Those were interesting photos from the dusty archives that appeared in various newspapers and TV reports this week, pictures of a visitor from China inspecting hogs, vegetable farms and grain processing facilities in Iowa back in 1985. It became downright fascinating when it turned out that visitor, Xi Jinping, was now returning to the U.S., and to Iowa, as the vice president of China. Oh, and he is presumed to be China’s next president.
Xi knows farming – he had first come to Iowa as a Communist Party leader to study farming practices that could help his agriculture region back home. And he knows the importance of increasing food production for his country and for the entire world.
This raises the tantalizing possibility of China becoming a top ally in the U.S. push to end hunger through agriculture development. The two countries have deep differences on a number of issues, but this may be one on which they can agree: creating the conditions for the world’s smallholder farmers, particularly those in Africa, to be as productive as possible. It would be good for those farmers – among the poorest and hungriest people on the planet – and good for all of us. For those smallholder farmers are indispensable if we are to conquer the greatest challenge facing the world over the next couple of decades: nearly doubling food production by 2050 to meet the demand of a population that is growing in both size and prosperity.
Earlier this year, we reported on China’s first white paper on foreign aid. It was clear in that document that agriculture development, particularly in Africa, was a top Chinese focus. “China makes agriculture, rural development and poverty reduction in developing countries priorities of its foreign aid,” the white paper stated. It talked about building farms and agro-technology demonstration centers, constructing irrigation and water-harvesting systems, supplying agriculture machinery and farm implements, dispatching agriculture experts to spread knowledge of new technologies, and providing agricultural training in the recipient countries.
And the paper said this: “China has been increasing its aid for agriculture and grain production in particular. In recent years, food security has become a global issue.”
In a way, it sounded like China’s version of President Barack Obama’s Feed the Future Initiative, which seeks to end hunger by working with developing country governments to improve their agriculture systems. Obama has championed this cause from his very first days in office, prodding his fellow G8 leaders to adopt their own Food Security Initiative three years ago. And he’ll have another prime opportunity to advance agriculture development when he hosts the G8 meeting in Chicago in May.
But beyond that set of world leaders (which doesn’t include China), a U.S.-China partnership could strike a mighty blow against hunger. The two countries are the leading agriculture producers in the world. They are competitors and also trading partners. Together they could drive agriculture development in lands far beyond their borders by sharing efforts in research, education and investments.
After Xi returned to the site of his first visit, Muscatine, Iowa, he moved on to Des Moines for the initial U.S.-China Agricultural Symposium, accompanied by Han Changfu, China’s agriculture minister. There, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack zeroed in on the possibilities.
"First, we have responsibility and opportunity to work together to address the causes of global hunger that affect more than 925 million people,” Vilsack said. "Current population trends mean we must increase agricultural production by 70% by 2050 to feed more than 9 billion people. I look forward to strengthening partnerships with China to support agricultural productivity in nations where far too many millions go hungry. The expertise, technical know-how, research and combined will of our two nations can go a long way to filling empty stomachs and improve incomes and economies around the world.”
For inspiration, they were meeting at the headquarters of the World Food Prize, which was established by Norman Borlaug, an Iowa native who became the father of the Green Revolution. In that building are tributes to the World Food Prize laureates who have dedicated themselves to ending hunger through agricultural development.
Borlaug was adamant about the necessity of government leadership and cooperation in spurring the production of more -- and more nutritious -- food. Perhaps surrounded by his aura in the building that stands as a monument to agricultural development, the seeds of a new alliance to end hunger were sown.
At the foot of Mount Kenya, a patch of maize stalks are defying the odds. They are standing tall and robust in a trial field where the soil had been intentionally depleted of nitrogen, one of the essential nutrients for maize.
“If you want to feed the people, you want to give the farmers materials that perform best in their soil conditions,” said Charles Mutinda as he waded into the thicket of stalks. He is a maize breeder at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute in the town of Embu, and the coordinator of KARI’s participation in the Improved Maize for African Soils project. The goal of the program, overseen by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), is to improve maize varieties so that they use nitrogen in the soil more efficiently.
African soils are some of the poorest in the world. For generations, farmers have tilled the same plots, often with the same crop, year after year. The soil has had no time to rest and replenish. The smallholder farmers couldn’t afford to let an inch of land lie fallow. Nor did they practice much crop rotation, the method of planting different crops in sequential seasons in order to restore certain nutrients to the soil or to prevent the buildup of pests or pathogens that occur when one crop is constantly grown. Also, African farmers used less than 10% of the world average amount of fertilizer.
“When I was young, there was no hunger,” Mutinda said. “The land was plenty, there was enough space to plant.” The soils weren’t under such relentless attack. But as the population has grown, family plot sizes have shrunk. The farmers are under annual pressure to squeeze as much out of the soil as possible. Maize, Kenya’s staple crop, has been a notorious taker. Mutinda was looking for maize strains that would give back, or at least take away nitrogen more judiciously; perhaps he would even find a strain that required less fertilizer, which is the farmers’ top expense.
“The smallholder farmers,” Mutinda said, “need all the help they can get. And Africa needs more food.”
The lead funders of the Improved Maize for African Soils project are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with $17.3 million and the U.S. Agency for International Development (as part of President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative) for $2.2 million. American seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont business, is providing some maize traits and technical support to breeders in Kenya and South Africa.
In another part of Kenya, and other areas of Africa, another public-private consortium with more than a dozen partners is working on an African Biofortified Sorghum initiative, which aims to improve the nutrition and digestibility of sorghum, which is an important crop in many of the arid regions on the continent. The lead funders of the work by African scientists are the Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. Pioneer is also providing technologies and technical support, including bringing African researchers to the U.S. to work alongside Pioneer scientists.
Yesterday, far from the fields of Africa, in Washington DC, DuPont executives unveiled a set of goals to continue its global collaborations to build global food security by 2020 and end hunger through agriculture development:
- Innovating – by committing $10 billion to research and development with the aim of introducing 4,000 new products by the end of 2020. This work is intended to focus on increasing food production, enhancing nutrition, improving shelf life and food availability, and reducing waste.
- Engaging and educating youth – by improving science and agriculture education from kindergarten through college in classrooms around the world.
- Improving rural communities – by strengthening agricultural systems that create the conditions for smallholder farmers to be as successful as possible in feeding their families, communities and countries.
These goals grow out of last year’s report of the DuPont Advisory Committee on Agricultural Innovation and Productivity for the 21st Century. The committee recommendations stressed placing smallholder farmers at the center of creating sustainable food solutions and advocated comprehensive and collaborative approaches to producing more and nutritionally better food and ensuring that all markets and all people have access to that food. And doing it all in ways that preserve environmental resources, cherish the unique needs of local communities and stand the test of time economically.
It is a huge task, but it begins with collaborations like those in the maize and sorghum fields of Africa, where local farmers work with national researchers, supported by international institutions and multi-national companies and foundations. For these collaborations to succeed, a good dose of humility in the face of the enormous challenge is vital. “No one company, country or non-profit organization can meet the challenge of feeding the world alone,” said Ellen Kullman, DuPont Chair and CEO.
Success requires everyone working together, not merely for institutional or corporate gain, but for the gain of the poorest, hungriest farmers, who desire, above all, to feed their families and educate their children.