THE BLOG
05/11/2012 08:04 pm ET Updated Jul 11, 2012

Hunger at Camp David

Gordon Conway writes for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs Global Food for Thought blog.

The one billion poor and hungry in the world will not be at the Camp David G8 summit later this month. But decisions made there could make their lives a great deal better. Now is the time to act, building on the significant achievements made since the agreement of the G8 L'Aquila Food Security Initiative in 2009.

Despite the multiple challenges at large, I am optimistic about African agriculture. There has certainly never been a better basis to build on. While the economies of the G8 nations themselves are in the doldrums, many African countries are experiencing significant growth. Over the past decade six of the world's ten fastest growing economies were African. Ghana, for example, has been growing very fast -- predicted to be over 8 percent this year -- and not only because of minerals and oil: their agricultural growth has been averaging over 5 percent for at least the past ten years.

One of the reasons has been the commitment of African leaders, like former President John Kufuor of Ghana, to invest in agriculture. In 2003, African heads of state pledged to allocate 10% of their national budgets to agriculture and nine have so far exceeded this target. Furthermore, 30 countries have completed the African Union's roundtable process under the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Program (CAADP) and signed strategy "compacts." These, in turn, are forming the basis for investment by G8 and other donors.

Experience tells us that food security underpins global security, that food trade is central to global trade, and that agricultural development is the best route to achieving economic growth which will reach the rural poor and most vulnerable in low income countries.

On the ground, we also know what African farmers, men and women, can achieve. Given certified seed, fertilizers and adequate water, yields of staple crops, such as maize, can exceed five tons per hectare. In one sense it is a no-brainer. But we also know it takes more than gifts to produce sustainable food security.

Smallholder farmers need reliable, local access to input and output markets. Village level agrodealers are springing up over many parts of Africa, selling certified seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and providing credit in small quantities and at affordable costs. They in turn are being supplied by new locally based seed and fertilizer companies, and funded by national banks. Their harvests are being sold to local trading companies (sometimes via cooperatives or contract systems) that are, in turn, gaining better access to national markets and performing transactions using mobile phones.

The creation of such "enabling environments" is a key to success. Public leadership is crucial as is public funding. But also the private sector has a role to play in creating new and varied value chains and in ensuring that the benefits flow to those down the chain while the risks are carried higher up. It is a complex challenge. One approach in Ethiopia has been the creation of an Agricultural Transformation Agency, with support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and chaired by the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. The agency focuses on helping existing structures of government, private sector and other non-governmental partners overcome the systemic bottlenecks in delivering agricultural growth and food security. It is a model that could be replicated elsewhere.

Agricultural growth is good, but in itself is not enough. The growth has to deliver incomes to the poor; it also has to be resilient. African agriculture like that of other developing countries faces severe challenges. Crops and livestock can be devastated almost overnight by pests, diseases and weeds with fearsome names such as Striga, Black Sigatoka, Rift Valley Fever and Xanthomonas wilt. On top of these is the growing threat of drought and heat as a consequence of climate change. In Africa, for each degree day above 30°C (86°F) there is a 1.7% loss of maize yield under drought conditions.

At the core of this new agriculture is the concept and practice of Sustainable Intensification. In simple terms this means getting more from less -- on a durable basis. More food, more agricultural products, on less land with less pesticides and fertilizers, less water and lower outputs of greenhouse gases.

We know how to do this on a small experimental scale. The aim is to do it on a large scale, at less cost than current methods, and for it to be sustainable -- that is, it must last. Moreover the intensification has to be resilient, or able to cope with stresses and shocks, especially those arising from climate change.

Unfortunately fierce arguments arise as to the means. Some say the answer lies in developing large farms, others say that smallholders are the key, some emphasise organic farming methods, others focus on biotechnology, especially GM; large-scale irrigation is countered by small-scale water harvesting, export crops by staples, livestock production is thought to be inferior to a vegetarian based agriculture.

Most of us would accept that in all these arguments both counterpoised approaches have a role to play, depending on the environmental, social and cultural circumstances. We need an agriculture that is not "either... or" but one that stresses "both... and." The billion or more poor and hungry deserve no less.