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Can we end poverty and preserve the planet?

June 19, 2018 by Steve Hollingworth


Small-scale farmers in Ghana preparing land for planting (Photo: Grameen Foundation/Nana Kofi Acquah)

How much would ending poverty hurt the environment? This is the provocative question recently posed by researchers from the University of Leeds and the Mercator Research Institute. Put another way, can countries meet the basic human needs of their citizens and preserve our planet for future generations? 

Analyzing the data from 150 countries, the researchers reveal a point of no return: a point at which greater resource use leads to both diminishing social welfare and mounting environmental degradation. Furthermore, they find that no country currently meets the basic needs of its citizens at a globally sustainable level of resource use.

It would be a dismally grim picture, except for one thing: we have a good idea of how to reverse this downward trajectory. One place to start is land-use change, which on a global scale is undermining the healthy functioning of ecosystems upon with human survival depends. A major factor is agriculture: 50 percent of all habitable land on the planet is now under the plough.  Moreover, the conversion of natural habitats to farmland is proceeding most quickly in countries plagued by poverty, where farming practices are often unsustainable. 

Of course, agriculture in more developed economies face their own set of imperatives when it comes to improving resource use and conserving natural resources. However, it is in emerging economies that the intersection of poverty and farming is acute.

Indeed, in the world today, 70 percent of people living in extreme poverty are smallholder farmers who lack the resources to sustainably cultivate high-yielding, marketable and nutritious crops.  Instead, under the twin pressures of poverty and climate change, the soil is farmed until it is worthless, and then more land is cleared to keep on planting.

If we are to meet basic human needs and improve the efficiency of resource use, we need a new agricultural revolution based on sustainable agricultural intensification – growing more on the same area of land while conserving natural resources such as soil, water and crop diversity.  The scale of the challenge has never been larger, but so are the opportunities to meet it.

To succeed, the new agricultural revolution must utilize the same mega-forces driving the global economy overall: big data and digital technology. These are the new agricultural tools, opening the potential for environmentally sound precision agriculture to reach 500 million smallholder farmers who together feed more than a quarter of the global population.

In combination with sophisticated agronomic knowledge and supportive policies, data and digital technology can help farmers access financing, learn new farming techniques, and do business with formal commercial markets, rather than operating invisibly on its margins.

Chronic underfunding of agriculture remains one of the biggest impediments to farmers’ growth and adoption of more sustainable practices. Globally, less than 6 percent of bank lending goes to small-scale farming. In sub-Saharan Africa, smallholder farmers receive less than 1 percent of funding.  With additional funding, farmers could invest in soil health, efficient irrigation, and better equipment to increase their production.

Data and technology can help close this gap to connect farmers to financial institutions. In Kenya, for example, FarmDrive gives lenders detailed credit scoring on smallholder farmers using data gathered from farmers’ mobile phones, alternative data and machine learning. This information gives lenders greater assurance and incentive to work with smallholder farmers, increasing the pool of available credit.

Beyond financing, data is a powerful asset that can also be used to improve farmer outreach and education. Overstretched government agricultural extension officers are typically farmers’ main source for up-to-date advice and support. But it is a lopsided equation with extension officers often being tasked with unrealistic caseloads as high as 3,000 farmers or more per officer.

The spread of mobile technology and the growing availability of rich farm-level data now give us unprecedented opportunities to bring precision agriculture to farmers through public and private extension services. In the Philippines, FarmerLink connects poor coconut farmers to an early warning system, vital agricultural training, financial services and market buyers. Field agents use the tool, which was developed by Grameen Foundation, the Philippines Coconut Authority and private companies, to collect rich, real-time data on farmers and then use that information to provide customized support.

Insights from that data highlighted the need for farmers to strengthen their resilience and mitigate risks by diversifying their crops.  The People’s Bank of Caraga was then able to extend special loans for crop diversification that added cocoa under the canopy of coconut. Farmers also receive personalized alerts, agronomic advice and financial advice via SMS texts that reinforce the training provided by field agents.

Such gains in financing, farmer education and crop diversification must be coupled with increased access to viable markets to ensure sustained growth for smallholder farms. Early successes with mobile sourcing tools demonstrate a viable model for connecting large buyers to farmer groups. Blockchain solutions like BanQu are helping farmers establish formal financial identities, making them more visible to large buyers and able to more fully participate in value chains. Another blockchain solution, Viant, enables suppliers to track produce, end to end, through the food supply chain. This increases transparency for farmers' role in the chain, and, ultimately, their payments.

Smallholder farmers are inextricably tied to the health of our planet. Depleted water tables, polluted rivers and seas and denuded land all directly impact farmers’ livelihoods—and farmers play a crucial role in protecting and restoring our environment. To generate a new greener agricultural revolution, we must ensure they are fully equipped to help lead the charge.

Steve Hollingworth is President and CEO of Grameen Foundation.

This blog was excerpted from a piece first published on Medium on June 5, 2018.