A Big Chance for Small Farmers

NEW YORK – The G-8’s $20 billion initiative on smallholder agriculture, launched at the group’s recent summit in L’Aquila, Italy, is a potentially historic breakthrough in the fight against hunger and extreme poverty. With serious management of the new funds, food production in Africa will soar. Indeed, the new initiative, combined with others in health, education, and infrastructure, could be the greatest step so far toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals, the internationally agreed effort to reduce extreme poverty, disease, and hunger by half by 2015 .

During 2002-2006, I led the United Nations Millennium Project, which aimed to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, for then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. One cornerstone of the project was “smallholder farmers,” meaning peasant farm families in Africa, Latin America, and Asia – working farms of around one hectare (2.5 acres) or less. These are some of the poorest households in the world, and, ironically, some of the hungriest as well, despite being food producers.

They are hungry because they lack the ability to buy high-yield seeds, fertilizer, irrigation equipment, and other tools needed to increase productivity. As a result, their output is meager and insufficient for their subsistence. Their poverty causes low farm productivity, and low farm productivity reinforces their poverty. It’s a vicious circle, technically known as a poverty trap.

The UN Millennium Project’s Hunger Task Force, led by two world-leading scientists, M. S. Swaminathan and Pedro Sanchez, examined how to break this vicious circle. The Hunger Task Force determined that Africa could substantially increase its food production if help was given to smallholder farmers, in the form of agricultural inputs.  The Millennium Project recommended a big increase in global funding for this purpose.  Drawing on that work and related scientific findings, Annan launched a call in 2004 for an African Green Revolution, based on an expanded partnership between Africa and donor countries.