Photo Gallery: Feeding a Hungry World

Foto: Christopher Furlong/ Getty Images

The Race to Feed the Planet Why We Need a New Green Revolution to Stop Hunger

World leaders are meeting in New York this week to discuss progress on the UN's Millennium Development Goals. The world's nations have failed miserably in addressing one of the main goals, the fight against hunger. Researchers believe that small farmers, not large-scale farms, are the key to feeding the planet. By SPIEGEL staff.

Food was scarce for Dorca Mutua last summer. No rain had fallen for months. Mutua, 35, watched as first her calf and then her cow died. "There was no more grass," the farmer says. What little she was able to coax from the ground was only enough to provide her family with one meager meal of corn porridge a day.

In 2004, Mutua had moved with her eight children and her mother-in-law to Vololo, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) east of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, where she bought two hectares (five acres) of land. Her husband had died, and land in their home village was too expensive.

Mutua had little knowledge of agriculture and no money for expensive tools or modern seeds. Irrigation was out of the question. When the nearby river ran dry -- and it ran dry often -- Mutua set out with a donkey and a few canisters and walked to the next river, which was 20 kilometers away. She went there and back every two days.

She tried everything. She constructed terraces to help keep moisture in the soil, with no success. She tried planting trees to retain water, but in vain. Three small mango trees on her plot of land have borne no fruit and are slowly withering.

The Backbone of Food Production

Dorca Mutua's family reveals the modern face of hunger. Along with the urban poor living in slums in the developing world's megacities, small farmers often suffer the most from poverty and deprivation, laboring all day without ever having enough to eat.

Yet it is these small farmers who form the backbone of global food production. Despite miserable conditions, around 2 billion farmers produce the daily bread for most of humanity.

"More than half of the world's grain demand is produced by small family farms," says Carlos Seré in Nairobi, one of the leaders of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). These small farmers, Seré says, will prove crucial as the global population increases by a further 2 to 3 billion people during the coming decades.

Categorical Failure

This Monday, world leaders are gathering at United Nations headquarters in New York City to address the UN's "Millennium Development Goals." The fight against hunger, along with education and healthcare, tops the list.

The delegates have failed categorically on the first point. Leaders at the UN summit in New York in the millennium year 2000 declared food security their top priority, setting a goal of reducing the number of hungry in developing countries by half by 2015, compared to 1990 levels. That would involve reducing the total to around 600 million people.

No discernable progress has been made toward this goal. In fact, quite the opposite is true -- the number of hungry has increased sharply in recent years, at times to over 1 billion. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 925 million people currently suffer from hunger and malnutrition. Estimates say a further billion are undernourished, suffering from so-called silent hunger. Undernourished children grow more slowly, their mental development is often delayed and they are more susceptible to diseases. One study showed that people who had received insufficient vitamins and minerals as small children later earned 40 percent less than those who had been well nourished.

If the world leaders gathering in New York are serious about changing course and reducing hunger in a sustainable way, they must answer a crucial question: What actually helps?

Little Interest

German Chancellor Angela Merkel needs to confront the same question. Germany is both the world's third largest agricultural exporter and the third most important donor country for development aid. The country also carries significant weight when it comes to decision-making within the international community. Merkel's cabinet, though, shows little interest in relieving hunger. The Development Ministry under Dirk Niebel of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) considers support for rural development a "fad." Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner, who belongs to the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union, generally acts in the interest of German agriculture alone, while Research Minister Annette Schavan (CDU) ranks agricultural research low on her agenda.

The challenges, though, are enormous. By 2050 the world's population is projected to increase from its current level of 7 billion to 9 billion. Food production will need to increase by about 70 percent to meet demand, according to the FAO.

"We don't know yet how such an immense increase in yields can be achieved in a sustainable fashion, which makes it important to invest more in agricultural research," says agricultural economist Joachim von Braun, one of the directors of the Bonn-based Center for Development Research (ZEF). "What we do know," von Braun adds, "is that young small farmers, especially women, are some of the world's most underestimated innovators."

Progress at a Price

The "Green Revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s advanced agriculture in Asia and Latin America enormously, employing modern methods of plant breeding and massive use of fossil fuels for fertilizers, pesticides and equipment.

This agricultural revolution saved millions of lives, but it came with a price -- environmental consequences that are becoming steadily more visible. Today, the creation of new agricultural land is generally possible only through the destruction of essential ecosystems such as rain forests and savannas.

The warning signs are accumulating. Ten million hectares (25 million acres) of grain monocultures fell victim to drought and fire in Russia this summer, partly because large tracts of peat bogs had been drained. Climate change means that extreme weather events such as droughts and floods may become more frequent in the future.

