Can agriculture help eradicate poverty?

Dhruv lives in Southern India where he is a farmer. He owns 3.2 acres of land; however, his life is filled with uncertainty about basic needs such as feeding his family. Dhruv has been fighting to pull himself out of poverty and provide a better living standard for his family. He has had to face many hard choices, such as choosing between healthcare for his family and education for his children. Besides inheriting the farm from his parents, Dhruv is illiterate and has no other skills other than farming. His life depends on agriculture.

Agriculture provides much more than food. It offers livelihood, essential commodities, environmental services and social goods that facilitate economic development, industrialization and diversification.

Agriculture provides much more than food. It offers livelihood, essential commodities, environmental services and social goods that facilitate economic development, industrialization and diversification.

The importance of agriculture?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FOA) more than ‘1 billion people are employed in world agriculture’. The World Bank states that 78% of the world’s poor live in rural areas and depend on agriculture to make a living. The agricultural sector is labour intensive and requires relatively low skill levels so is very effective in helping to provide jobs to the poor and ill-educated. Agricultural development has a major impact on the welfare of these people.

Dhruv was able to improve his family’s living standard by contacting a company that sold him genetically modified (GM) seeds. Dhruv became a model farmer within his village because he was able to increase his overall net profit. His yields increased and he was able to provide healthcare and a proper education for his family. Many neighboring farmers decided to follow Dhruv’s footsteps to better their own lives.

Can agriculture help abolish poverty?

The World Bank argues that agricultural development and its finance ‘is one of the most powerful tools to end extreme poverty, boost shared prosperity and feed 9 billion people by 2050’. Agriculture can empower poor farmers to increase their wealth and food production. The FOA explains that rural poverty reduction has been achieved through rapid economic growth, but it is not a solution. Many developing nations fail to adopt persistent policies that strengthen rural infrastructure, agricultural productivity, and social services in order to reduce poverty.

Poverty-stricken: A farmer sits on his barren land in Punjab.

Poverty-stricken: A farmer sits on his barren land in Punjab.

Dhruv noticed it had not rained in over a week and he prayed for rain. The country was going through an unusually dry season that affected his crops. Many farmers despair due to hotter dryer seasons followed by overly wet stormy seasons, which make farming difficult. They know that something in the weather is changing, though they are ignorant of the causes of climate change. In addition, Dhruv and other farmers noticed that their land had become exhausted, less able to sustain growth of crops from non-GM seeds, and more and more fertilizer was required to make crops grow. Throughout his experiments with GM-seeds, Dhruv found that his yields ultimately return to their original levels, but through over farming his land and increasing use of chemical fertilizers, his land has become less fertile. He has effectively been slowly poisoning it.

What are the challenges?

The World Bank states that trying to abolish poverty through agriculture can be challenging as it ‘has to be met against a backdrop of food price volatility and over-stretched resources’. Climate change threatens agriculture with declining yields. In an article published in The Guardian, Fiona Harvey states yields are ‘set to fall by 6% for every 1C rise in temperature’. The World Bank explains that the only way to increase yields sustainability would be to enhance resilience and increase productivity while ‘promoting agricultural innovation through research and education’. Whilst this sounds admirable, these words usually mean large seed manufacturers grabbing market share through modified seed, which only increase yields in the short-term with the use of chemical fertilizers whilst poisoning the land in the long term.

It would seem that the general consensus on the growth of agriculture is somewhat simplistic, as there are other forces at play. First, smaller farmers increasingly have to compete against larger, more mechanized competitors, usually in the guise of multinationals. Second, as smaller farms become more mechanized the number of jobs that can be created for the poor and ill-educated decreases.

Whilst in the short-term the development of the agricultural sector will create jobs and raise some out of poverty, developing nations need to keep an eye on the medium- to long-term, where the challenges we mention above and others will eventually marginalize small farmers, and reverse job creation for the poor and ill-educated.

Once Dhruv began his drive to increase yields of his crops he was trapped. Going back would mean leaving his land fallow for many years to allow it to recover, which is not an option as he relies on it as his source of income. Going forward means going into debt to buy more costly seeds and fertilizers, which will eventually lead to him taking out loans and then defaulting on them.

We see that agriculture can be a driver for growth in developing nations that helps alleviate poverty for hundreds of millions. However, in the rush to drive job creation, many are taking advantage by knowingly adding to a problem that will increasingly create acute health issues, reduce future prospects in the sector, and create shortages of better trained people for tomorrow’s jobs. There are better ways to create jobs in agriculture, but at the same time not damage our world, kill or harm people and ensure better future prospects. Unfortunately, no one country can do it alone. It needs international co-operation.

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About the Author

Valentina is passionate in expressing her voice through her writing, which she hopes will have a social impact. She grew up as a third culture kid that always fought for what is right and achieved a BA Hons. in International Business in order to understand the business world more clearly and leave a possible mark on society. Currently she is working for an ethical start-up company called Chanzez. Chanzez has been set up to provide people with chances whether they are people who design clothes, people who work to make clothes or people who want to be able to buy ethically produced clothes.

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