A New Deal for Poor Farmers

NEW YORK – Many poor, food-importing countries around the world have become desperate in recent months, as global prices of rice, wheat, and maize have doubled. Hundreds of millions of poor people, who already spend a large share of their daily budget on food, are being pushed to the edge. Food riots are mounting. 

But many poor countries can grow more food themselves, because their farmers are producing far below what is technologically possible. In some cases, with appropriate government action, they could double or even triple food production in just a few years. 

The idea is basic and well known. Traditional farming uses few inputs and gets poor yields. Poor peasants use their own seeds from the preceding season, lack fertilizer, depend on rain rather than irrigation, and have little if any mechanization beyond a traditional hoe. Their farms are small, perhaps one hectare (2.5 acres) or less.

Under traditional agricultural conditions, the yields of grain – rice, wheat, maize, sorghum, or millet – are usually around one ton per hectare, for one planting season per year. For a farm family of five or six living on one hectare, this means extreme poverty, and for their country, it means reliance on expensive food imports, including food aid.