Policymakers should “strengthen the competitiveness of small-holder farmers, thus avoiding a rural exodus that would put pressure on the cities and lead to more food imports”, according to the 2010 technology and innovation report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development.
Developing countries’ net cereal imports rose from 39 million tonnes in the mid-1970s to 103 million in 1997-1999 and are expected to rise to 265 million tonnes by 2030, states the report. Countries also have to pay more for food: the price of Thai export rice almost tripled from US$362 per tonne in December 2007 to $1,000 in April 2008. Meanwhile, per capita food production in least developed countries (among which African countries are over-represented) has declined such that in 2003-2005 it was one-fifth lower than in 1970-1972.
“When farmers are paying almost all their money in transaction costs there is no incentive to produce. There is a need to lower the barriers of cost for smallholder farmers,” Banji Oyelaran-Oyeyinka, director of the monitoring and research division at UN-HABITAT, the UN Human Settlements Programme, said during the report’s launch on 1 July.
Lack of organization is also a problem. “A small producer does not suffer due to size but due to isolation… If a hundred of you put your produce together you are much more likely to get a bigger market and better prices,” said Oyelaran-Oyeyinka. Ethiopia recently launched a crop commodity exchange market to help farmers negotiate prices.
“One of the reasons [African] agriculture has not moved is we don’t have the surplus for value addition. We eat all [that] we produce,” he said. “We simply just produce the raw material and ship it out to somebody. What remains is about 20 percent of the value.
“The bulk of the profit is at the end of the chain; the farmers who produce get the least [returns],” he said, adding that farmers require a supportive physical infrastructure, a regulated environment, training and improved farming and soil conditions. “Unless you have all these in place, the farmer will just work for nothing.”
|A country that does not feed its people is in very big danger of losing its sovereignty|
Land under irrigation remains low yet irrigation increases cropping intensity. “The 885 million hectares of currently available arable land in developing countries is as good as 1,770 million hectares, for instance, if it is used twice a year,” notes the report, adding that only one-fifth of such land was under irrigation in 1997-1999, of which 2 percent was in sub-Saharan Africa, compared with 40 percent in South Asia.
“It is a very dangerous thing to [just] depend on nature for your livelihood,” Oyelaran-Oyeyinka warned of rainfall dependence.
Guaranteed land tenure could be vital to helping farmers access credit and invest in the medium- and long-term productivity of the land, said the report.
Among other challenges is the growing switch to biofuels and its effects on food security, diversion of cereals from humans to feeding livestock – conversion of grain to meat – and rural-urban migration.
Oyelaran-Oyeyinka said: “There is no silver bullet – no quick fixes. There is a need to create an enabling environment for technology and innovation to decrease imports – through farmer support.”
Knowledge transfer and sharing is also important, he said. “We need to bring research out of the pilot stages and make it a business adapting it to Africa’s conditions.”
“A country that does not feed its people is in very big danger of losing its sovereignty.”