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Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum)

The Role of Agriculture in Eradicating Extreme Poverty

This is an attempt to offer a higher-level framework that may be freely fleshed out by different levels of authority to suit their particular conditions with respect to the available resources like people’s know-how, material and financial resources, political realities, and not the least, local soil and climatic conditions and their food culture.
First of all, it will be useful to look at what possibilities agriculture could offer in real life to alleviate extreme poverty among a given group, and to what extent they could be expected to succeed on the ground. At this point, another problem faces us at once, viz., can the extremely poor with their present skills successfully make use of the resources that may be made available to them to improve their lives?
Once again, our lack of consensus on a sound definition of poverty becomes the greatest stumbling block to progress. I have consistently rejected the untenable notion of ‘measuring’ poverty in monetary terms. It may seem facetious to say, “you can’t eat Dollars and hope to live.”, but this is the implied belief of every poverty measurer who uses the Dollar tape to measure human deprivation.
Let us admit the obvious at the expense of unjustifiable inherited notions of poverty, just as many a supernatural belief has been consigned to history books. Poverty represents deprivation of any one or more of our six fundamental needs, viz., nutrition, health, education and security in their inclusive sense, procreation, and a set of non-material needs. They are non-material, because satisfying them does not entail any material gain, æsthetic appreciation of literature, music, art, sports and games, entertainment, etc., are example of this.
Now, when one is extremely poor, it implies extreme derprivation with respect to any one or more fundamental needs. It is here that a major difficulty arises, for if faced with a great difficulty to meet any one of the first four needs, i.e., nutrition, health, education and security, its ill effects adversely affect one’s ability to meet the three remaining needs.
Let us begin with nutrition. A malnourished person is often predisposed to contracting a variety of diseases, finds it difficult to acquire know-how, and is both tempted to steal food thus threatening someone’s security, and is unable to do much to ensure the collective security of a social group. As one is increasingly deprived of the possibility of adequately satisfying one of those four needs, one becomes correspondingly unable to satisfy the remaining three needs. When this evil has happened, it is impossible to ascertain with any degree of tenability what deprivation triggered off the final state of misery and squalor.
Agriculture emerges here as one of the vital means of ameliorating not only nutritional deprivation, but becoming a useful tool to enable people to meet the three other crucial needs, viz., health, education and security. However, while good nutrition offers many health benefits, its impact on our ability to satisfy our educational and security needs are indirect. It is crucial to understand this and act accordingly, for adequate satisfaction of each of those four needs is a necessary condition for being able to satisfy the other three. This is a logical fact that cannot be questioned by justifiable argument.
Indirect satisfaction of a need involves mediation of an exchange of values like trade as an enabling method. For instance, one may sell some of one’s agricultural produce, catch in the case of a fisherman, etc., to get money to purchase what one needs to meet some of one’s health and educational needs. Tax from such income would enable some central authority to ensure general security while individual may take care of some security issues like that from inclemencies of the weather (shelter and clothing) at one’s own expense.
I have gone on about this to underline the unavoidable necessity of having to address at least four of our fundamental needs simultaneously if we are to make a significant impression on extreme poverty. As action of FAO and its affiliates is primarily directed at nutrition via agricultural pursuits, I will devote most of the following comments to nutrition, but would make some observations on how it may facilitate improving the people’s ability to satisfy the three other fundamental needs through the mediation of its sister organisations.
I will take up the latter first even though both lines of approach ought to be pursued synchronously if optimal results are to be achieved. While the nuts and bolts of the actual field work needs careful assessment for its relevance and appropriateness, one can still envisage some pathways FAO might explore to ensure its efforts in food production and wasteless consumption are either much enhanced or made at all possible. For instance, in some cases where lack of security is acute, no progress in agricultural production may be made until and unless that issue has been resolved even though wide-spread abject poverty and starvation may prevail in affected areas.
