Anyone walking through Prashant Thakare’s freshly planted cotton field in the central Indian village of Takarakhede Shambhu could easily mistake a 65-ft.-wide pool of murky water for, well, a pool of murky water. Yet that simple pond has transformed Thakare’s 22-acre farm and, indeed, his life.
Thakare, like nearly all the farmers in this arid region of Vidarbha in the state of Maharashtra, is dependent on India’s annual monsoon to provide the water necessary to grow his cotton and soybeans. A failed monsoon meant disaster. Without the rain, the crops withered, and so did his primary source of income. Every year, all Thakare could do as the midyear planting season approached was wait and hope that the monsoon would deliver enough rain so he could support his family.
Then came the pond. The local government sent a construction team to Thakare’s farm last year to dig the 10-ft.-deep pond, financing the $600 investment with funds from a new program to support local agriculture. Strategically located in the path of runoff rainwater, the pond a common feature of rural-resource management collects water from the monsoon rains that would otherwise have just been wasted. By capturing and storing rainwater, the pond helps to fill the farm’s wells. With a more reliable supply of water, Thakare’s productivity soared. Not only did he plant his usual summer cotton crop last year, but he also had enough water to grow an entirely new crop of sunflowers during the winter. The pond, he says, helped double his usual output of lentils as well. The added sales put an extra $1,000 in his pocket, which he saved as a nest egg for his two children. “I feel that my life is secure,” says Thakare, 36. “You don’t worry about what will happen in the future.”
With so much yield for so few bucks, it might seem surprising that Indian authorities hadn’t dug Thakare a pond long before now. But small farmers like Thakare have been neglected for much of the past three decades and not only in India. Throughout the developing world, agriculture was the also-ran of the global economy. Governments equated economic progress with steel mills and shoe factories. While urban centers thrived and city dwellers got rich, hundreds of millions of farmers remained mired in poverty. Agriculture in many developing nations stagnated.
Now the farm is back. Fears of food shortages, a rethinking of antipoverty priorities and the crushing recession are causing a dramatic shift in world economic policy in favor of greater support for agriculture. Farmers like Thakare are being showered with more aid and investment by governments and development agencies than they have in decades in a renewed global quest for food security and rural development. The effort is still in its early stages, and some promises made have yet to be translated into real results. Some programs already in place may prove to be flawed. But a new commitment to agriculture by the global community is clearly emerging. The latest G-8 summit of the world’s largest economies, held in Italy in July, declared “there is an urgent need for decisive action to free humankind from hunger” and, citing the sector’s perennial neglect, pledged $20 billion for agriculture. “Since 2007, we have seen greater attention from world leaders on food security, in developed and developing countries alike,” says Kostas Stamoulis, director of agricultural-development economics at the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. The resources being committed to farming “is putting-your-money-where-your-mouth-is kind of money.”
Seeds of Disaster
The world’s farmers haven’t felt such love since the 1970s. Then, as food prices spiked, there was real concern that the world was facing a Malthusian crisis in which the planet was simply unable to produce enough grain and meat for an expanding population. Governments across the developing world and international aid organizations plowed investment into agriculture in the 1960s and 1970s, while technological breakthroughs, like high-yield strains of important food crops, boosted production. The result was the Green Revolution. Food production exploded. In India, for example, grain output more than doubled between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s.
But the Green Revolution became a victim of its own success. Food prices plunged by some 60% by the late 1980s from their peak in the mid-1970s. Policymakers and aid workers turned their attention to the poor’s other pressing needs, such as health care and education. Farming got starved of resources and investment. In 1979, 18% of official development aid worldwide was directed at agriculture; by 2004, that amount sank to 3.5%. “Agriculture lost its glitter,” says the FAO’s Stamoulis. “The world didn’t think that food was a major issue. There was plenty of food, at low prices.”
The years of neglect took their toll on the world’s farmers, laying the groundwork for a crisis. During the Green Revolution in India, for example, crop yields routinely grew at 4% to 6% a year; by the late 1980s, the annual increase had fallen to 2% or less. At the same time, demand for food increased. As consumers in high-growth giants such as China and India became wealthier, they began eating more meat, so grain once used for human consumption got diverted to beef up livestock. Making matters worse, land and resources also got reallocated to produce biofuels. Once voluminous reserves of grain evaporated; this year, they are at the lowest levels since the mid-1970s. By early 2008, panicked buying by importing countries and restrictions slapped on grain exports by some big producers helped drive prices up to heights not seen for three decades. Protests broke out across the emerging world; in Haiti, fierce food riots toppled the government. NEW LIMITS TO GROWTH REVIVE MALTHUSIAN FEARS, a Wall Street Journal headline screamed in March 2008.
Watch TIME’s video “Saving China’s Grasslands.”
Read “The World’s Growing Food-Price Crisis.”