How can we feed the South?

Chris Simoens
06 December 2018
[Interview] The South will find it hard to produce enough food by 2050, partially due to climate change and population growth. Which solutions exist? talked with Prof. Patrick Van Damme (Ghent University).


A recent FAO report was unambiguous: 821 million people around the world are currently suffering from hunger. And yet it is claimed that there is enough food for everyone. Is that correct?

Every year, the whole world produces enough food for 10 billion people. 30% of this is lost after harvesting. That means there is enough food for 7 billion people, roughly the current global population.

In the South, farmers have few opportunities to store their harvests adequately. Rats and mice eat supplies, while mould and insects cause damage. A lot of food is thrown away in the North. As a result, the European Union is making efforts to reuse the surplus from restaurants and department stores as much as possible.


Why is it so difficult to feed everyone in the South today?

Farmers in the South are primarily smallholders. They in particular are suffering from hunger! In order to eradicate hunger, these smallholders need support. This can be done in a cost-effective manner, with simple, renewable, locally available resources.

Unfortunately, governments pay little attention to their smallholders, especially in Africa, despite countless pledges made, including by the African Union.

Only last year, the government of Ivory Coast banned investment in the cocoa sector. Why? Because they feared that prices would fall with the increased supply, and that they would consequently have less income. This is outrageous!

Smallholders are simply left with the consequences. But without an enabling environment, they have no way of changing their situation. The government needs to provide such an environment, but there is a lack of political will to put the solutions into practice.


Foto Patrick Van Damme


Prof. dr. Patrick Van Damme, associated with Ghent University, has been active in tropical agriculture since 1980. He advises the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the European Union, the World Bank, IFAD, ... but also (inter) national NGOs and travels to teach, to conduct research, to guide students. As such he knows the situation of the small farmer in the South very well..

Can large-scale agriculture help the South?

A large- scale approach does not help smallholders, certainly not in the short term. Did you know that very large-scale production is less profitable than growing a wide variety of crops on small plots of land?


And what about high-tech solutions such as computer-controlled drip irrigation and drones?

You can't help smallholders with these solutions either, only with simple techniques. The solutions are known, they just need to be applied.

In 1980, I started as an advisor for the FAO in Senegal. Around that time, I decided to apply all my recommendations myself - about watering, varieties, fertilisation, etc. - to a 1-hectare plot of land, with tomatoes. I produced a yield of 120 tons, while the farmers in the area only harvested 12.5 tons! The difference? We harvested our tomatoes every week. Tomatoes ripen gradually, whereby they can be harvested for 15 weeks. But the farmers only harvested twice in total. A large proportion of their tomatoes rotted on the vine. You often encounter problems that are easy to solve. By spraying more, or using a high-tech approach, you will not help the farmer.

Even a genetically modified maize will never achieve the desired yield. You might have eliminated one problem - a plague, for instance - but a whole range of other problems still remains. To be aware of these problems, you need an agronomist and not a bio-engineer. The latter doesn’t know how to successfully plant a field of rice or corn.

The farmers only harvested twice in total. A large proportion of their tomatoes rotted on the vine. You often encounter problems that are easy to solve. By spraying more, or using a high-tech approach, you will not help the farmer.

Tomato field in Angola
© Shutterstock

So Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) aren't the answer for the South then?

Major multinationals such as Bayer (who recently bought Monsanto) and Syngenta, handle a model of exclusion. They sell their genetically modified seeds together with pesticides and fertilisers, which is an expensive package for smallholders! They even embed 'terminator genes' into their varieties, meaning that farmers are prevented from reusing the seeds. This forces them to order new seeds every year. As a result, they become dependent on a big industries, which exploit them. I am totally against this.

Moreover, I note that the promises made regarding GMOs have not been kept. For example, pesticide use has not fallen, on the contrary in some cases. When using herbicide-resistant GMO varieties, farmers have to spray the appropriate herbicide. A typical farmer does not destroy his weeds with herbicides, he weeds between his crops, and even uses the weeds as animal feed or as a medicinal herb.

For the time being, there are barely any real food crops that have been genetically modified. Modified crops are primarily cotton, as well as soy and corn, which are used as animal feed. Maize has the additional risk that it spreads its pollen with the wind, and can therefore pollinate non-modified maize in the surrounding area. Golden rice, a rice variety with an embedded gene for vitamin A, is still not on the market after almost 20 years.


What role does fair trade play?

Fairtrade is primarily limited to industrial crops such as coffee, cocoa and bananas, for which there is a global market. And this world market has very few food crops. For example, 600 million tonnes of rice are produced every year worldwide. Only 25 million tonnes of this is traded globally, while almost all cocoa ends up on the global market.

