About 1 billion small farmers worldwide, many of them women, face drought, the effects of climate change and a lack of technology as they struggle to feed families on what they can raise on an acre or two of land.
Their problems will be the focus of this week's World Food Prize symposium, as agriculture officials from around the world gather to talk about what can be done to fight hunger. As many as 60 farmers are expected to join agriculture officials from the U.S., Afghanistan, Pakistan and Liberia, said Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, which hosts the annual conference in Des Moines.
Former U.S. Secretary General Kofi Annan is scheduled to give the keynote address Thursday, when the foundation will give its World Food Prize to the presidents of Heifer International and the Christian advocacy group Bread for the World in recognition of their efforts to fight hunger. Heifer International provides families with food- and income-producing animals, such as sheep, while Bread for the World presses U.S. lawmakers to support anti-hunger policies.
The goal for the conference is to find ways to provide smallholder farmers with technology "so they can get the most out of their land, not to just feed themselves but to become produces who are growing food for others in their country and their society," Quinn said.
"It's become clear that smallholder farmers play a critical role in the global food supply," he added.
But Howard Buffett, whose foundation runs research farms in Illinois and South Africa, said technology isn't always the answer. Western-style farming, which relies heavily on expensive fertilizers and equipment, may not work in poor countries, he said.
"People want to provide a silver bullet solution and there aren't any," said Buffett, who is scheduled to speak Wednesday. "It's not easy to do and you can't take technology, better seed and fertilizer and think that's going to solve the problem."
He said smallholder farmers need what he called "basic types of intervention," such as cover crops, conservation-based tillage systems and very basic farm equipment. They also need help improving soil fertility to stop "slash-and-burn" farming.
"They will farm a few acres for a few years and then get no more production because there is no soil fertility left and they will chop down and clear three to four more acres to farm on," he said. "We need to do this in ways that will improve food security and agriculture and be good for the environment."
Jeff Raikes, chief executive officer of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said a combination of high-tech and low-tech solutions are needed to help smallholder farmers. The Gates Foundation has made fighting hunger and poverty one of its priorities, investing millions of dollars in the effort, and Raikes will speak at the conference Thursday.
He said high-tech research has helped develop 50 drought resistant varieties of corn, which can boost harvests by 15 percent to 35 percent and flood-resistant rice, which by the end of this year is expected to be planted by about 400,000 farmers, he said. By 2017, 20 million farmers will be using it, he said.
As an example of a low-tech solution, Raikes cited development of a triple-layer storage bag for cowpeas, a legume grown in parts of Africa and south Asia. The inexpensive bags boost farmers' income by blocking the development of weevil larvae that eat dried cowpeas. In the bags, the crop can be preserved for months and, in some cases, more than a year.
Raikes also praised the work of Heifer International in Kenya, where its dairy farms employ about 3,000 farmers, paying them enough to realize such dreams as educating their children.
"It shows how our approach of working across the value chain, we can come together and transform what's possible," Raikes said.
Heifer president Jo Luck will split this year's $250,000 World Food Prize with David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World.
Beckmann said apathy is the main reason persistent hunger continues and his group works to get people to push for solutions. The prize recognizes the success of its network of people and churches "that have been able to repeatedly move the U.S. government to do things to help hungry people," he said.
He plans to give his share of the prize back to Bread for the World.
"This gives me the opportunity to get people off the couch and elect people who are concerned about hungry and poor people," Beckmann said.
A telephone message for left for Luck at Heifer International was not immediately returned.
The World Food Prize was established by Iowa native Norman Borlaug, who won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for helping increase food production in developing nations with the use of hybrid crops. Borlaug, known as the father of the "Green Revolution," died just before the start of the 2009 symposium.