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Boosts in Harvests Can Fight Poverty
April 20, 2012

By Kathryn McConnell
IIP Staff Writer
April 18, 2012

A man speaking at a podium
Rajiv Shah of USAID speaks at a conference on agriculture about boosting harvests and fighting poverty.

Investments in agriculture in developing countries can yield six times more in productivity than investments in manufacturing or services, says the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

“In order to make extreme poverty history, we must increase global agricultural production in precisely those places where poverty, hunger and child nutrition are most prevalent,” Rajiv Shah told an audience of mostly graduate students in international relations and development at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

To care about fighting poverty, “one should care about agriculture,” he said April 17 at the school’s Year of Agriculture Conference. He said 75 percent of the world’s poor people depend on agriculture to make a living and that most farmers are women who cultivate one hectare.

Shah noted that the world’s population is expected to increase to more than 9 billion people by 2050. “We have to meet the world’s increasing production needs in a world where we face warmer temperatures, more erratic climates and more pressure on water,” he added.

Shah said that during the food price increases of 2007–2009, “for the first time in 40 years, the number of people facing hunger, poverty and malnutrition went up” by more than 100 million. But, he added, as countries increase their farm productivity, food prices will go down.

After decades of declines in investments in global agriculture, in 2009, President Obama led a drive with other major economies to revive agricultural investments. That led to a global pledge of $22 billion to make countries more food secure. Obama then created the Feed the Future initiative, which targets 20 countries.

Shah stressed that feeding a growing global population should “focus on the solution, not the problem.” He pointed to the need to prioritize science and technology to improve farm productivity.

“By harnessing the power of science and technology, we believe we can transform agriculture in a diverse array of production systems in Asia, Latin America, Africa and everywhere else.”

In the 20 countries where Feed the Future concentrates, the focus is on locally designed production strategies targeted to specific regions. Results are measured at the farm level and at the national level. “This quantitative approach is starting to show promise,” Shah said: The target countries have increased their production by an annual average of 5.8 percent, while the global yearly average increase is just 0.7 percent.

He said agriculture needs to be treated as a business, not solely as a development issue. He pointed to science and technology investment successes USAID has brought to two Asian nations.

In 2011, USAID launched a program to help Bangladesh’s farmers to use fertilizer more efficiently with a method called deep urea placement, or putting nitrogen-rich capsules into irrigated and rain-fed rice plots. That resulted in a 15 percent increase in rice yield for 400,000 farmers in only 18 months, Shah said.

In the Philippines, USAID worked with the International Rice Research Institute to develop a strain of rice that could withstand heavy floods. More than a million farmers are seeing improved harvests and 70 million farmers throughout Asia could benefit if the variety is more widely adopted, Shah said

As to treating agriculture as a business, Shah cited as an example the USAID collaboration with the investment firm J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. to invest $25 million in small and medium-sized agribusinesses in East Africa in partnership with private foundations. The partnership is expected to reach 250,000 households, Shah said.

Another USAID partnership is with the food and beverage company PepsiCo Inc. and the U.N. World Food Programme to reach 30,00 chickpea farmers in Ethiopia. The farmers, who are mostly women, sell their chickpeas to Pepsi which will sell two chickpea-based products: hummus and a high-nutrition, ready-to-use food product with a long shelf life that is used in food aid programs.

“Those types of investments will ultimately transform agricultural production and growth rates,” Shad said.