The recent floods in Pakistan illustrated starkly what these developments can mean. Floods overwhelmed 7 million hectares (17 million acres) of agricultural land and a significant portion of the country's infrastructure disappeared under water.

Serious Disagreement

Increased meat consumption is another factor contributing to agricultural shortages, as immense areas of land are given over to the cultivation of animal feed.

There is serious disagreement among experts on the best way to address impending shortages. Some are counting on genetic engineering. "What we need is nothing less than a second Green Revolution," says Friedrich Berschauer, the CEO of Bayer Cropscience, a leading agricultural company. Berschauer is referring primarily to genetic engineering, a view that meets with resistance.

"We should be skeptical when agricultural corporations tell us genetic engineering will boost crop yields and feed the hungry," says Peter Rosset of the California-based nonprofit organization Food First.

Both sides in the debate tend to approach the matter ideologically, overlooking the interests of small farmers. These farmers become victims of agricultural policies whose results are double-edged at best -- even in cases where they can be measured in terms as concrete as centimeters.

How Lula Helped Brazil's Poor

Hunger affected tens of thousands in northeastern Brazil in the 1990s. Many of those people are now strikingly small as a result. Amaro da Silva, who used to harvest sugarcane for a living, stands only 1.35 meters (4 feet and 5 inches) tall. From an early age, da Silva often had to go without a midday meal. Instead there was "coffee and a piece of sugarcane" to suck on. He earned €40 ($52) a month as a day laborer. On special occasions, his wife would buy leftover bits of bone and let the couple's 10 children suck out the marrow. The children also kept a lizard in a box, fattening it up for the next holiday.

Nineteen years later, da Silva now lives with his youngest son João, 23, in a neat little house south of the city of Recife. The son towers over his father, fully 40 centimeters (1 foot and 4 inches) taller. A television flickers in the living room, and a new refrigerator stands in the kitchen. Da Silva now weighs 56 kilograms (123 pounds), and there's meat and beans for lunch. "Things have never been as good for me as they are today," the 65-year-old says. He receives a state retirement pension equivalent to the minimum wage, about €230. "We have Lula to thank for that," he adds.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, knows what it's like to go to bed with an empty stomach. The son of a laborer, he took office in 2003, at a point when one-third of Brazil's 178 million inhabitants were considered poor and nearly 11 million of them suffered from hunger. Now the government runs communal soup kitchens and subsidized "people's restaurants," finances irrigation projects and provides farmers with affordable loans. Lula's government also increased the minimum wage and introduced retirement funds for the poor.

At the heart of the "Fome Zero" ("Zero Hunger") project is "Bolsa Família" ("Family Allowance"), an income redistribution program for the benefit of the poor. More than 12 million households receive these benefits, using a card to withdraw the money from special ATMs at lottery kiosks and banks.

Hugely Successful

The project has been hugely successful. Around 20 million Brazils have left poverty behind, with 12 million of them making it into the middle class. Child mortality has dropped drastically. "Bolsa Família stimulated the economic cycle of entire cities and villages," says Márcia Lopes, the country's minister for social development and hunger alleviation, who oversees a budget of €18 billion.

The project is financed in part through tax revenues from the booming agricultural industry in western Brazil. Here, silos stand like fortresses at the entrance to every town. Large-scale farmers raise cattle, pigs and poultry or cultivate genetically modified soy.

Still, the government's double strategy -- assistance for the poor and unchecked growth in the agricultural industry -- may not pan out in the long term. Small farmers supply 70 percent of Brazil's domestic demand, but they are being crowded out by the country's growing large-scale farms for export products such as soy, oranges and sugar cane. "The big land owners are strong in parliament and they support Lula, but they're also blocking overdue land reform," says Flávio Valente, head of the aid organization Fian and a former adviser to Lula.

"The expansion of huge farms poses a danger to family-run agriculture," Minister Lopes admits.

'Knowledge Revolution'

Agricultural researchers are therefore looking for other ways to fight hunger. "Small farmers need to be focused of the next Green Revolution," declares Olivier de Schutter, the UN's so-called special rapporteur on the right to food.

"The next Green Revolution will be a knowledge revolution," says Carlos Seré, the agricultural researcher. "Small farmers need to learn how to work with limited land areas in a productive and environmentally friendly way."

The world's millions of small farmers need not only better plant species, but also up-to-date guidance on growing them. They don't need high-tech tractors controlled by satellites, but they do need access to regional databases that provide information on soil quality. They need access to capital, without becoming dependent on big corporations or running up debt.

