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You can’t eat potential

By Glenn Denning - posted Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The passing of Norman Borlaug last month closed the chapter on an exemplary life of service to humankind. Dr Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and acknowledged “father” of the Asian Green Revolution, is credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives by breeding high yielding wheat varieties that spread throughout Asia during the 1960s and 70s. Inspired by Dr Borlaug’s successes, new rice types were also developed and widely adopted. As a result, food production in Asia doubled over the subsequent 25 years, outpacing population growth. The predicted famines were averted.

Dr Borlaug was not content with the potential that his new varieties showed for increasing food supplies. “The potential is there, but you can’t eat potential,” was one of his most memorable lines. Dr Borlaug was a passionate advocate of his new varieties with governments and aid agencies, urging them in strong terms to support smallholder farmers with credit, fertiliser, irrigation, roads, and a fair price for their produce. Only with these multiple, co-ordinated investments could the genetic potential of his new varieties be realised.

Less than three months ago in L’Aquila, Italy, the G8 declared to act “with the scale and urgency needed to achieve sustainable global food security”, acknowledging that adequate food is not only necessary for economic growth and social progress but, more fundamentally, is the cornerstone of political stability and peace. In a rare departure from rhetoric of vague intent, the G8 and a posse of other like-minded governments and international agencies agreed to provide $20 billion over three years for sustainable agricultural development. Such a commitment, if realised, would sharply reverse a 30-year downward trend that has seen agriculture fall from the radar of most aid agencies and governments.


In Pittsburg just a couple of weeks ago, the G20, now championed by Mr Rudd as the new “driving centre” for change, endorsed the L’Aquila initiative and called on the World Bank to establish a new global fund to scale up agricultural assistance in poor countries. In what the G20 communiqué called “this historic effort”, the new fund would require country ownership, bring in the private sector and NGOs, and allow rapid disbursement of money, breaking through the bureaucracy that has plagued past efforts to deliver aid promises.

So why invest in agriculture? Why now? What happened to Dr Borlaug’s Green Revolution?

The answer is that we have been complacent, a condition that Dr Borlaug warned us about in his Oslo acceptance address almost 30 years ago. In Asia, agricultural productivity has slowed, and in Africa, per capita food production has declined steadily for 40 years. As a result, one in every six people on earth is hungry. And malnutrition is implicated in about 40 per cent of the 11 million deaths of children under five in developing countries.

For most, hunger and malnutrition are not the results of war or catastrophic events like droughts or floods. This is chronic hunger and malnutrition that perennially affects poor people, leaving them unable to produce or buy the food they need to stay healthy, go to school, undertake a day’s work, or simply live with dignity. Global food shortages in 2007 and 2008 and, more recently, the global financial crisis, have plunged millions more into a state of extreme vulnerability and dependency on food aid and other forms of emergency assistance. The World Bank reported that despite sharp declines in commodity prices in the wake of the economic slowdown, food prices in August 2009 were almost 60 per cent higher than in 2005. Thus, through a combination of benign neglect of agriculture and financial mismanagement, the planet is fast running out of food.

The global epicenter of chronic hunger is Africa. One in three Africans is undernourished. Most are not living in war zones or refugee camps. The bulk of Africa’s hungry and malnourished live on farms of less than two hectares. Typically, these small farms have lost their soil fertility through years of cropping without the benefits of fertiliser, improved seed or irrigation. There has been no Green Revolution here. And there have been no surpluses to store or sell.

The good news for Mr Rudd’s G20 - and for humanity - is that chronic hunger in Africa and other hot-spots, like Haiti, Afghanistan and Timor Leste, can be ended within a few years with targeted investments based on our current knowledge. This was the unanimous conclusion of several recent expert reports, including those of the UN Millennium Project (2006), the Irish Hunger Task Force (2008), an independent Advisory Group to the Madrid Conference on Food Security (2009), and the UN High Level Task Force on the Global Food Crisis (2008/9). These reports, representing the analyses and conclusions of hundreds of scientists, practitioners and policy experts from international organisations, governments, civil society organisations and the private sector, concluded that small-scale farmers hold the key to ending hunger and malnutrition. The experts have done their work. We know what’s needed. It’s now time to put those recommendations into action.


Illustrating this point, the Government of Malawi, over the past four years, has demonstrated beyond any doubt that investing in small-scale farmers not only brings national food security but enhances economic growth. According to the IMF, Malawi’s growth rate in 2008 was a remarkable 9.7 per cent, with the maize crop acknowledged as an important contributor. This year throughout Malawi, men, women and children harvested the country’s fourth successive bumper crop - a whopping 3.7 million tons of maize, enough to feed the country for a year and provide more than a million tons to its neighbours.

After the disastrous harvest of 2005, the then newly elected (and to nobody’s surprise, recently reelected) President Bingu wa Mutharika declared “enough is enough” to his nation’s regular call for emergency food aid. For each of the past four seasons, about half of the country’s 3.4 million small-scale farmers has received improved maize seed and fertiliser at sharply discounted prices through a national voucher program. Farmers responded to this program by doubling their yields and exceeding the national maize requirements. In all likelihood, Malawi will be a food donor to the region this year, as it was two years ago in supplying impoverished Zimbabwe with 300,000 tons of grain.

Malawi’s experience is inspiring similar efforts through the continent, including in neighboring Tanzania, which this year launched its own fertiliser voucher program reaching 700,000 farmers through a private sector agro-dealer network. The governments in both Malawi and Tanzania have taken bold steps to increase smallholder production in a time of reduced tax revenues, declining overseas remittances and faltering donor assistance.

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About the Author

Glenn Denning is Professor of Professional Practice at the School of International and Public Affairs and the Earth Institute at Columbia University, New York City. Denning, an Australian, teaches at Columbia and advises governments and the United Nations on agriculture and food security. Denning helped establish The MDG Centre, East and Southern Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, and served as Director until the recent move to New York.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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