By Philip Brasher, DesMoinesRegister.com
The world’s poorest farmers may start getting some of the attention and dollars that the U.S. government once reserved for American producers.
The spikes in global food prices in 2007 and 2008 led to charges that U.S. policies were driving up the cost of food for the world’s poor by diverting crops to biofuels. But there also was a new commitment from the U.S. and other developed countries to help poor farmers increase their own food production.
The Obama administration in 2009 pledged to spend $3.5 billion on agricultural development assistance through a program that will require developing countries to increase their own agriculture spending while reversing policies that are seen as hurting poor farmers.
The administration’s Feed the Future initiative will fund a number of programs aimed at helping small-scale farmers, most of whom are women, learn better farming methods, obtain fertilizer and better seeds, and gain better access to markets.
One initiative is aimed at training female extension agents to advise female farmers. Another would allow poor farmers to get timely, reliable information on crop prices over their cell phones so they don’t have to rely on the word of a buyer who happens by to tell them what their crops are worth.
When food prices soared, "a lot of people were quite surprised that there were about a billion people in the world who were hungry every day," says William Garvelink, deputy coordinator for development at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"Most of those people are in developing countries and most of them are in the rural sector in those countries," he says.
Those same smallholder farmers will be the focus of this week’s annual World Food Prize symposium in Des Moines, IA. The symposium’s theme, "Take it to the Farmer," is taken from the last words of Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in bringing about the increase in grain yields in Asia in the 1960s that became known as the Green Revolution. Panel discussions this year will include small-scale farmers as well as development experts, scientists and business representatives. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah will be a keynote speaker Friday.
The Feed the Future initiative is aimed at 20 of the neediest countries, 12 in Africa and the rest in Latin America and Asia.
Supporters worry Congress will lose interest in funding amid worries about the budget deficit. The first test is the administration’s request of $1.6 billion for the 2011 budget year that started Oct. 1. Congress has yet to finish writing the 2011 budget. Appropriations bills pending in the House and Senate would provide $1 billion and $1.3 billion, respectively, for Feed the Future.
By comparison, Iowa farmers received $767 million in government payments in 2009 out of $12 billion that was distributed nationally.
The administration’s initiative depends on the support of the congressional appropriations committees, said Robert Paarlberg, author of a recent book on global food policy titled "Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know."
"There’s only a limited amount of influence in the hands of the administration," he says.
He says agricultural development fell out of favor with policy-makers in the 1980s and 1990s. Conservatives thought private market forces would do the best job of increasing food production, while liberals believed the Green Revolution had damaged the environment, through increased use of chemicals, and hurt the rural poor.
Attitudes changed, he said, when the price of corn, wheat and other commodities skyrocketed in 2007 and 2008 — the price of corn hit nearly $8 a bushel at one point, more than double the traditional level. Many critics blamed the price spikes on U.S. policies that encourage using corn and soybeans for biofuels.
Eric Munoz, senior agricultural adviser for Oxfam America, a development and advocacy group, says "there is much less resistance right now to the idea that U.S. development assistance can play a supportive role to smallholder farmers to improve their productivity."
"What everyone is looking for is that we’re able to show immediate impact for the investments we make," he says.
Feed the Future is designed, however, to produce long-term changes. Governments in developing countries, for example, are being pushed to change laws so that female farmers can own land. That will in turn make it easier for the farmers to borrow money to buy seed and fertilizer and encourage them to invest in improving their land, said Garvelink. One of the targeted countries, Rwanda, has already changed its land-ownership policies.
A major focus of the U.S. spending will be on research, including into developing new cropping systems that require less fertilizer and consume less water.
He says he is optimistic that Congress will fund the program, but if there isn’t enough money to go around, the number of targeted countries will be reduced, he said. To learn which ideas work and which ones don’t, there will be a "very, very intensive monitoring and evaluation program" that took a year to develop, he says.