Increasing Productivity

Farmers need to learn how they can increase their use of organic methods and keep their soil fertile. They need better infrastructure, so their crops don't end up rotting before they reach the market. And they need fair conditions once they do reach the market.

"We need to empower small farmers to increase their productivity in an ecologically sustainable way," says David Nabarro, coordinator of the UN's High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis. "That's the key."

M. S. Swaminathan, a pioneer of India's first Green Revolution, now speaks of an "evergreen revolution." He wants to combine the best of both environmentally sound and high-tech agricultural practices.

"Small farmers who cooperate well and are well informed can increase their productivity just as fast as large companies," says Joachim von Braun, the agricultural economist, based on his observations in East Asia and Latin America.

Empowering Small Farmers in India

One example of this much-needed revolution can be seen in the Himalayas. India is a land of small farmers -- 80 percent of them work on less than two hectares (five acres) of land. The country of 1.2 billion also has more children affected by hunger than all of Africa. According to the UN, 230 million Indians don't have food security and four out of 10 children don't have enough to eat.

The breakneck ride from the city of Haldwani to Selalekh, a village at an elevation of 2,200 meters (7,200 feet), takes three hours. Here, Pitambhae Milkani, 42, stands in a whitewashed new building and lets freshly harvested potatoes run through his fingers. Milkani cultivates a wide array of crops on his 1.2 hectares (3 acres) -- peas, pears, apples, potatoes, bell peppers, cauliflower and green beans. His land needs to yield enough to support his seven-person family. "We're doing better than in the past," he says.

Change has come thanks to an approach developed by the World Bank, the German Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) and the Indian government. Previously, every farmer sold crops individually to distributors in the valley. None of the farmers knew what prices their goods fetched at the central market in Haldwani -- an ideal situation for the distributors, who took advantage of the farmers and pocketed hefty profits.

Prices Sent by Text Message

The whitewashed building in Selalekh represents a radical change. It acts as a collection point, from where the farmers can market their products themselves. The village community receives mobile phone text messages listing current prices at the region's various markets. "Now we can always sell wherever the price is best," Milkani explains. Together, the farmers harvest enough fruits and vegetables to send a truckload of produce into the valley each day. They have also acquired a set of scales. "In the past, the distributors would subtract 10 percent of the weight," Milkani says. "Now that doesn't happen anymore."

The farmers' next goal is to produce ingredients that can be used in ketchup, pickles and chutneys. Another opportunity, especially attractive for residents of villages such as Selalekh, is the "off season," when the overcrowded lowlands are so hot that hardly anything will grow. Farmers on the cooler slopes can then supply the hungry valley residents. Climate change will likely only intensify this situation, making farmers at cooler, higher elevations central to feeding India.

Milkani is content. "First we are saving up," he says. With the money he'll be able to buy books and medicine for his children, or high quality seeds for his farm.

'Enormous Potential'

Shiv Kumar Upadhyaya oversees hundreds of projects throughout the region like the one in Selalekh. Originally a plant geneticist, he coordinates the construction of water reservoirs to tide farmers over during the dry season and catch water from flash floods. The farmers are venturing into fish farming, cultivation of aromatic herbs and environmental tourism. Women produce "organic coal" from pine needles, which saves them the dangerous task of gathering firewood and protects the forests at the same time.

"They're small projects, but together they add up to a renewed rural infrastructure," Upadhyaya says. Even the most productive plant varieties are useless if the necessary storehouses and trucks are lacking. India experienced a record wheat harvest this year -- but with too little storage capacity, the grain was left to rot. Up to 40 percent of crops in developing countries are lost at various stages in the process, whether from pests, during transportation or due to improper storage.

"We're talking about more intensive irrigation, better seeds, loans and mechanization," says Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations Environment Program. "There's enormous potential for increasing efficiency between production and consumption."

Men 'Accept Their Fate'

Perhaps the most important question, one ignored during the last Green Revolution, is the matter of gender. Wherever agricultural experts try to improve the productivity of remote rural regions, they discover that success depends crucially on women.

"From sowing to selling, women do 60 to 80 percent of the work," says Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development. The less gender equality in a country, writes the Asian Development Bank, the worse the problem of hunger. Experts believe equal rights for women in South Asia could reduce the number of malnourished children by several million.

Indian development aid worker Pawan Kumar sees every day the changes women can make. He runs one of the country's largest projects for small farmers from his office in the city of Dehradun. Aid money has helped create around 3,500 self-help organizations in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand since 2004. Around 80 percent of the participants at these organizations' meetings are women. "They're the pillars of the rural economy," Kumar says. "The men either work far away, are sick or accept their fate more passively."

