In 1978, India became a net grain exporter after adopting green revolution miracle seeds and rapidly expanding land under irrigation, yet 230 million people in India today remain malnourished, and malnutrition accounts for 50% of child deaths. How can it be that a country like India, which has produced a surplus in grain crops for more than thirty years, still has 230 million hungry people?
While increasing food production in India was successful in eliminating regular devastating famines, it did little to eradicate extreme poverty, which underlies chronic malnutrition. The fact is that the root cause of food insecurity is extreme poverty, not just shortfalls in food production. When very poor people find ways to grow their income, they buy the food they need and the market finds ways to bring it to them more efficiently than disaster relief or food distribution programs. The most direct way to end food insecurity is to help very poor rural people increase their income from farming.
Most of the 800 million or so hungry people in the world today live in poor rural areas in developing countries and earn their living from one-acre farms. They are strongly motivated to grow enough rice, wheat or corn to feed their families for the whole year, but most of them don’t have enough land, or the right kind of land to eliminate their hunger. So they and their families live on one meal a day or less for three or four months while they wait for the next rice crop to come in. My colleagues and I at International Development Enterprises (IDE) have had good results helping small farmers improve their food production with simple strategies like poking a hole in the ground with a stick between rice plants, and putting a sustained release capsule of urea in the hole. Adopting new approaches like SRI (System for Rice Intensification) can help even more.
But even if they have enough land, water and money to invest in fertilizer to produce a surplus of grain, selling it on the market is a loser’s bet for a small farmer- crops like rice rarely produce net income of more than $200 an acre, and most dollar a day farmers only have one acre to work with.
If a poor one acre farmer in India is in a position to plant an acre of rice and sell it, he might earn $200 net.
If that same farmer instead decides instead to grow drip irrigated, labor-intensive off-season fruits, vegetable and, spices, they can regularly earn $1,000 after expenses from a quarter acre. This is more than enough to buy all the food the family needs, and move out of poverty and into the middle class.
My friends at IDE and I have seen this happen thousands of times. To make it happen, it takes a whole new approach to small farm agriculture, new research to optimize it, and a last-mile private sector mass dissemination and training initiative.
If we have the courage to do it, I have no doubt that at least a hundred million of the 230 million hungry people now in India, and their brothers and sisters in other developing countries, can end their food insecurity forever.
IDE Visits Veronica’s Zambian Farm
I believe that ending extreme poverty can have a greater positive impact on the environment than just about anything else we can do.
If 1 billion or more of the very poor people on the planet could move out of poverty, world population would probably stabilize at 7 billion instead of the 9 billion experts predict. Just about all of the 3 billion new people expected on earth will be born in families that go hungry two or three months a year and feel the need for big families to survive economically. When they earn enough to move into the middle class, the perceived survival value of big families usually falls away.
What impact do large poor families have on the environment? Although they directly consume much less than rich people, their carbon footprint is surprisingly high.
In 2006, the World Food Program distributed 4 million metric tons of food to 87.8 million poor people in 78 countries. Consider the carbon footprint of growing 4 million tons of food, transporting it to 78 countries, and transporting, housing and feeding the army of experts who supervise its distribution. Now add the carbon footprint required to regularly distribute food and water to regions in chronic deficit, like China’s Yellow River Basin and India’s Deccan Plateau. In Mumbai alone, 79 water tankers made 222 trips daily this year to deliver water to poor people during the dry season. Add to this the carbon footprint of the $100 billion we spend each year in futile massive development projects, and a picture begins to emerge on the impact of poverty on carbon emissions and climate change.
But the impact of poverty on the environment goes far beyond climate change.
Poverty and Loss of Biodiversity are Joined at the Hip
What happens to many endangered species of animals? Poor people who live next to the nature preserves in the world’s 21 key critical biodiversity regions hunt them and eat them. Providing attractive income-generating alternatives to hunting and slash and burn agriculture for poor people living next to nature preserves is one of the most successful strategies for maintaining the biodiversity of the planet.
A Root Cause of War and Conflict
Poverty is an obvious root cause of conflicts ranging from the Chinese revolution to the genocide in Rwanda to the civil war in Sudan. War in turn produces profound environmental degradation and renewed cycles of poverty and conflict. Helping a billion extremely poor people move out of poverty would decrease the incidence of conflict and war and help preserve the environmental balance of the planet.
Because of its central role in population growth, climate change, loss of biodiversity and conflict, implementing practical solutions to extreme poverty is probably the first place to start if you want to make a significant contribution to preserving the environmental balance of the planet.
Practical solutions to extreme poverty already exist. If organizations like IDE and the Grameen Bank have helped some 40 million extremely poor people move out of poverty, what’s stopping us from scaling up the market driven approaches that can do the same for a billion people?
By Paul Polak
The following is from a dialogue from Snakalp 2010 on the social enterprise this was the second segment of a two part video.
To watch full video visit Beyond Profit’s Vimeo profile.