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Earlier today I presented a keynote speech at the World Food Prize 2012 Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines, Iowa. I'd like to share with you some of what I had to say about smallholder farmers and the important role they must play in feeding the world. 

Today, our fragile and beautiful Earth is home to seven billion people. Over the next 30 years, two, maybe three billion more will join us. The global food system is struggling. Food prices peaked in 2008 and peaked again a few months ago, sparking riots and export bans. Land grabs, increasing oil prices, biofuel development, food production and distribution failures, disturbing water shortages are converging and reshaping our world and the very character of poverty and hunger.

All these forces are contributing to the distressing spike in malnutrition and poverty around the world.

The world needs smallholder farmers

But to the good, the G8, G2O, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Economic Forum and others have rediscovered the critical importance of agriculture and are all promising—through public-private partnerships—to do more for smallholder farmers. We laud these decisions—smallholder farmers are the best change agents we have to help feed this hungry world. Let me explain.

Heifer International is helping lead what has been called the livestock revolution. We are working to reach a rapidly growing group of smallholder farmers, mostly women, to inspire agroecological productivity, biodiversity, financial security and health to create the surplus needed to feed the world.

There are 650 million smallholder farmers in the world and 50 to 80 percent of them are women! They grow the majority of the food eaten every day. By doubling their productivity, they can help feed the world. And we will need these 300+ million women to feed us all.

Smallholder farmers in Zambia

Along with this, we need to take advantage of new plant technologies, and spread as rapidly as possible best practices, which can double or triple yields. We also need more and better public-private partnerships to advance agriculture to help meet global needs in food security. They can open access to finance and technology and link smallholders to markets. By combining strengths, partners can all make better progress than by working on their own.

By using the greatest asset in agricultural development—the smallholder farmer—along with the best seeds, the best plants, judicious use of a range of fertilizers and wise husbandry, we can increase yields by factors of three or four. Also, rethinking subsidies for biofuel could free up vast acreage for human food production, which we know we need.

Overcoming these challenges will require new thinking, new collaborations, new openness ... understanding that all successful agricultural public-private partnerships should lead to win-win situations that benefit farmers. Recent studies suggest that improvements in national incomes tied to agricultural growth have been underestimated. In truth, few countries have achieved increased prosperity without equivalent growth in agriculture.

So, what does that mean? It means that successful poverty elimination utilizes market-driven development and depends strongly on deeply embedded social engagement.

But let’s be clear on one thing—something we learned at Heifer International a long time ago: Economic growth and community development cannot be separated. They must go hand in hand.

Come back to the Heifer Blog tomorrow to learn more about how economic and community development must be done together.


Pierre Ferrari

Pierre Ferrari is president and CEO of Heifer International. Pierre is very passionate about empowering the families and communities with whom Heifer works: “It took me decades, but I have come to know that the only way to happiness and joy is to be of service to others.” Pierre’s other joys are his wife, Kim, his two sons and two stepdaughters. In his free time he enjoys golf, squash, reading and travel.