Perhaps, FAO ought to be more proactive in its work with the UN even though the current procedures may limit its possibilities. In any event, as general security has a major impact on food production and related pursuits, and as food supplies criss cross the world, it is in every country’s interest to underline this, and take some pragmatic action to secure peace.
I know that the WHO and FAO closely cooperate to combat diseases connected with diverse forms of malnutrition, and especially the so-called NCD’s. However, this cooperation would be even more fruitful if it would be extended, because malnutrition at its earlier states often makes its victims predisposed to many kinds of disease including infections and parasitic infestations owing to their reduced resistence to them. Such inabilities makes it difficult for the already poor to engage in agricultural work or acquire new skills.
It requires no expensive ‘research’ to know that the agricultural skills among the extremely poor is often rather limited. FAO in conjunction with UNESCO may launch relevant and appropriate training programmes to raise the target group’s agricultural skill level. However, no training scheme will succeed unless the trainees receive a decent diet during their training. Hungry and malnourished ‘students’ are beyond pedagogic theories, while full bellies would often make them receptive learners. It would be salutary to remember that successful cultivation of earth requires down-to-earth programmes.
Two other areas that would repay the FAO in the present endeavor are cooperation with the World Bank/IMF in order to secure very low interest loans for the extremely poor to procure the necessary land and other requisites for agricultural pursuits. Here, cooperative enterprise rather than competitive trade should be adopted in order to avoid dog-eat-dog competition that characterizes what is called agro-business in the developed nations, where deserted farms and monoculture seem to prevail. After all, it is obvious trade competition would result in losers i.e., poverty-stricken farmers, something the current effort is designed to avoid.
It is not very obvious how FAO might enable the target group to obtain secure land tenure, which is a prime necessity here. I believe all international bodies should work in unison to encourage countries to institute an enforceable legal framework to guarantee the land and other rights of those engaged in agricultural activities. In some areas, this is of crucial importance, while in others, some progress has been made.
Our last necessary condition for successful application of agriculture to benefit the extremely poor is the improvement of suitable infra-structure and availability of appropriate and relevant technology. Let me emphasise that the last item does not involve the so-called ‘cutting-edge’ or the latest implements or electronic gadgetry. It is far more important to build a sustainable irrigation installations, provide crops and animals suited to a given climate, soil and local food tradition than to spend money on an expensive network of transmitters to provide cellular telephnony to youth who are often functionally illiterate.
Most people might find the foregoing very obvious, but even a casual look at a considerable number of efforts to render agricultural pursuits means of earning a decent income for both rural youth as well as others, have failed to meet our expectations precisely because they have not paid sufficient attention to the above necessities or because they have overlooked the vital importance of relevance and appropriateness of the methods used.
Now that we have cleared the ground of most important disabling factors, let me concentrate on activities directly connected with agricultural pursuits which may be used to help the extremely poor towards better living conditions. Provided that adequate resources are available, the envisaged activities should conform to the following requirements as much as possible if a successful result is to be achieved. Here, success will be measured according to its sustainability and its qualitative impact on the life of the target group.
First of all, we need to ascertain certain facts before undertaking concrete action in order to ensure that they have a reasonable chance of helping the very poor in a meaningful way. The following is a non-exhaustive check-list to be used to screen the suitability of the target groups and the agricultural pursuits proposed:
1. Location of the target group; obviously, extremely poor slum-dwellers in big cities will have no access to sufficient grow-areas to engage in agriculture per se, but they might be assisted to engage in retailing agricultural produce on a cooperative basis provided that they are protected from being bought out by some chain of retailers. Here, ‘free-trade’ really frees the poor from any chance of earning a decent living by trade. Whenever it is appropriate, small family run restaurants/cafes/bistros, etc., where home-cooked hot meals may be sevved at a reasonable price.