As such, fair trade only helps farmers who grow industrial crops in addition to their food crops. They clearly see a rise in their incomes. Fair trade also has an indirect effect, as it brings 'fair principles' to farmers and their wives.


Is land grabbing still an issue?

Foreign consortia, from China among other places, are still buying out governments that are not interested in agriculture, but like to make profits. But by renting or selling land to foreign countries, they take often relatively fertile land out of production for their own farmers.

You should know that farmers often only have small plots of land at their disposal, partially because the land was divided among their children following inheritance. Moreover land rights are often so uncertain that farmers often do not know how long they will be able to use their land. This makes them reluctant to fully invest in it.

Agrobiodiversity - the diversity of varieties - will play a major role in the adaptation to climate change. 

How can the South prepare for climate change?

Climate change will have major consequences in many places in the tropics. But the models are not in unison. For example, it is far from clear whether the north of Senegal will become wetter or drier. In any case, the local information services will have to guide farmers in adapting their cultivation methods.

Agrobiodiversity - the diversity of varieties - will play a major role. For example, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) stores 150,000 rice varieties. 40,000 of these are still grown. In other words, we still have an enormous reservoir. Some of these are highly resistant to flooding, while others easily withstand drought. The genes in question can be crossed into high yielding varieties, or the varieties themselves can be used.


Is agrobiodiversity sufficiently preserved?

A lot has actually been lost. In the US, there were 90 varieties of asparagus 100 years ago, now just one. Hopefully the other 89 are still somewhere in a collection.

Banks for the major crops - rice, potatoes, maize, etc. - are maintained in the international agricultural research institutes. For example, in Leuven, bananas are stored with the INIBAP. However, the Nagoya protocol, among others, which regulates access to genetic sources, makes the exchange of genetic material difficult. While in fact free movement should remain guaranteed, so that research groups in the South can continue to use this genetic material.


How can post harvest losses be avoided?

There exist effective traditional methods of storing harvests. In Ethiopia, for example, for generations they have kept their supplies in a hole in the ground, which is then hermetically sealed. Sometimes the contents remain well preserved even after 5 to 7 years. Or you can mix sorghum and millet with ash. The silicon in the ash damages the front wings of insects, thereby preventing them from eating.

But these old techniques were often replaced by more modern approaches: refrigerators or spraying with fungicidal substances. These are expensive solutions which put farmers in a position of dependence.

An interesting solution is the neem tree from India. Bio-insecticides can easily and fairly cheaply be extracted from this tree. But to make the approach really profitable, you need infrastructure: laboratories to dry the extracts, refrigerators... And who can prvide this? So once again we run into a socio-economic problem: the techniques are known, but how do we ensure that people can use them?


As people become more affluent, they eat more meat. Won't that lead to problems?

Middle classes are indeed growing, especially in India and China. They are already looking for varieties of sorghum and millet that can be used as animal feed. These then compete with the varieties for human consumption.

And this clearly leads to problems. Producing meat and dairy is simply a roundabout way of obtaining nutrition. Food for animals needs 4 to 10 times more surface area compared to a similar amount of vegetable food. The expected shift to more animal-based food will certainly put more pressure on the soil.


Does the aging of the farming profession not put the future of food production in jeopardy? And what can be done about the population growth?

Young people indeed have few or no perspectives as a farmer. After all, the governments themselves show no interest in agriculture and basic comforts and electricity are often lacking in rural areas. Therefore plenty of youngsters prefer to move to the cities.

I’me afraid little can be done about population growth, as it is essentially a poverty-related problem. As long as there is no social safety net, you cannot explain to people why they should have fewer children. Their children are a kind of insurance policy. But you can make people more aware, so that they choose to have fewer children.

If we want to ensure that the people of the South can feed themselves, governments urgently need to give attention to their smallholders. This does not necessarily require a lot of money, because the (simple) solutions are usually already known.

Farmers at work on their plot in Rwanda
© Shutterstock

Van Damme's conclusion is crystal clear: if we want to ensure that the people of the South can feed themselves, governments urgently need to give attention to their smallholders. This does not necessarily require a lot of money, because the (simple) solutions are usually already known. An expensive high-tech approach tends to have negative results for farmers because it makes them dependent on big industries.

It also has no use to have small farmers produce too quickly for the 'market'. It is important to first build a solid foundation for them, so that they can be self-reliant. Adequate information services and (basic) agricultural research are essential in this respect. Supporting small farmers would immediately counteract the rural exodus of young people.


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