food prices. In response, governments in some exporting countries impose restrictions – or even ban -- the export of domestically produced food. 

As a result of these export restrictions for basic food staples, millions of children, women and men in  import-dependent developing countries go hungry. Rising food prices and food shortages lead to social unrest and place a further strain on governments that subsidize food prices.

As we all know, this scenario has been a reality before and it can be a reality again.  We at IFAD, however, believe that smallholder farmers can play an important part in preventing the next food crisis – both through increasing their own resilience to shocks and by helping to increase global food production. 

IFAD is dedicated to helping rural people overcome poverty – through growing more food, managing their land and other natural resources more effectively, and gaining more control over their lives.

Through our work, we see time and time again that investing in rural development pays dividends for everyone.

Yes, it supports food security.  But it also changes lives and revitalizes communities.

One of my greatest joys is going to the field to meet the women and men participating in IFAD-supported projects. On one trip to Kenya, I met Jane Njaguara, who belongs to a dairy group. At the start, she had just one goat. Now she has poultry, cows and a thriving milk business. Not only can she send her children to school, she can also employ people in her community.

According to a recent report, growth generated by agriculture is five times more effective in reducing poverty in low income countries than GDP growth in other sectors. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is eleven times more effective.

Small wonder that development thinking is now shifting from the management of poverty to the eradication of poverty. At IFAD, we see a route out of poverty for rural people through investments in agriculture that create opportunities for generating wealth. But investment has to be sustainable and must respect the best interests of rural people.

There is huge potential in developing country agriculture. In Africa, for example, a burgeoning middle class is driving exponential growth in demand for food. Indeed, the outlook for African markets outshines the opportunities in export markets.

Private investors see opportunities for profit and are moving in. But there is no reason why rural people can’t also benefit.

True, the competition for resources, such as land and water, can lead to instability and conflict. But there can be no food security without water security. And there can be no political security, nationally and globally, without food security.

There is a perception that vast areas of land in Africa are un-used or vacant. However, much of this land belongs “de facto” to customary users. This does not mean that land may not be available—it means that local users must be consulted and their rights recognized.

A recent FAO study found that large-scale land acquisitions by foreign investors can hurt rural farmers. But it also concludes that we need investment in agriculture, especially food crops. This is a complex issue, and I am encouraged that the UN is developing principles for responsible agricultural investment.

Today, we need investment in rural areas more than ever. With the world’s population set to surpass 9 billion by 2050, food production will have to increase by 60 per cent.

The world’s 500 million  small farms can help meet this challenge. But to do this, they will need their young people to work the land instead of looking for work in cities.

Young people migrate because they see few opportunities at home and agriculture holds little attraction.

We must change this. Agriculture can be a dignified, money-making economic activity. But if rural areas are to retain their young people,  they will need investment in roads and infrastructure, energy, and links with markets so that farming is an attractive and profitable business.

Food production can be a rewarding economic activity. But more important, it feeds people, hungry people.  And many analysts have also noted the relationship between lack of food and conflict – be it riots or armed conflict.

Rural development promotes both food security and general security. It makes smallholders more productive, while also creating jobs off the farm — whether in services, agro-processing or small-scale manufacturing. In so doing, it enables young people to channel their energy and talents into productive rather than destructive pursuits.

Of course, there is also an important role for science and technology. As a scientist myself, I know how much small farmers stand to benefit from agricultural research. And with climate change affecting agricultural productivity, we will need to improve on existing techniques geared to smallholders and come up with innovative new ones.

Sometimes innovation and tradition intersect. Last year, I visited a village in Burkina Faso where farmers were combining several approaches. They were integrating crops and livestock, and creating planting pits and using permeable rock dams to harvest water. These low-tech approaches have restored degraded land and increased farmers’ productivity. They can be scaled up and shared with similar communities around the world.

In IFAD’s new Adaptation for Smallholder Agricultural Programme, we are building on tried-and-true approaches like agroforestry and crop rotation both to increase yields and to mitigate climate change. At the same time, we are empowering community-based organizations to harness information and communications technologies.

IFAD works in some of the most fragile situations, in the most degraded environments, and with the most marginalized people. We cannot afford to wait for peace before we invest in agriculture.

And in fact, development programmes can actually grow peace, when they are properly executed and with sensitivity to context, because they address the lack of opportunity and inequality that are so often at the heart of conflict.

In Burundi, for example, IFAD remained active during the 12-year civil war. Afterwards we moved quickly into areas that were hardest hit. Of course we invested in raising food production and rebuilding rural infrastructure. But we also support literacy classes, HIV/AIDS awareness, and legal services, particularly for women.

All our efforts aim to make development benefits that last. Sustainable development respects and responds to local conditions, whether cultural or environmental, so that the changes are able to take root, survive and grow.

Reducing hunger and promoting sustainable food production are not a dream. They are within our grasp. We know what the right tools and policies are. What we need most are the governance systems and institutions that promote accountability and ensure that the right tools and policies are scaled up and applied.

There are many strands to "sustainable development," and empowering rural people is an essential one. And most importantly, rural women, for they are the backbone of rural communities. We must include them in our development efforts if we are to feed humanity and also safeguard the resources upon which life depends.

Thank you.

28 November 2012
Milan, Italy