Crops That Are Fighting PovertyAcross the world, agriculture remains one of the primary sources of income for those living in poverty. A 2019 report by The World Bank reported that 80% of those living in extreme poverty reside in rural regions, and a large majority of these individuals rely upon agriculture for their livelihood. The World Bank also notes that developing agriculture is one of the most effective ways to alleviate poverty, reduce food insecurity and enhance the general well-being of those living in a community. Potatoes in China, cassava in sub-Saharan Africa, rice in Sierra Leone, pearl millet in India and bananas in Costa Rica are five examples of crops that are fighting poverty.

5 Crops That Are Fighting Poverty

  1. Potatoes in China: In 2019, China was the world’s number one potato-producing country. With a rural population of 45.23%, the nation greatly relies upon agriculture to provide food as well as income to its citizens. In Ulanqub, otherwise known as the “potato city” of China, potato farming is one of the primary means for farmers to rise out of poverty. Due to the fact that viruses have the potential to destroy up to 80% of potato crops, potato engineers in Ulanqub have developed seeds that are more impervious to viruses. These engineers place a sterile potato stem into a solution filled with nutrients to create “virus-free breeder seeds.” The seeds are then planted and produce potatoes of higher quality, ensuring that farmers are able to generate sufficient income and climb out of poverty.
  2. Cassava in sub-Saharan Africa: Cassava is a principal source of calories for 40% of Africans. This crop has traditionally been important during times of famine and low rainfall because it is drought-resistant, requires easily-accessible tools and is easily harvestable by one family. The organization NextGen utilizes genomic technology to isolate beneficial cassava traits that increase plant viability, root quality and yield quantity. By analyzing crop DNA and statistically predicting performance, NextGen is creating cassava crops that are fighting poverty.
  3. Rice in Sierra Leone: Agriculture accounts for 57% of Sierra Leone’s GDP, with rice reigning as the primary staple crop. However, in 2011, the nation was a net rice importer due to struggles with planting efficiency. The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) was developed to increase rice crop yield and decrease the labor necessary for upkeep. This method requires the use of organic fertilizers, tighter regulations for watering quantities, greater spacing between seeds to decrease plant competition and rotary hoes for weeding. As of 2014, 10,865 individuals had implemented this strategy in Sierra Leone. SRI has enabled rice to become one of the crops that is fighting poverty by increasing crop production from two to six tons per hectare.
  4. Pearl Millet in India: In India, agriculture employs 59% of the nation’s workforce, with 82% of farmers operating small farms that are highly susceptible to the negative impacts of climate change. As temperatures rise to a scorching 114℉, crops that are able to survive extreme heat are becoming necessary. Wild pearl millet, a relative of domestic pearl millet, is one crop that can withstand such temperatures. Researchers in India are breeding wild pearl millet seeds with domestic pearl millet in order to enhance resistance to heat and the common “blast” disease. With breeding innovations, pearl millet is one of the crops that are fighting poverty.
  5. Bananas in Costa Rica: One out of every 10 bananas produced in 2015 hailed from Costa Rica, the globe’s third-largest banana producer. This industry generated $ 1.1 billion in 2017 and provides jobs for 100,000 Costa Ricans. However, approximately 90% of banana crops across the nation are at risk of nutrient deprivation from a pest known as nematode, which has the potential to obliterate entire plantations. An article by CropLife International reported that a sustainable pesticide has been created by plant scientists in order to mitigate poverty-inducing crop loss and provide environmentally-conscious methods for banana farmers to ward off pests.

Developing crop viability and agricultural technology is important for poverty alleviation as agriculture possesses twice the likelihood of creating financial growth than other economic sectors. Innovations in crop production that decrease the likelihood of failure from drought, disease and changing weather patterns are important for the well-being of rural communities across the globe. Potatoes, cassava, rice, pearl millet and bananas are just five examples of crops that are fighting poverty, but improvements in different facets of agriculture have the potential to enhance the livelihoods of those who provide the world’s food.

Suzi Quigg
Photo: Flickr

Almost 170 years after the first crops began to rot in what is now the Republic of Ireland, an Irish nonprofit, Vita, hopes to give the potato a new purpose in alleviating hunger in the Horn of Africa. Working with Gama Gofa Zonal Administration, the International Potato Centre, Arba Minch University, Teagasc, Wageningen and the Irish Potato Federation, Vita founded the Potato Centre of Excellence in 2013. The Centre, based in Gama Gofa, Ethiopia, plans to help over 100,000 Ethiopian farmers grow potatoes as a staple crop within the the next five to 10 years.

Potatoes have long sustained the Irish population, and as Vita highlights, potatoes “use less water per nutritional output than all other major food sources and can be grown in Africa.” The Centre will give a bag of potato seeds to individual farmers with the idea that the farmers will return two bags of seeds the following year. Vita is in the process of introducing new strains of potatoes with the hope of increasing crop yields in the Horn of Africa.

Mother Teresa, Father Kevin Doheny and Father Norman Fitzgerald founded Vita in 1989 with the mission of tackling “…household food insecurity through community-led sustainable agriculture projects, which are scalable and replicable, with a special focus on women as the key enablers of sustainable development.”

The organization, located in Dublin, has also worked to further the efforts of the Potato Coalition of six countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. The United States Agency for International Development has help to fund the Coalition, which has already brought aid to over 10,000 farmers in Southern Ethiopia since its inception in 2013. The Coalition aims to eventually help four million potato farmers in Africa by connecting researchers, the private sector and local organizations.

The diversity of the new potato crops remains key to the success of potato farming across the region in order to protect against the Phytophthora infestans that causes the kind of potato blight seen in the 1846 to 1852 Irish famine. An estimated 1 million Irishmen died from starvation or epidemic as a result of the famine, and an additional 2 million left Ireland for better economic opportunity elsewhere.

Although the naturally occurring disease was disastrous on its own, many historians today point to the policies of the British government under Prime Minister Lord John Russell as massively negligent at best, genocide at worst. Influenced by new liberal ideas on the free market economy and long-held bigotry against the Irish, the Whig administration’s response was to introduce arbitrary public work projects and inadequate food rations via the Irish Poor Acts.

As then assistant secretary to the treasury, Lord John Russell claimed, “The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”

In 1997, Prime Minister Tony Blair formally apologized for the British government’s role in the famine.

Even with continued tensions with the British over the status of Northern Ireland, the Irish now have the opportunity to evolve the potato from a painful reminder to a symbol of hope for a sustainable future.

– Erica Lignell

Sources: Vita, Vita’s Facebook page, Vita Annual Report, The Economist, University College Cork-Multitext Project
Photo: The Daily Spud