Helping Smallholder Farmers is Essential to Ending World Hunger

Question: How do we rid the world of hunger?

Answer: We can’t — unless we can get modern agricultural technology to smallholder farmers.

Last week, I participated in a panel at the 2017 Borlaug Dialogue (the international symposium that precedes the annual World Food Prize Laureate Award Ceremony) dedicated to this very topic: “Getting Technology to Smallholder Farmers.”

I was joined on the panel by two visionary leaders in agriculture: Enock Chikava, Deputy Director of Agricultural Development, Global Growth and Opportunity at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Dr. Howard-Yana Shapiro, Chief Agricultural Officer at Mars, Inc. Auburn University President Steven Leath, who is also a plant pathologist, moderated the panel. Collectively, we represented voices from the private, non-profit and academic sides of agriculture research — and we all agreed that unless we can develop reliable systems for delivering better seeds and agricultural technology to the world’s poorest farmers, the scourges of poverty and hunger will never be erased.

The challenge is massive. The world’s smallholder farmers — generally speaking, those who operate farms of a few acres or less — account for more than 90 percent of the world’s farmers, most of them in rural areas of the developing world where poverty and hunger are widespread. I’ve seen firsthand how bad roads, poor communication, lack of quality inputs like good seed and fertilizers, food waste due to lack of refrigerated storage and contamination, and a tangle of other obstacles including government policies, have kept these growers from advancing — keeping their yields (production per acre) and return on investment at only a fraction of those achieved by their counterparts in the developed world.

There is broad consensus that many of these complex problems can be solved with the help of science. For example, Dr. Shapiro wants to use technology to solve the problem of aflatoxin, which contaminates approximately one quarter of the food crops in the world, causing enormous waste as well as growth stunting and liver cancer in thousands who consume it. Mars recently launched a creative public-private partnership (PPP) project with UC Davis and other collaborators, to redesign an enzyme that has the potential to neutralize the aflatoxin. If they are successful, it will be a huge win for smallholders everywhere.

In another example, genetically modified (GMO) seeds that have already been developed could immediately help mitigate damage from one of the greatest threats currently facing African agriculture — the fall armyworm. Since first appearing in Africa in 2016, this voracious pest has spread to more than 28 countries, devouring the maize (corn) that more than 200 million Africans depend on for food security. In the United States and South America, “Bt maize,” which is genetically modified to resist certain insects, enables farmers to protect their corn from destruction. But because GMO crops aren’t approved for use in most African countries, farmers there end up with a choice between passively watching their crops be decimated (and going hungry) or applying makeshift insecticides that too often aren’t effective or pose health risks.

Non-science-based regulations throughout the continent also deny these same farmers access to safe and effective weed control technology that is widely used across the Western world. The consequence: Men, women and even children spend hours every day hoeing fields, instead of attending school or pursuing other productive endeavors that help societies to develop.

When it comes to seeds, there have been quite a few PPPs that have successfully bred crops that are better suited to grow in the Sub-Saharan environment. For example, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other organizations, including Monsanto, developed Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), which has released dozens of quality drought-tolerant maize hybrids over the past decade. Other PPPs have focused on breeding improved cassava, adding essential vitamins to sorghum, developing transgenic bacterial-wilt resistant bananas, and sequencing the genomes of 101 African “orphan” crops in the hopes of breeding more nutritional varieties in the future. In each project, local African plant breeders are trained in the most advanced theory and techniques.

To make an even stronger case for technology, explosive new advances in biology and data science, combined with lower cost curves for adoption, continue to make it easier for everyone to benefit from them. For example, less than 20 years ago the cost of sequencing the human genome was measured in the billions of dollars. Today it is possible to sequence enough of a corn genome to predict its yield potential in an early generation trial for less than $10.

New gene editing techniques can also provide transformational improvements at a relatively low cost. Only a few years ago, the research and development costs for creating genetically modified seeds was so high — in large part, because of the costly regulatory process — that only large enterprises like Monsanto could possibly undertake them. But the fact that there have been over 11,000 published scientific studies using gene editing since 2010 illustrates how accessible it is for both public and private organizations, with huge potential in agriculture and human health.

Breakthroughs in digital communication technology are also making it possible to communicate directly with individual smallholders — helping them overcome the historic obstacle of isolation, and in many cases, giving them access to educational, science-based information for the first time. For instance, a remarkable 70 percent of smallholder farmers now have mobile phones. For the relatively low cost of the phones, farmers can get agronomic advice, the weather forecast, and timely information about where to find the best markets for their crops. In India, millions of farmers are already receiving free texts with such helpful information from the FarmRise™ — Mobile Farm Care program, a digital agriculture platform offered by The Climate Corporation. The potential to scale this program for hundreds of millions more farmers in Asia and Africa is obvious.

So…what’s missing? If the scientific capability is there and the barriers to adoption are low — and there is obviously dire need — what is keeping modern agricultural technology from getting to smallholders in developing countries? In my view, two main things are still needed: regulatory easement and large-scale seed production.

Better seed distribution systems are needed across Africa. Improving seeds with or without biotechnology is fruitless if farmers can’t reliably get their hands on them. Too often, local seed producers struggle to reproduce quality hybrid seeds on a large scale — and when farmers start with poor seeds, they grow poor crops.

Earlier this year, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) announced the establishment of the first Early Generation (foundation) seed production entity in Sub-Saharan Africa to effectively and efficiently supply high-quality foundation seed for small and medium enterprise seed companies on the continent. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Nairobi-based QualiBasic Seed Company is a great next step in the right direction. In addition, USAID Administrator Mark Green announced a new seed distribution partnership during his Borlaug Dialogue keynote — and the African Development Bank just launched a large global PPP focused on scaling up proven technologies across Africa — so it’s clear that many agricultural thought leaders are focused on addressing this problem.

Multiple organizations are also working to break down regulatory barriers by continuing to work with policymakers, to provide them with good data to inform their decision making. Perhaps the fall armyworm crisis will be the added weight that finally swings the pendulum of change. As 2017 World Food Prize Laureate Dr. Akinwumi Adesina said during his Borlaug Dialogue address, “The armyworm is a clear and present danger … Doing nothing is not an option. What we need are urgent actions to support Africa, to rapidly address this real threat to its food security.”

Are African policymakers finally ready to take action in the form of embracing modern agricultural technology and the science that informs it? Like many others, I truly hope so.