Increased food productivity – an important first step on the road to economic development
Poverty is a complex problem. There’s hardly a need to convince anyone of this fact. The good news is that all problems, even the most complex ones, are solvable – at least I believe they are. I also believe that the most important thing to do when solving any problem, especially complex ones, is to ask the right questions – those that deepen one’s understanding of the problem itself.
So here’s the first question: what do we mean when we say poverty is complex? Well, we know that any complex system must consist of many different and connected parts. Poverty is no different. It is complex because it is caused by a host of factors, natural or otherwise, that are often working together in some sort of reinforcing cycle.
Second question: what are the “host of factors” that contribute to poverty? The natural ones include the geographical location of a given nation i.e. whether it is near its continent’s coast or whether it is landlocked; topography of the land; and fertility of the soil. The unnatural factors include the extent of modern technology’s reach in the country, government integrity, and the size of the space for innovation. Then there are other factors like population size and fertility rate (average number of children per household) that don’t perfectly fit into the previous two categories.
Third question: which of these factors is/are most central to the poverty problem? It only makes sense that we point to the natural ones. The geographical location of a country is inextricably linked to its climate. Climate, to a large extent, influences the type and quantity of food that a country can produce, and therefore influences the health and productivity of the people in that country. To be fair, farmlands in poor countries are probably not naturally infertile. However, farmers’ year-round dependence on small pieces of land for food and income without taking time to revitalize the land/soil often leads to decreased yields over time. This is the point at which poor people transition into utter destitution – when they can no longer depend on their farms to feed their families and/or meet their basic needs.
Geography and climate control other things like the ease of international trade and the prevalence of disease – which are both factors that can severely hinder economic development. Countries that are landlocked lack access to seaports and are therefore less likely to benefit from sea-based international trade. The transportation costs of overcoming this obstacle would be crippling for most, if not all, of such countries. Tropical regions like sub-Saharan Africa have the ideal rainfall, temperature, and mosquito type to make them the global headquarters for malaria – perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to Africa’s economic growth throughout history.
Notice that although all the natural factors above cause and/or deepen poverty, it is the lack of food that creates destitution. Any plan to alleviate or eliminate extreme poverty must first pull people out of destitution, then out of poverty, and then up through higher rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Pulling people out of destitution entails giving them access to the appropriate knowledge (e.g. how to get and use fertilizer), modern technology (e.g. irrigation systems), and the necessary support (e.g. seeds and low-cost farming tools) to increase the productivity of their farmlands and enhance their ability to provide their families’ most basic needs. When a family’s basic needs are met, then they can have time to worry about things like fighting corruption within the government, learning how to use a computer, sending their kids to school, visiting a hospital when a family member is sick and so on. Hungry people are not, and cannot be productive people. The process of getting extremely poor people to contribute meaningfully to society starts from feeding them. For most people in rich countries, “feeding” sounds too simplistic. However, an exposure to the complex processes that a mother must endure to provide a single meal for her family in a poor country easily paints a clear picture of why this is a necessary first step.
Empowering farmers to produce more than enough food for their families must be done in tandem with improving road networks to ease the transportation of their produce to and from markets, introducing the latest agricultural technologies, and ushering in improved crop varieties. Doing these things will pave a way for farmers to not only feed their families, but also earn enough money to provide other basic and non-basic needs. Besides being a solid stepping-stone to providing a family’s needs, studies indicate that increased food productivity per acre makes it possible to have fewer farmers and therefore, fosters specialization in other fields within or outside agriculture. Specialization leads to increased innovation and problem solving in a wide variety of fields – a characteristic of every developed nation.
The benefits of increased food productivity are plenty and it is important that governments, NGOs, and other players in the private sector, work together to find ways to provide all that is necessary - resources, infrastructure, training, support - for eliminating extreme poverty as part of a larger global development plan.
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