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Back to the earth: investing in agriculture to fight poverty

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Zenaye Assefa stands in the vegetable garden behind her house in southern Ethiopia. Photo by Sarah Livingston
Zenaye Assefa stands in the vegetable garden behind her house in southern Ethiopia. Photo by Sarah Livingston

It was wet and gray the day last year that Zenaye Assefa showed us her cabbage patch next to her small house in the village of Tuka in southern Ethiopia. The rain had come too late for her other crops—corn and teff, a grain that’s a staple of the Ethiopian diet. Of all the things she told us about that day—her eight children, how she copes during times of drought—it was the garden she seemed most anxious for us to see. It was her patch of security.

Tuka  and the tiny villages that dot the rolling landscape beyond it are the kind of hard-to-reach places that development dollars don’t usually find, places that could benefit from well-considered boosts to local agricultural practices. That’s the message in a new report Oxfam published this week. It calls on governments to make a serious investment in poor farmers to help them combat the effects of climate change and the gyration in food prices that are plunging millions more people into poverty.

Many of the fields around Tuka are rain-fed and when the rains don’t come, people go hungry. Last summer, some families in the area told us they were eating just one meal a day. Assefa’s family was better off than others. She had income from other sources—she sold wood and charcoal—to help put food on the table.

For most of the food crops grown in Ethiopia, farmers depend on Mother Nature to bring them rain. Only about 3 percent of the food crops are produced with the help of irrigation—a troubling statistic in a country plagued by droughts that in some regions are occurring with increasing frequency.  But despite the dozen large river basins that stretch across Ethiopia, irrigation isn’t going to be possible everywhere.

There have to be other solutions that poor farmers can find to bolster their harvests—and not just in Ethiopia, but across Africa. The consequences of climate change are making this an imperative. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that as soon as 2020, climate change could reduce yields from rain-fed crops in parts of Africa by 50 percent, putting millions more people at risk of hunger.

Last summer, Zenaye Assefa seemed grateful that her cabbage patch was thriving.  But how much better would it have been for her—and countless poor farmers nearby—if their corn had grown tall and their teff strong? That answer’s easy. The harder question is when will donors and governments finally realize that one of the best ways to combat poverty is to invest in agriculture, and make it a top priority?

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  1. mad4327@aol.com'Michael

    Zenaye Assefa has eight children! Eight. How can we ever hope to solve the wold’s problems of hunger, pollution, climate change, environmental degradation and scarcity without addressing the population issue? Doed Oxfam have a program or position on overpopulation?

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  2. cborden@u.washington.edu'Catherine

    to Michael —
    Overpopulation takes care of itself when people are lifted out of poverty. Societies where people typically have 8 children are insecure — each mother knows some of her children will die!!! When we change that cruel reality, it will no longer be typical to have 8 children. (And the few people who want to have 8 children will be free to do so.)

    Reply
  3. gerd.schnepel.2043@me.com'Gerd Schnepel

    Dear friends: FAO after decades of “promoting world hunger” as the British “The Ecologist” it once called, is today open to think about and even promote organic agriculture. Last year they did a seminar together with IFOAM – http://www.ifoam.org – where FAO confirmed that eco-agriculture CAN FEED the world. And the UN comittee IAASTD with its more than a hundred scientists of the whole world came to the result that organic agriculture will be an important contribution or solution for food security etc.

    Therefore I wonder, why Oxfam and similar great organizations do not mention, promote, foster, shout … ORGANIC AGRICULTURE all the time, when they speak about hunger and food and environment and health and energy questions etc. If you could finally do that, it would help a lot!

    Saludos, Gerd, Nicaragua

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  4. errrhed@aol.com'Sue

    Shoot Michael – there’s people in the USA who had a whole pile of kids. They just live on welfare – costing us taxpayers money. And they have ACCESS to birth control. The women in Africa mostly do NOT. Aid Relief Charities are all working to provide clinics in Africa and other developing countries to educate and provide methods of birth control that we so take for granted in USA UK and other industrialised nations. So quit blaming world hunger on the African people.

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  5. cellostories@yahoo.com'Toni Gross

    Read the book LATE VICTORIAN HOLOCAUSTS (I can’t remember the author). In the last 25 years of the 19th Century El Nino drought occurred all around a climatic belt. 25 million people starved. There was no need. There was enough food, but the poor starved disproportionately. In the past centuries, people had community granaries to deal with drought times. But these 25 million people starved because financial systems made fair distribution impossible.

    Even if we are inclined to be fatalistic and think “I’m not in trouble thank God” or “There’s nothing I can do.” We need to realize that all of us are affected by these neglects of human needs. Disorganized, disintegrating nations with millions of people on the move, fighting for resources, will affect the safety and welfare of all of us RICH and POOR. We are all in this difficult time together and we will all sink unless we work together. Population can be controlled by more humanitarian means than allowing millions of people to starve!

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