How farmers can help reduce famine

Can farmers take up this challenge and engage not only in discussion of storing more carbon in the soil, but in transitioning to a lower-till, lower-carbon future for agriculture?

By Philippa Solomon

For the Capital Press

Published on March 23, 2017 9:50AM

One would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the image of the starving child that accompanied the editorial “The Face of Starvation” in the Capital Press (March 3, 2017). I share the editorial board’s conviction that we have an obligation to help the millions of people facing starvation and provide food aid immediately.

In 1965, economist Lester R. Brown worked with President Lyndon Johnson and organized the largest movement of grain between two countries in history. They saved India from famine. Brown’s memoir, “Breaking New Ground,” details the race against time and the willpower and ingenuity that it took to accomplish this feat.

How we help requires not only engagement of our hearts, but using our intelligence and the best information available to guide our actions. We are not only dealing with natural causes; as you correctly point out, the current famines are the result of war, drought, political corruption. The warming of our world also increases the duration and frequency of droughts and flooding, both of which destroy crops.

How can farmers in a wealthy nation like ours deal with and prevent famine around the world?

Opening our granaries and shipping food to stricken areas is not the singular ideal response to famines. Often the time required to send food halfway round the world means that it arrives too late, and local farmers frequently suffer severe economic losses from competition with lower priced or free grain shipped from the U.S., losses which are particularly harmful if shipments arrive at harvest time.

In the short term, aid agencies, such as the widely respected Oxfam, recommend sending cash assistance distributed directly to individuals. Oxfam’s Humanitarian Director, Nigel Timmins says, “If we act now with a massive injection of aid, backed with diplomatic clout and driven by the imperative to save lives, we can prevent a catastrophic loss of life. Without an urgent influx of cash, the humanitarian system will not be able to cope and many more people will die.” Government aid helps them buy food from areas close by without distorting the local food and commodity markets, which results in local farmers losing their land. For more information, please see

In the long term we also need to support the spread of improved cultivation techniques such as the system of rice intensification (SRI) and to reduce and manage the risks from warming of the global climate. It is the latter aspect of the security of the world food supply that I am addressing in this discussion.

To put the brakes on global warming, we must reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We can do this by (1) reducing our use of fossil fuels and (2) removing CO2 from the atmosphere. If we are to adequately control CO2 levels we will need to use both approaches simultaneously.

The Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s plan seeks to reduce our use of fossil fuels via a carbon fee and dividend. This, economists agree, will speed up our transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources over the next 50 years (see

Farmers can reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced, for example, by reducing the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides derived from fossil fuels. We can also reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by increasing the amount of organic matter in soil, which increases fertility and capacity to retain water as well as helping to sequester carbon.

Research on ways to increase soil health and soil carbon content is increasing and there are good examples of farms using these methods. What we lack are ways to speed up the application of this research to working farms, which often requires trial and error due to the wide variation in crops, climate, soils and cultivation methods.

Is there a way to encourage regenerative agriculture so that soil is built up by increasing the amount of organic matter (carbon), thus increasing the microbial content and the capacity to store water? How can we support farmers willing to work on improving soil health and cutting the CO2 burden in our atmosphere? Can farmers take up this challenge and engage not only in discussion of storing more carbon in the soil, but in transitioning to a lower-till, lower-carbon future for agriculture?

Oxfam agrees with you. It states: “The world stands on the brink of an unprecedented four famines in 2017 due to a catastrophic failure of the global community to uphold its obligations to the world’s most vulnerable people.”

As you note, these people will become refugees and it is our moral duty to act now, as “Every minute, and every life, counts.” Thank you.

Philippa Solomon taught chemistry at Rutgers University and worked as a freelance editor of college science texts. She is a certified Rutgers New Jersey Environmental Steward, volunteered at the Cook College (Rutgers University) organic farm and is currently a volunteer with Citizens Climate Lobby.


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