Editor's Note: This column appeared in the Omaha World-Herald.
Howard Buffett, a featured speaker at the 2010 National No-Tillage Conference, farms 2,600 acres in Illinois. He is a past chairman of the Nebraska Ethanol Board. His foundation funds projects focusing on agriculture and nutrition in more than 38 countries. He is a United Nations ambassador against hunger.
African farmers and American producers have different motivations and face unique challenges, but they are crucial to global food security and negatively affected by misinformation and innuendo that shape the current debates on how to feed the future.
Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people derive their livelihoods by farming small plots of land. These resource-poor farmers typically farm fewer than 3 acres. They are vulnerable to hunger periods, experience post-harvest losses, depend on family labor, lack access to extension services and may be net buyers of food.
With limited access to affordable inputs, they use slash-and-burn to access new, fertile soil when topsoil is depleted. This cycle occurs every few years and yields temporary benefits. However, these techniques consume and degrade natural resources.
Commercial farmers, on the other hand, use both family and hired labor, utilize new technology, have access to improved seeds, benefit from extension services and are net sellers of food. They typically depend on synthetic inputs to maintain regular yields and face increased pressure to reduce their environmental footprint. Commercial farmers usually have access to storage facilities, markets, credit, land title, crop insurance, infrastructure and favorable government policies.
Both groups are crucial to reducing global hunger. This is the rub for some critics. It is popular to simultaneously romanticize poor farmers and attack commercial production.