2. Procurement of produce by such small retailers and cooked-food outlets should be linked as directly as possible with the food producers. Farm and fisherman’s cooperatives seems to offer the ideal choice, for it avoids the long middlemen-chain, thus ensuring a fair price to the food producers and end-users, and enables the retailers earn a decent living. Moreover, it gives the food producer the power to dispose of his produce through a fair exchange of values, and avoid delays. These two lines of action assume a reasonable level of security, a sufficiently adequate transport system, and financial and other resources needed for the purpose.
3. In order to counter waste of food due to spoilage in transist or storage, it is often necessary to preserve some food items before storage and transport. I suggest as much of this ought to be undertaken on or near where the food is produced, so that such facilities could provide a source of employment for the local poor. As for preservation methods used, one should be careful to use technology familiar to most such as drying, salting, smoking, etc, which are often required by the local food culture. Such methods are effective and inexpensive, and easy to learn and improve. Moreover, their storage does not require costly regrigerated installations that entail expensive running- and maintenance costs.
This is not to deprecate the value of freezing and refrigeration as sound methods of food preservation. But, if we wish to stay down-to-earth and recall the skill levels of the very poor, what resources are actually available, it will be agreed that a combination of simple time-proven methods of preservation and quick transport are a more realistic way forward. Transport of non-perishable items ought to prefer water and rail transport owing to their great advantages over road transport, as they can often employ the relatively unskilled poor.
4. After this sketch of food distribution, transport and preservation, we come to its production. Stating the obvious, unless the three above conditions are satisfactory, pfood production cannot succeed in enabling us towards our goal. At this point, I will reject the idea of concentrating on cash-crops for the extremely poor cannot improve their lives just by having an income from such crops, because a balanced diet they need for the purpose will have to be grown/harvested somewhere, and not enough food is produced in countries where expreme poverty is endemic.
5. Before we proceed to food production/harvesting, it is vital to establish a reliable link between food outlets and producers/harvesters like fishermen. If we wish to achieve our goal, the purpose of such a link would be provide information that benefit three groups of people, viz., end-users, food outlets and the producers/harvesters. They will be benefited if they can engage in a fair exchange in values and not by competition where some well-informed producers try to exploit the demand for food for higher prices rather than sharing a given demand more or less fairly among all the producers of the same item. This unfair practice is precisely what promoters of rapid ‘market information’ advocate through the use of cellular phones and software by the rural poor! This merely adapting the high-tech methods of agro-business that has led to abject poverty among the rural farmers in the first place.
6. Therefore, I suggest the establishment of independent national and regional market monitoring bodies that could advice the production cooperatives on what is needed and where. They do not have to have huge bureaucracies, and local people could beconsulted often on their food needs and the availability of dietary items. A walk down the lanes of a town or a village is often more informative about its food needs than the most sophisticated ‘market-theory’ predictions.
7. Once the sustainable food production/harvesting appropriate for an area has been ascertained, the next step would be to ensure a reliable mode of financing the actual work. Naturally, how much is needed here, depends on the following:
I. Relevant and appropriate equipment, training, types of seed and animals needed to initiate the action.
II. Construction of storage, processing, irrigation, etc., facilities required.
III. Cost of infra-structural improvements.
IV. Support period needed before a project could become self-sustaining.
V. Enforceable anti-corruption measures.

Once we have come this far, it remains to select the participants and assign them to roles for which they have some aptitude before initial training begins in earnest. Here, I am convinced that formal education is an advantage, but it is not essential for the work in hand. The poor are eager to leave their poverty behind, and concrete action that yields results within a reasonable time, is what is needed to attract and retain them in their jobs.
On-the-job vocational training could be supplemented by formal education for few hours twice a week, or as often as it does not interfere with job training. It may prove motivating to teach them that agricultural pursuits are among the most important things a person could do, and it it deserves real respect unlike many a vaunted profession.
In the discussion so far, many contributors have made suggestions applicable at the ground level. However, it is important to ascertain their relevance and appropriateness to the people and the place involved before they are taken up. What I have tried to do is to outline a possible way of using them in a holistic manner. I hope it would be of some use.

Best wishes!
Lal Manavado.