Unlike evils like polio and the bubonic plague, we have not been able to end hunger.
Despite the technological revolution in the agricultural industry, one in ten people – more than 800 million individuals – is hungry, according to the UN Food Agency (FAO).
In Latin America and the Caribbean, almost 48 million people – more than the population of Argentina – do not consume enough food energy to lead an active and healthy life.
The pandemic makes those numbers worse. We need a change of approach that includes small farmers.
From the plots that produce quinoa in the Lake Titicaca basin to the farmers who sell their vegetables in local markets in Toronto or Tegucigalpa, small farmers produce 30% of the world’s food supply and often cover their own consumption.
Many of these producers are poor. Their production methods are precarious. They lack insurance and access to the financial system to protect themselves from natural shocks and price fluctuations. In fact, three-quarters of the people who suffer from hunger are farmers themselves.
However, increasing the production of smallholders and reducing unexpected fluctuations in their production with better technology without environmental considerations can cause accelerated deterioration of the quality of the land, encourage excessive use of water and deforestation.
We risk solving hunger in the short term, but at the cost of greater vulnerabilities and famine in the medium term.
We must design interventions that increase the production and profitability of small producers, protect the environment, reduce poverty and advance food security.
It is not an easy task. The challenge is to find the most efficient and sustainable interventions among the many options available.
A study conducted by 11 researchers from ten institutions studied interventions ranging from economic incentives, environmental conditional transfers or regulatory measures to determine the most effective policies that encourage producers to adopt sustainable agricultural practices.
They used innovative artificial intelligence techniques that allowed them to scan 18,000 articles and analyze 93 of them in depth.
This analysis allowed scientists to find that successful interventions have three characteristics:
The first is that they provide monetary incentives that recognize the costs of preserving the environment and provide short-term profitability to the producer.
Costa Rica provides an interesting example. Its Payment for Environmental Services scheme, which started in 1997, pays the owners of the land that conserve forests.
The program is financed with voluntary contributions from private Costa Rican companies and foreign companies that use greenhouse gas reductions to comply with their regulatory obligations, among other sources.
Thanks to this program, forest cover increased in the country from 20% in 1980 to 50% in 2013.
A second feature is to incorporate differences in farmers’ environmental preferences and thus take advantage of the boost that those with strong environmental preferences can give programs.
In rural communities, it is usual for producers to follow the behavior of their neighbors.
A leader with strong environmental preferences and committed to sustainable agriculture can convince other owners to join the program, despite not being initially aligned with their goals.
A third characteristic highlights the complementarity of State services with technical assistance, extension services, and public goods. And not least, programs must incorporate social objectives.
Small farmers should not be neglected when designing policies, as they play a role in the food security of communities.
Incentives must recognize the short-term costs and sacrifices that they will have to make to protect the environment, increase productivity and profitability in the long term.
Reducing hunger and protecting the environment simultaneously is complex, but not impossible. Resources are required and many. More political will and the use of evidence to design good interventions are needed.
By building on the mistakes, successes, and lessons of past experiences, it is possible to gradually achieve these goals. One thing is for certain, urgency does not wait.