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Small farmers need jobs, not just food

Paul Hagerman, director of public policy for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, says small-scale farmers need techniques appropriate to their circumstances.

The challenge of feeding the world is not only a problem of food supply, but also of jobs and livelihoods.

We often hear that world hunger could be ended if developing countries simply adopted the seeds, fertilizers, machinery and technologies that Canadian farmers use. This might lead to more food production, but that food likely would not reach those who need it most.

In most developing countries, more than 60 percent of the population makes their living from farming, usually on farms of five acres or less. Canadian farm techniques, where two percent of the population produces food for the rest of us, work on a much larger scale but are not easily adaptable to the needs of smallholder farmers.

If developing countries tried to adopt the scale and technology of Canadian farming, any gains in production would be more than offset by increases in unemployment. With few jobs waiting in the cities, and no social safety net, the ex-farmers would be worse off than they are now.

Most of the world’s food-insecure people are small-scale farmers in Africa and Asia, and many are female. With the right tools and techniques, they can increase the production of their smallholdings, improve their livelihoods and care for the land.

Many of these farmers are producing food in tough conditions – degraded soils, uncertain weather and poor roads and markets. They need techniques that are appropriate to their crops, climate and scale. Many have tried expensive seeds or fertilizers but lost their investment when the rain failed or the crop couldn’t be sold.

The Canadian Foodgrains Bank has successfully promoted farming techniques for smallholder farmers that improve production, livelihoods and environmental sustainability.

Many farmers in Zimbabwe and neighbouring countries in southern Africa had become dependent on food aid because they couldn’t grow enough corn on their small farms to feed their families through the year. Droughts have happened in the past, but the rain over the past decade has been poorer and more erratic than ever before, and corn yields averaged far less than 10 bushels per acre.

Starting in 2006, our Zimbabwean partner organization introduced conservation agriculture techniques that had been developed for small-scale corn production. The principles are the same as in Canada: minimum soil disturbance, soil cover and crop rotation. However, instead of a no-till planter, Zimbabweans use just a hoe.

They also used open-pollinated corn varieties because they yielded equal to or better than hybrids in local conditions and enabled farmers to save their own seed.

The foodgrains bank is also promoting System of Rice Intensification (SRI) with smallholder farmers in Pakistan, Bangladesh and northern India.

With SRI, farmers use compost and intensive care of seeds and seed beds to grow vigorous rice seedlings that produce higher yields. This system enables farmers to reduce their use of seeds, water, fertilizers and pesticides. In 2010, average yields of SRI fields in 74 villages in India were 63 bu. per acre, up from 32 bu. per acre for traditional rice cultivation techniques.

Small-scale farmers in Africa and Asia who used to struggle to feed their families are now selling surpluses and using the money to buy livestock, build better houses and send their kids to school. They have found a solution to hunger that is appropriate to their corner of the world.

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