WCSJ: Plant Diseases, Farmer Suicides And The Peril of A Hungry Future

Here’s my second report from the World Conference of Science Journalists — and if you thought the first one on diabetes in China was depressing, just wait for this one.

Since I wrote SUPERBUG the book and started this blog, I’ve been fascinated by stresses and problems in food production. (For evidence, see any of this long archive.) This conference in Qatar, which drew 726 journalists, most from the global south, was a chance to hear from people  immersed in food issues in places we in the north don’t know enough about. So for my panel on agriculture and food security, I invited people whom I wanted to learn from.

And wow, did I.

Patrick Luganda of Uganda, CEO of the Farmers’ Media Link Centre in Kampala — a journalist and also a farmer himself — told us about the Maputo Declaration, a 2003 compact between African governments who agreed that by 2008 they would devote 10 percent of their national budgets to agriculture. The Maputo goals were not reached: Fewer than one in three of the signatories reached their allocation, and overall they got to less than 50 percent of their funding target. That means farmers have less access to information, education, better seed hybrids and new technologies.

The need for farm investment is especially dire in Africa right now because crops there are under threat from Ug99 (Puccinia graminis), a wheat fungus that was first identified in Uganda in 1999 and that spreads on the wind. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, Ug99 destroys 80 percent of any crop it infects. Since its discovery, Ug99 has been working its way north, spreading to Kenya and Ethiopia in 2003, Sudan and Yemen in 2006, and Iran in 2009 — all areas where food supplies are not secure and an 80 percent cut would be devastating. If its path of travel holds, it could be in India, Pakistan and China within several years — or across the Pacific in the wheat fields of the United States.

Next, Jaideep Hardikar of the Telegraph in Kolkata described what happens when an agricultural economy crashes. For 10 years, he has been covering an agrarian crisis in India, the aftermath of the 1960s Green Revolution and its 1980s collapse. He was tipped into the story by chance, being randomly assigned to report on the 1998 suicide of a cotton farmer who despaired of ever climbing out of debt. Before he finished the story, four other farmers in the same village also killed themselves by drinking pesticide.

Sometimes the men left notes. Often they did not, leaving their widows to discover they had been impoverished by a descending spiral of borrowing to plant, being unable to pay the loans back, and borrowing further to cover the first round of debt. Since 1997, the Indian government now estimates, 250,000 farmers have killed themselves, and more than 350,000 — the heads of households that add up to 2 million people — are in acute financial trouble. (Here’s a recent story of Jaideep’s on the continuing problem.)

Juhie Bhatia, managing editor of Women’s eNews, talked about a little-considered element of the global agricultural economy: the impoverished position of women, who make up 43 percent of the world’s ag labor force (and, not benefitting from their own labor, 60 percent of the chronically hungry). Because they are wives in societies where women have low status, and often unpaid or very low-wage workers, women farmers have less access to farm investment and to yield-improving advantages that Patrick talked about. Giving women the same resources as men, she said, could increase agricultural production worldwide by as much as 4 percent, creating enough additional food to reduce the ranks of the chronically hungry by up to 150 million people.

Finally, a distinguished guest — Dr. Mahmoud El-Sohl, director of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas in Aleppo, Syria — underlined how vital it is to sort these issues out quickly. Because, he warned, without a major change in support for small and impoverished farmers, the world will simply, and quite quickly, run out of food.

Dr. El-Sohl ran through these statistics:

  • We will need to raise 70 percent more food than we now do, to keep up with an expected rise in global population to 9.1 billion by 2050.
  • There are already approximately 950 million people living in poverty with chronic hunger.
  • There is not enough land to build increasingly large farms: Arable land is being lost to urbanization and industrial growth. By 2050, cultivable land will have expanded by at best 5 percent.
  • The same competing interests that are taking away arable land are also sucking up water: By 2050, agriculture will have 50 percent less water available for cultivation than it does now.
  • And because developing countries depend on imported food to a greater extent than industrialized ones, as land and water are squeezed and productivity drops, malnutrition and unrest in developing countries will rise.

Against that grim backdrop, Dr. El-Sohl offered this: Small farmers make up 40 percent of the world’s population and produce 80 percent of the food in developing countries. The most important priority for improving production and food security, he said, must be strengthening small farmers, by investing in sustainable practices and diversified production, and paying attention to the needs of ecosystems that are growing increasingly fragile.

Update: The journal Nature published a great long feature on the battle against Ug99.

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