Many poor, food-importing countries around the world have become desperate in recent months as global prices of rice, wheat and maize have doubled. Hundreds of millions of poor people, who already spend a large share of their daily budget on food, are being pushed to the edge. Food riots are mounting.
But many poor countries can grow more food themselves, because their farmers are producing far below what is technologically possible. In some cases, with appropriate government action, they could double or even triple food production in just a few years.
The idea is basic and well known. Under traditional agricultural conditions, the yields of grain - rice, wheat, maize, sorghum or millet - are usually around one tonne per hectare, for one planting season per year. For a farm family of five or six living on one hectare, this means extreme poverty, and for their country, it means reliance on expensive food imports, including food aid.
The solution is to increase grain yields to at least two tonnes - and in some places to three or more tonnes - per hectare. If water can be managed through irrigation, this could be combined with multicropping (multiple harvests per year) to produce a crop during the dry season.
The key to raising yields is to ensure that even the poorest farmers have access to improved seed varieties, chemical fertilizers, organic matter to replenish soil nutrients, and, where possible, small-scale irrigation methods, such as a pump to lift water from a nearby well. This combination of high-yield seeds, fertilizer and small-scale irrigation is the key to the worldwide increase in food production since the 1960s.
The problem is that these improved inputs have bypassed the poorest farmers and the poorest countries. When peasants lack their own saving accounts and collateral, they are unable to borrow from banks to buy seeds, fertilizer and irrigation, and earn little or nothing from their harvests, which are not sufficient even to feed their families.
History has shown that government action is required to help the poorest farmers escape the low-yield poverty trap. With a bit of temporary help, perhaps lasting around five years, farmers can build up enough wealth to obtain inputs on a market basis, either through direct purchases from savings or through bank loans.
Around the world, government-run agricultural banks in poor countries once not only financed inputs, but also provided agricultural advice and spread new seed technologies. But, during the debt crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank forced dozens of poor food-importing countries to dismantle these state systems. Poor farmers were told to fend for themselves, to let "market forces" provide for inputs. This was a profound mistake: There were no such market forces.
To its credit, the World Bank recognized this mistake in a scathing internal evaluation of its long-standing agricultural policies last year. Under new president Robert Zoellick, the bank is now helping to re-establish public financing systems that enable small farmers in the poorest countries, notably those farming on two hectares or less, to gain access to needed inputs. Malawi has done this for the past three seasons, and has doubled its food production as a result. Other low-income countries should follow suit.
The world should set a goal of doubling grain yields in low-income Africa and similar regions (such as Haiti) during the next five years. That's achievable if the World Bank, donor governments and poor countries direct their attention to the urgent needs of the world's poorest farmers.
Jeffrey Sachs is a special adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.