jeffrey sachs on supporting small farmers

A few weeks ago I watched a five-part BBC docu , How Art Shaped the World, which traced the roots of major themes of our modern lives—fascination with the female nude, death, exaggerated beauty—to traditions of the past that found expression in pottery, sculpture, images.

Found myself wondering why these ancient greats– Mesopotamia, Spain, Mexico, Portugal, Egypt– fell short of their promise and have become economic laggards today..  Is it a necessary to go up only to go down again? Egypt, for example, scaled the heights of power and conquest, and now, they’re among the world’s poorest.  My mom went there in 2008 and went home saying the cars on the streets of Cairo were jalopies, worse than in Manila.

 Jon told me to read Jeffrey Sachs’s “The End of Poverty” to understand why the rich countries are rich, and the poor countries poor. Great especially for non-economists.  And it has a foreword by Bono. ;)

Have yet to get a copy of that book, but today I came across Jeffrey Sachs in goodplanet.info, where he makes a case for small farmers and why aid should focus on them: “The G-8’s $20 billion initiative on smallholder agriculture, launched at the group’s recent summit in L’Aquila, Italy, is a potentially historic breakthrough in the fight against hunger and extreme poverty,” adding that combined with other initiatives, it “could be the greatest step so far toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals… to reduce extreme poverty, disease, and hunger by half by 2015.”

Sachs defines “smallholder farmers” as peasant families that work on farms one hectare (10,000 sqm or 2.5 acres) or less in size. To put that into context, Serendra in the Fort is 12.5 hectares in size, equivalent to 12.5 farm households.

It’s not rare to hear someone say that the poor should just stay home or go back to the provinces and plant in their fields—at least they’ll have something to eat and won’t go hungry. Is the solution really as simple as this? Sachs says that:

[Smallholder farmers] are some of the poorest households in the world, and, ironically, some of the hungriest as well, despite being food producers…They are hungry because they lack the ability to buy high-yield seeds, fertilizer, irrigation equipment, and other tools needed to increase productivity. As a result, their output is meager and insufficient for their subsistence. Their poverty causes low farm productivity, and low farm productivity reinforces their poverty. It’s a vicious circle, technically known as a poverty trap.

Getting seed and fertilizer to smallholder farmers at highly subsidized prices (or even free in some cases) will make a lasting difference. Not only will food yields rise in the short term, but farm households will use their higher incomes and better health to accumulate all sorts of assets: cash balances, soil nutrients, farm animals, and their children’s health and education.

That boost in assets will, in turn, enable local credit markets, such as micro-finance, to begin operating. Farmers will be able to buy inputs, either out of their own cash, or by borrowing against their improved creditworthiness.

How serious is this new insight? How relevant is it to us Pinoys, who have so much arable land but so much poor?

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