March 15, 2013

Roger Thurow - Outrage and Inspire - GIVE PEAS A CHANCE

This post by senior fellow Roger Thurow originally appeared on the Outrage and Inspire blog. 


Give Peas a Chance

As the ballots were being counted in the recent Kenya election, I saw photos of people displaying the encouraging message: Give Peace a Chance.  So far, that sentiment seems to be holding.

Equally important for the future of the country is this imperative message for the new government: Give Peas a Chance.  And Maize.  And Beans.  And Sweet Potatoes.  And Millet.  And Sorghum.  And Peanuts.

The planting season is at hand in many parts of Kenya, and a good agriculture season should be a top priority for the government.  The violence that followed the previous nationwide election in 2007 displaced many smallholder farmers and disrupted the planting season, which would result in significantly reduced harvests.  I traveled with Josette Sheeran, who was then the executive director of the World Food Program, as she spoke with the leaders of the quarrelling parties.  The visit came in the throes of the 2007-2008 food crisis, when global stockpiles of major crops were shrinking and prices were skyrocketing; Ms. Sheeran was scrambling mightily to procure enough food, on a limited budget, to feed the increasing number of hungry people.  The last thing she needed to worry about was feeding displaced farmers in Kenya, a country that ought to be able to feed itself.

After touring camps of displaced farmers, who should have been tending their fields, Ms. Sheeran had a curt message to the political leaders about the violence their disputes had unleashed: Knock it off, and get your agriculture back on track.

Agriculture is key to Kenya’s economic growth and social stability.  The majority of the population lives in rural areas, and most of those people are smallholder farmers.  These farmers produce the majority of the country’s food.

Thus, the new government’s main concern should be dealing with a maize disease that had been spreading through the western region of Kenya, threatening production in one of the country’s breadbaskets.  The virus bears a frightening name: maize lethal necrosis disease.  Carried by insects, it dries up leaves and stunts cobs, damaging the country’s staple crop.

The disease was on a rapid advance in the second half of last year, demanding a decisive response by the government and the agriculture industry to work on resistant varieties and get those seeds from the labs into the hands of the farmers.  At the same time, the maize disease presented an opportunity to promote crop diversity that would be good for the farmers’ diets, good for their income, good for their soils.  Improved resilience would be the silver lining.

When I visited them in January, the smallholder farmers of western Kenya featured in the book The Last Hunger Season were pondering their options.  Other grains like millet and sorghum have strong markets and would provide income.  Sweet potatoes and cassava would help with food security.  Beans, peas and greens would assure varied nutrition.

“We must adjust,” said Rasoa Wasike, one of the farmers.  Her husband Cyrus, who had become a field officer for the social enterprise organization One Acre Fund, agreed.  “We can’t stick with maize only,” he said.  “Our ancestors used to eat these other crops, so we will just go back to those habits.  We want our families, our children, to know these different meals rather than always chasing the price of maize.”

It would be good to have choices, he said.  “That is what will save us this year.”

As planting time nears, the farmers wait for rain and pray for peace.  In Kenya, both are needed to help the seeds take root and the crops to flourish.

About

The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

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Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

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Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

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