Still, projects like these reach only a minority of India's small farmers. What is more effective is a much needed shift that is currently occurring in China.

Land-Grabbing in Africa

China's vice agriculture minister, Niu Dun, calculates that the number of people affected by hunger in China's countryside has shrunk from 250 million in the late 1970s to 14 million today. By 2030, the country will need to produce about 140 million more tons of food than it does today. To accomplish this, the government is counting less on industrialized agriculture and more on what Niu describes as "the cooperative collaboration of the farmers." Niu adds confidently: "We feed 20 percent of the global population with 9 percent of the world's agricultural land."

What the government functionary doesn't mention is that the People's Republic is buying up extensive areas of land in other countries in order to increase its own food production. China is a major player in the practice of unregulated "land grabbing" on the African continent, at the expense of the local population.

This practice is creating a new two-class system. "Half of those afflicted by hunger live in countries with strong, growing economies that can invest massively in rural development," says Dirk Messner, director of the German Development Institute (DIE). "That's the good news." The bad news, Messner explains, is that the other half has been passed over completely by development, living in countries with weak governments and frequent conflicts and wars, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa.

Lofty Goals

Not that African nations haven't set themselves lofty goals as well. In 2003, government leaders on the continent pledged to invest at least 10 percent of their national budgets in agriculture by 2008. The investment was urgently needed, since 70 percent of Africans live from what they can produce on their land.

But only a handful of countries have managed to reach their own investment goals, including Malawi, Ghana and Rwanda. In Kenya alone, 280 children under the age of five die every day because they do not get enough of the right food. And in countries such as Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, clan conflicts and civil wars make agricultural development nearly impossible.

Corrupt and incompetent regimes in Africa bear their share of responsibility for this plight -- but so do wealthy countries in the North. Their innovations are either too expensive or simply unfeasible for many small farmers. This holds true especially for genetically modified plants that have to be bought anew each year, because they're protected by large corporations' patents. Farmers are forced to go into debt and often must expand their operations in order to afford these technologies.

What is lacking is a global push to focus research on making modern agricultural expertise useable for small farmers. The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates an additional $2 billion in state-financed agricultural research is necessary to develop plant varieties that are environmentally sound and don't make farmers dependent on corporations such as Monsanto.

Under Pressure from European Subsidies

Governments, though, have placed their focus elsewhere. In 1979, 18 percent of public development aid went to investments in agriculture. In 2007, it was just 5.5 percent. "The results have been disastrous," says FAO President Jacques Diouf.

Small farmers have come under enormous pressure from European and American export subsidies. A flourishing domestic market for chickens in Cameroon and other African countries, for example, nearly collapsed in the late 1990s, when cheap imports from Europe flooded the market. The World Trade Organization has failed so far to create fair trading conditions.

Europe's food industry benefits from high subsidies, using them to make meat and milk exports cheaper. This agriculture policy undermines the stated goal of fighting hunger and cancels out any progress achieved through development aid many times over.

EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos, who is from Romania, has the task of developing a common EU agriculture policy for the years 2014 to 2020 by this November. The German government, for one, sees no need to make reforms. "The European agriculture model has proven sound," reads a position paper by German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner. Her staff is furiously calculating how to keep expected subsidy cuts in the EU budget as minimal as possible.

It remains to be seen how Brussels will weigh in. The European Parliament will have an equal say in the decision for the first time next year. It's doubtful, to say the least, whether it will take the opportunity to correct past mistakes, however.

'A Century of Food Insecurity'

It is unsurprising, then, that the EU is unwilling to allocate any additional funds at the summit in New York. At the G-8 summit in L'Aquila in 2009, the industrialized countries pledged 6 billion in "fresh" money, but to date most of that funding hasn't been seen anywhere but on paper. Time is getting short. Agricultural expert Carlos Seré is not alone in warning of a "century of food insecurity."

A 20 percent increase in bread prices in early September sparked two days of serious protests in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, where people demonstrated, threw stones, burned tires and looted stores. At least 13 people died and 400 were injured.

Kofi Annan , the former UN secretary general, was in Berlin two weeks ago to remind Chancellor Merkel of Germany's "leadership role" in fighting hunger and poverty ahead of the summit in New York. "I very much hope that these countries not only remember the promises they made, but also realize that achieving the Millennium Development Goals will benefit everyone," he said. "The development of poorer countries is also in the best economic and security interests of the rich industrialized nations."


Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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