Helping Vulnerable Farmers Command Their Future

Posted by on December 6th, 2016 | 0 Comments »




Jim Gaffney grew up in southwest Minnesota on a farm, where he and his family grew corn and soybeans, and raised hogs. Jim holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota, a master’s degree from South Dakota State University and a Ph.D. from the University of Florida. He is particularly passionate about improving African Agriculture – an interest that dates back to his time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, Central Africa.


By: Dr. Jim Gaffney, DuPont Pioneer


Continuous agricultural productivity improvement is a critical target for farmers of all scales around the globe, and not just for feeding nearly 10 billion people who will need to eat by 2050. Productivity improvements are needed to lighten the environmental footprint of agriculture, to reduce production costs for farmers, to create food security and greater prosperity, all while mitigating the challenges of a changing climate.

Amartya Sen, in Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation1 made a strong case 35 years ago that the problem of food security is the inability of the most vulnerable to “command” food because it is unavailable, unaffordable, or both, and his message is worth reviewing today. In his study of twentieth century famines, Sen shows how the variability of the supply of important staple crops (such as maize, wheat and rice) from season-to-season, year-to-year, or regionally, created situations in which vulnerable people were unable to command even the basic necessities, to devastating effect. In the twenty-first century, climate change, the increase of vector-born diseases and rising conflict around the world pose a similar threat to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG 2) to end hunger, malnutrition and make agriculture sustainable.

Resource-poor farmers and people living in rural areas are particularly vulnerable to hunger, malnutrition and poverty when prices for food staples such as wheat, maize and rice rise and fall. Photo credit: IFAD

Resource-poor farmers and people living in rural areas are particularly vulnerable to hunger, malnutrition and poverty when prices for food staples such as wheat, maize and rice rise and fall. Photo credit: IFAD

Productivity is the Key

So how does the global agricultural community work towards eliminating poverty and hunger amid plenty while achieving multiple demands that go beyond yield gains?

First, we should recognize the success of North American agriculture, which is a highly sustainable and productive system. By working together over the past 25 years, academia, agricultural industry and farmers have improved agronomic innovation for better hybrid and biotech seeds that increase yields and boost resilience to pests and drought. These collaborations have also improved fertilizer-use and created a system which may help mitigate climate warming.2,3

Perhaps more importantly, a high level of yield stability has been achieved. For example, a drought in 2012 impacted most of the corn producing region in the United States, yet farmers produced the 6th largest U.S. corn crop on record at that time.4 These productivity gains are not often noticed in a country like the United States, where average annual income spent on food is less than 7 percent. However, consumers in many African, Asian, and Eastern European countries spend from one-third to close to half of their annual income on food, and lower food prices have very meaningful and positive impacts on purchasing power.


This chart from GHI’s 2016 Global Agricultural Productivity Report® shows that thanks to increases in productivity over the last century, real agricultural commodity prices have fallen on average about 1 percent per year, even while the global population has grown to more than 7 billion. But within this long-term trend, prices have fluctuated significantly, presenting challenges for farmers and consumers

Secondly, we can do a much better job of implementing technological innovations where impact will be felt the most. Hybrid crops and improved agronomics are a great example. Maize, a staple crop grown by small-scale farmers throughout Africa, is the primary source of calories for many rural people. But most small-scale farmers use lower-yielding open pollinated varieties (OPVs) of maize seed which means they have less maize to eat and less maize to sell. This contributes to the average consumer in Kenya and South Africa spending approximately 45 and 20 percent, respectively, of her annual income on food.


Most small-scale farmers in Africa use lower-yielding open pollinated varieties (OPVs) of maize seed. DuPont Pioneer’s Advanced Maize Seed Adoption Programs in Ghana, Ethiopia and Zambia are giving farmers access to advanced maize seeds, as well as agronomic training. In Ethiopia, participating farmers have increased yield an average of 200%.7 Key elements of the OPV to hybrid conversion program include demonstration plots and developing credit for smallholder farming operations. Improved storage units have reduced post-harvest grain loss and have created marketing opportunities. Photo credit: DuPont Pioneer

The Improved Maize for African Soils (IMAS) is an initiative helping farmers adopt improved hybrid maize and improved agronomic practices. In an “ex-ante” study of IMAS, economists forecast the gains of wide-spread adoption would be substantial: $248 million and $338 million for Kenya and South Africa, respectively, with the greatest benefit accruing at the consumer level.6 An estimated 1 million people would be pulled out of poverty through implementation of the IMAS effort.

Hybrid vigor of other important grain crops, like sorghum and millet, remain a largely untapped resource in Africa due to poorly developed seed systems, an over-reliance on decades-old varieties, and a disconnect between farmers and markets. DuPont Pioneer, Agropolis Foundation, and a consortium of African research organizations are working together to drive resourcing towards these important crops, which are cultivated by the some of the poorest, most vulnerable farmers in Africa.

In each example, improved productivity has been helpful only when greater market access is available to smallholder farmers. So the third and equally critical point is developing more efficient and transparent connections between smallholder farmers and value chains, with a goal of creating greater access to inputs while also creating opportunities for farmers to receive a fair price for excess production.

All-Hands-On Deck

Feeding the 10 billion has been a popular topic for the past 20 years, but of greater concern is that population growth will be highly uneven. The African population, for example, will double from 1 billion today to 2 billion within the next 40 years, with the vast majority accumulating in urban centers. An “all-hands-on-deck” approach will be needed, from sufficient resourcing for applied agricultural research, innovation from industry, and improving policy to allow rapid implementation of proven technology. Paraphrasing Dr. Sen, we can help vulnerable people command more resources, and achieve food security while lifting billions out of poverty.

  1. Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines. An essay on entitlement and deprivation. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 266 pp.
  2. Grassini, P. and Cassman, K.G. High-yield maize with large net energy yield and small global warming intensity. PNAS 109: 1074-1079 doi:10.1073/pnas.1116364109
  3. Tian, H., Lu, C. Ciais, P. et al. The terrestrial biosphere as a net source of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. Nature 531: 225-228. Doi:10.1038/nature16946
  4. Boyer, J.S., Byrne, P., Cassman, K.G. et al. 2013. The U.S. drought of 2012 in perspective: A call to action. Global Food Security
  5. Annual income spent of food, Washington State University. website accessed 11/30/2016. source: USDA/Economic Research Service, 2008
  6. Kostandini, G., La Rovere, R., and Guo, Z. Ex Ante welfare analysis of technological change: The case of nitrogen efficient maize for African soils. Canadian J Ag Econ 64: 147-168. Doi:10.111/cjag.12067
  7. Gaffney, J., Anderson, J, Franks, C. et al. Robust seed systems, emerging technologies, and hybrid crops for Africa. Global Food Security 9:36-44.


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