In a recent conversation with some friends, we got into an argument about the relationship between extreme poverty and hunger. “There is malnutrition and hunger because of extreme poverty,” argued one friend. Another retorted, “Even if extreme poverty is eradicated, over 800 million people will remain malnourished and hungry.”
The argument points out the need to address both the accessibility and the availability of food. In the end, extreme poverty and hunger are inseparable. People need to have the resources necessary to buy food for their families. At the same time, food production needs to keep up with the world’s population, which is increasing. Seventy percent of food production worldwide comes from small farms. But small-scale farmers collectively use only 40 percent of the world’s arable land. Supporting small farmers in a dignifying and transparent manner is key to addressing hunger.
In East Africa and also in Zimbabwe’s rural Binga district, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) supports trainings for small farmers on how to conserve moisture in the soil using mulch. This is one practice of conservation agriculture, an approach to helping increase crop yield and soil health that MCC and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank are promoting in projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
In central Burkina Faso, an MCC-supported agricultural project has helped small farmers in 42 villages by teaching methods of sustainable agriculture in cereal and rice production and also vegetable gardening. Farmers are able to harvest their crops and sell them as seed for planting, rather than as food. The change increased their income and enabled them to purchase agricultural tools to plant additional fields of beans, sesame plants and peanuts.
Unfortunately, rather than focusing on sustainable agriculture techniques like these, too often international food assistance promotes an industrialized form of agriculture that relies heavily on fertilizers, pesticides, and energy. This not only depends on high levels of inputs, but also leaves behind depleted seed varieties, degraded soil, and polluted water. This type of agriculture and certain forms of traditional agriculture are also major contributors to climate change.
The Food for Peace Reform Act moves in the direction of supporting small farmers by allowing the purchase of more commodities locally or regionally. This change makes it less likely that farmers will be undercut by industrialized agriculture elsewhere.
In the end, we need to address both poverty and hunger. But we have to do it in a way that empowers communities to attain economic and social benefits while remaining within the natural boundaries of our planet in sustainable agriculture, food security and healthy living.
Charles Kwuelum is Legislative Associate for International Affairs in the MCC U.S. Washington office. Originally published on May 29, 2015. Reprinted with permission from Third Way Cafe.