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New farm techniques spur Ethiopia rebirth

By Jimmy Carter

This article appeared in the Mar. 19, 1997, edition of USA Today.

A momentous Live Aid concert in 1985 focused attention on hundreds of thousands of starving Ethiopians and led to unprecedented outpourings of international grief and giving.

But after just a few months, the problem was forgotten except by a few international agencies. Tragically, the underlying issues of food security -- which include the ability to grow, harvest, process and store food -- that created the Ethiopian famine are not being addressed. And around the world, after decades of work and billions of dollars, chronic hunger is still widespread.

African leaders and individual families are eager to help themselves. With the appropriate technology and the right policies and counsel, a stable supply of food can be achieved quickly and at relatively low cost. Let me give you an example.

The famine in Ethiopia and surrounding countries prompted a partnership in 1986 among the nonprofit Carter Center, Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug and Japan-based Sasakawa Africa Association. Called Sasakawa-Global 2000 (or SG 2000) this nongovernmental organization began working to improve agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa.

In Ethiopia and 13 other countries, we've witnessed extremely inefficient farming techniques. Slash and burn procedures often were used, where a few plants were grown on a plot without fertilizer. The area then rapidly eroded and was abandoned after one or two seasons.

Knowledge about improved practices was available but not flowing from African research centers through government extension services to small-scale farmers. This bottleneck, coupled with Africa's high birth rate, means the population grows faster than food production. We set out to break this logjam, and now more than half-a-million small-farm families have greatly increased their yields. Our strategy is a simple one. We first negotiate an understanding with each president and key Cabinet members, pledging ourselves to a five-year program. We then enroll a few farm families, each working a total of about two acres.

The farmer plants half the land in the traditional way and the other half following our prescription. We introduce simple techniques such as seedbed preparation, timely planting in contour rows, improved seed varieties, weeding, moderate use of fertilizer and pesticides, and proper harvesting and storage. Invariably, plots based on our techniques have exceeded traditional yields by 200% to 400%. The farmers and their neighbors rapidly adopt these "new" technologies.

Unlike many other internationally funded programs, we work hand in hand with each country's government, which allows the network to extend from the highest political officials to the individual farmer. The government employs hundreds of extension workers, who are trained by our single advisor.

In 1993, we began working in Ethiopia. The following year, as harvest time approached, I invited Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to visit some of our plots. He suggested that we dress as farmers and spurn the usual motorcade. When we arrived, the farmers at first were unaware that their head of state was examining the crop. They were enthusiastic in describing their experience with our methodology.

The next day, the prime minister instructed his minister of agriculture and our representative to introduce this approach throughout Ethiopia. The 1994 harvest, which was being reaped during our field visit, produced 5.4 million tons of grain, far below the nation's needs. A year later, Ethiopian farmers produced an all-time record harvest of 9.7 million tons.

Just last month, the prime minister informed me that, with nearly 400,000 farm families using our method in 1996, the yield was 11.7 million tons. On Jan. 13, the first shipment from the nearly 1 million tons of surplus grain was exported to Kenya. He hastened to add that Ethiopia still faces many challenges in food production.

The government and SG 2000 are just beginning to address the lack of adequate storage facilities, transportation systems and marketing mechanisms. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Meles wrote, "I had always hoped to see Ethiopia producing enough grain to feed its people, but I had never expected it to happen so soon and so fast."

What has happened in Ethiopia demonstrates that a plentiful food supply is possible for all nations. But it takes the right mixture of people and resources: the full support of high-level leaders, the dedicated hard work of thousands of farmers and hundreds of extension workers, and modest assistance from international friends with access to the necessary tools.

Organizations such as The Carter Center are ready to help, but our capabilities are limited. What is needed is the political and social will of the developed world to address the root causes of food shortages, not just to donate money. With a little help, our Ethiopian neighbors launched a rebirth of their nation. Surely, it's worth the effort to help others, too.

Former president Jimmy Carter is chairman of the nonprofit Carter Center in Atlanta, Ga.

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