Food security. Doing more with less. Feeding a world of nine billion. In the last five years, these terms have become increasingly popular. The issues underlying them, however, are not entirely new.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Norman Borlaug – known as the father of the Green Revolution – was credited with saving more than 1 billion people from starvation through his work to develop higher yielding varieties of grain, and through the distribution of more resilient seeds and fertilizers to farmers. What makes the challenge we face today different is the awareness that increasing agricultural production must now be twinned with sustainable agriculture.
To feed a world of nine billion, we need new models. We cannot rely on individual sectors, brilliant scientists or government bodies or even nations working alone. Our actions, and the consequences of our actions, are interconnected. We must come together as policy-makers, NGOs, academics and industry leaders to address this challenge.
We must work together and hold each other accountable for progress, so that food security, environmental sustainability and economic opportunity make progress together. This is exactly the model advocated by the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture and one that is being adopted by many companies, including Wal-Mart.
In forming partnerships around food security – through the New Vision for Agriculture or other channels – we must recognize that the notion of partnership is a job in itself; creating effective and sustaining partnerships takes patience and work. We must come to this challenge with agility and flexibility. Like Norman Borlaug, we must be prepared to set and pursue big goals. But, we cannot always predict that the path we initially outline will be the most effective way forward. We must be prepared to learn through experience.
As a case in point, Wal-Mart set a goal of training 1 million farmers – 500,000 of them women – as part of our sustainable agriculture and women’s economic empowerment initiatives. Our initial approach was to partner with NGOs one-by-one to reach and train produce farmers – the growers we are closest to in our food supply chain – until we reached our goal of 1 million. What we soon learned, however, was that we would never scale to 1 million at the rate we were going. We realized that we could do more good more quickly by also bringing funding to already established programmes instead of just working from the ground up.
That is what we are doing today. Through our partnership with the US Agency for International Development, we are working together to bring improved agronomic practices to more women farmers. For example, the International Fertilizer Development Center will teach 40,000 women farmers in Bangladesh to use a simple, productivity-enhancing and environmentally friendly technology called fertilizer deep placement to boost vegetable and fruit yields, thereby increasing incomes and dietary diversity.
Our challenge is a complex one, and not a goal that we will put a check mark next to anytime soon. Feeding a world of 9 billion – while balancing our environmental needs and providing economic opportunity – will require collaboration, persistence and a commitment for the long term.
Author: Beth Keck is Senior Director for Women’s Economic Empowerment at Wal-Mart and Co-Chair of the World Economic Forum New Vision for Agriculture Project Board.
Image: A farmer walks through a rice field in Karawang, Indonesia’s West Java province June 13, 2013. REUTERS/Beawiharta