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Taking It To (and from) the Farmers

Farmers Addis Ababa, EthiopiaCountervailing winds have been blowing across the global efforts to reduce hunger through agriculture development.

Here in the Ethiopian capital, scientists, humanitarians, and politicians from across the continent and around the world gathered this week at a symposium titled “Taking it to the Farmer.” They were honoring Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, by putting into action what we are told were his final words before he died last year: “Take it to the farmer.” They plotted new—and renewed—efforts to help Africa’s small farmers grow more food to feed their families and sell on the markets. Improving soil health, boosting university research, empowering women farmers, nurturing commercial seed companies, strengthening extension services to advise farmers of the latest technology, and developing markets were highlighted as some of the keys to sparking a Green Revolution in Africa.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. capital, politicians were busy taking it away from the farmers. In crafting the fiscal year 2011 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs cut President Obama’s request to fund elements of his Feed the Future program. The markup includes $1 billion for agriculture and food security programs, $300 million less than the president’s request. The cuts also included $258 million from the request to fund the brand new global agriculture fund (known as the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, or GAFSP). The request was for $408 million for the fund; the markup was for just $150 million. The whittling was continuing in the Senate.

 

Yes, the $1 billion total is still $112 million above the 2010 enacted level. And yes, budgets are tight during the financial crisis.

But these cuts eat away at the burgeoning ambitions of the Obama administration to rally an international assault on hunger through agriculture development. The GAFSP was just launched in April with $880 million in initial commitments from the U.S., Canada, South Korea, Spain and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Moving quickly, the fund announced just a few weeks ago that five developing countries—Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Togo, Bangladesh, and Haiti—will receive the fund’s first grants totaling $224 million. The donors hailed the announcement as demonstrating “the commitment of the international community to forge a strong, swift and coordinated response against global food insecurity.”

Then, in short order, came the proposed appropriations cuts. What does this say to America’s partners in the fund about the commitment of U.S. leadership? Will this leave the innovative project GASPFing for life, starved for financing just as it is beginning to take off?

I was in Rwanda when those first grants were announced. The $50 million for Rwanda provided a burst of confidence and momentum in the country’s large-scale hillside terracing and water harvesting project. It is a top priority of the Rwandan government’s strategy to reduce erosion of precious top soil, boost agriculture production and end years of dependency on food aid.

A legion of farmers were attacking the steep hillsides, forming a series of broad terraces to increase the amount of flat arable land. You could see a glimpse of the vision of the Feed the Future program, how it was extending a helping hand to an African government taking a new project to the farmers.

At the Borlaug symposium, there was disquiet that now the other hand was taking away. One overriding conviction of those assembled was that multiplying the productivity of Africa’s farmers will be vital if the world is to nearly double food production by 2050 to meet the demands of an increasing, and increasingly prosperous, world population.

This not the time to get cheap, nor is this the project to shortchange.

Roger Thurow’s blog post appears courtesy of the Global Food for Thought blog. Thurow, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, is a senior fellow for Global Agriculture and Food Policy at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

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