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Unleash the potential of the world's poor farmers

Article by Lennart Båge as published by Global and Mail

As world leaders grapple with the burgeoning food crisis, we would do well to heed the starkly contrasting stories of two goatherds.

First, Alimatou Mahama, whom I met in a small village in northern Ghana. Alimatou had been granted access to microcredit, training and veterinary services through an aid project to improve the productivity of her herd. Her income increased and she was able to provide more food for her family. The extra cash meant she could afford to send her children to school and to dream of an even better future for them.

On the streets of Rome, a colleague recently struck up a conversation with a Senegalese teenager selling handbags to tourists. The boy was homesick, sleeping rough, spending his days dodging police and touting his products for a paltry profit of a few euros. In Senegal, he, too, was a goatherd, but he left because he saw no future in farming. Now he, and hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken rural people like him, are migrating, desperately seeking better lives but often finding only more misery.

We're paying dearly for decades of failing to invest in the rural areas of developing countries. The world's 450-million smallholder farms - of two hectares or less - are home to about two billion people.

Many of these rural people are among the poorest on Earth. But with the right investments, policies and development programs, they have the potential to improve their lives and contribute to improving food security for all of us.

Smallholder farms are often very efficient in terms of production per hectare, and they have tremendous potential for growth. Experience shows that helping these farmers can contribute to a country's economic growth and food security.

Vietnam has gone from being a food-deficit country to a major food exporter, and is now the second-largest rice exporter in the world. The change is thanks largely to the development of its smallholder farming sector. Last year, poverty fell below 15 per cent - compared with 58 per cent in 1979. Seventy-three per cent of Vietnam's population lives in rural areas and agriculture remains their main source of income.

Economic growth generated by agriculture has reliably been shown to be up to four times more effective in reducing poverty than growth in other sectors. Yet the amount of development aid earmarked for agriculture fell from 18 per cent of all aid in 1979 to less than 3 per cent in 2006.

The recent spike in food prices has underscored how precarious the situation is for countries that depend on imported food. Many African countries, and 55 per cent of developing countries, are net importers of food. Rising prices threaten to push millions more of their citizens into poverty.

Poor farmers are often net buyers of food. For many, the price of the food they buy has risen, but they are unable to benefit from the higher prices for the food they sell because they lack access to markets. The higher cost of transportation, seeds and fertilizers is making farming ever more expensive for them.

These smallholder farmers can do much more to help feed the world, but first they need secure access to land and water. They need access to microfinance to pay for seeds, tools and fertilizers. They need roads and transportation to get produce to market, and market information to get the best prices. Above all, they need the world, and their governments, to make a long-term commitment to agriculture.

With international attention focused on agriculture as never before, we have a rare opportunity to unleash the potential of these farmers. To succeed, we must take five decisive steps. We must support emergency food aid to the starving. We must fund poor farmers now, so they can buy the seeds, fertilizers and tools they need to boost production for the next cropping season. We must accelerate agricultural trade and subsidy reform to benefit poor countries. We must invest more in new agricultural technologies. And we must radically increase their investment in agriculture to promote sustainable food production.

By taking these steps, we will create the conditions for smallholder farmers to make a greater contribution to feeding their families and the world. In the process, rural people will be able to flourish on their land like Alimatou - instead of fleeing the land to join migrants on the streets of cities like Rome.