Reduction in Hunger and Poverty

The interconnections among hunger, poverty, and agriculture are manifold and complex. If one divides agriculture into commercial or industrial agriculture and subsistence agriculture, the latter—producing enough food to meet basic needs—is often equated with hunger and poverty. While the number of people in urban areas who live in poverty and are hungry has been on the rise for several decades, a wide majority of those who are poor and hungry are trying to get by on subsistence agriculture. Figure 10 is one measure of this prevalence, showing for example that in countries where more than 35 percent of the population is undernourished, almost 70 percent of the population is employed in agriculture.

If agricultural productivity could be improved, it would have beneficial effects on both hunger and poverty worldwide. There is, of course, a good deal of active research aimed at improving agricultural productivity—especially in developing countries. Much of the improvement available from Green Revolution technologies, however, comes from hybrid seeds (for annual monoculture farming) and from fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. But most subsistence agriculture in the world does not use these technologies. In fact, it often qualifies as organic simply because the farmer lacks the money to buy fertilizer, pesticides, or genetically modified seeds.

Figure 10

Agriculture and Undernourishment

Dependence on agriculture and undernourishment

20-34

Figure 10

Agriculture and Undernourishment

Dependence on agriculture and undernourishment

20-34

10 20 30 40 50 60

Share of agriculture in total employment (percentage)

10 20 30 40 50 60

Share of agriculture in total employment (percentage)

SOURCE: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Millennium Development Goal No. 1: Mobilizing Resources to Halve World Hunger, FAO, Rome, Italy, 2005. Used with permission. As of April 13, 2007: http://www.fao.org/documents/show_cdr. asp?url_file=/docrep/008/a0076e/a0076e00.htm.

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Depending on the reasons for poor agricultural productivity, then, perennial polycultures could improve productivity and help reduce both hunger and poverty. The common causes for the failure of agricultural productivity to provide sufficient nourishment are poor soil; erosion; lack of money for seeds (especially the hybrid seeds of modern agriculture), fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; and poor irrigation/drought. Perennial polyculture agriculture could help in all of these areas.

Poor soil is common in developing countries with high levels of hunger and poverty (see Figures 5 and 6). Perennial polycultures could produce food crops while actually adding nitrogen to the soil. Soil erosion through water and wind erosion are also common problems in poor countries (see Figures 3 and 4). Perennial polycultures could produce food while stabilizing the soil year-round against both water and wind erosion. If the cost of hybrid seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, etc. is a problem, perennial polycultures could at least reduce the costs of seeds (because a year's worth of seeds will produce for several years rather than just one), fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and other farming equipment (see Reduced Energy Use below), making increased productivity less expensive. Finally, lack of water is another common factor in poor agricultural productivity. Figure 8 shows a general measure of water availability for all purposes, and Figure 11 shows how much freshwater is used in the agricultural sectors worldwide. Perennial polycultures could increase agricultural productivity through more efficient use of available water.

Typically, the individual problems related to agricultural productivity in subsistence agriculture are all present in cases of hunger and poverty. Therefore, the potential contribution of perennial polycultures to subsistence agriculture is all the more significant. Perennial polycultures bring the promise of producing more food at less cost for the poorest and hungriest in the world. According to one report:

Evidence consistently shows that agricultural growth is highly effective in reducing poverty. It has been reported that every 1% increase in per capita agricultural output led to a 1.6% increase in the incomes of the poorest 20% of the population. Another study concluded from a major cross-country analysis that, on average, every 1% increase in agricultural yields reduced the number of people living on less than a dollar a day by 0.83%.18

There is one additional advantage of perennial polycultures over annual monocultures in areas of hunger and poverty—perennial polycultures are "scale neutral." That is, annual monocultures work most efficiently on a large scale, but perennial polycultures work well at any scale, from small family farm to large open prairie. This factor makes them particularly adaptable to parts of the world that could most benefit from their other strengths.

18 Calestous Juma, ed., Going for Growth: Science, Technology and Innovation in Africa, The Smith Institute, London, 2005, p. 75. As of April 13, 2007: http://bcsia.ksg.harvard.edu/BCSIA_content/documents/ GoingforGrowth_AMENDEDFINAL.pdf. The studies mentioned are J. Gallup, S. Radelet, and A. Warner, "Economic Growth and the Income of the Poor," CAER II discussion paper, No. 36, Harvard Institute for International Development, 1997; C. Thirtle, X. Irz, L. Lin, V. McKenzie-Hill, and S. Wiggins, Relationship Between Changes in Agricultural Productivity & the Incidence of Poverty in Developing Countries, report commissioned by the Department for International Development, London, 2001.

Figure 11

Worldwide Freshwater Agriculture Usage

Figure 11

Worldwide Freshwater Agriculture Usage

SOURCE: United Nations Environment Programme, Vital Water Graphics: An Overview of the State of the World's Fresh and Marine Waters, UNEP, Nairobi, Kenya, 2002. Used with permission. As of April 13, 2007: http://www.unep.org/vitalwater/15.htm.

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SOURCE: United Nations Environment Programme, Vital Water Graphics: An Overview of the State of the World's Fresh and Marine Waters, UNEP, Nairobi, Kenya, 2002. Used with permission. As of April 13, 2007: http://www.unep.org/vitalwater/15.htm.

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