I. Part of an interview with Professor Qaim
On a per hectare basis what would be approximately the difference in food production between the developed and the developing nations?
This depends a lot on the types of crops that we look at. Certain crops such as bananas, soybeans, and oil palms grow particularly well in tropical regions because of the specific climatic conditions.
And there are many more poor than rich countries that are located in the tropics.
However, for major food crops such as wheat and maize, the average yields are significantly higher in the rich countries of Western Europe and North America. Apart from climatic and soil conditions, technological differences also play a major role.
In Africa, the yield levels are particularly low due to limited technology and input use. Smallholder farmers in Africa often only harvest about one-quarter of the yields obtained by farmers in Western Europe.
What are the effects of agrochemicals on human health?
Agrochemicals help to increase crop yields, but, especially if used in excessive quantities, they can also have serious negative effects for human health and the environment. Many very toxic pesticides were banned in Europe and North America, but are still used in developing countries, where they are often sprayed by farmers without protective devices. This can contribute to acute and chronic health problems.
Does commercialization help reduce costs? And to what extent is the small farmer relevant in today’s environment?
Small farmers with farm sizes of less than two hectares produce around one-third of all the foods worldwide, but account for over 80% of all the farms in terms of numbers. Smallholder farmers also make up a large fraction of the poor and undernourished people worldwide, so this is a very important group from a social perspective. Rural poverty reduction and sustainable agricultural development will not be possible without a strong focus on smallholder farmers. But a focus on smallholder farming should not be confused with strengthening and perpetuating subsistence production. Farmers need to be linked to markets and emerging value chains. Our own research and that of many other colleagues shows that commercialization of the small farm sector through infrastructure and institutional support helps to reduce poverty and food insecurity.
Does modern technology reach small farmers, say in countries of Africa and Asia?
Successful technological change requires better infrastructure and institutions.
Unfortunately, most smallholder farmers in Africa have very limited access to modern technologies, such as improved seeds, other inputs and equipment, or new agronomic practices. This is largely due to insufficient training, bad roads, and lack of credits to finance production-related investments. Successful technological change requires better infrastructure and institutions. In Asia, the situation is often better, especially in countries like China and India, where the government has invested more in agricultural development. But even there, further improvements are needed to increase productivity growth and promote sustainable development of the small farm sector.
Which of the countries have the healthiest food habits and which are the ones with the least healthy habits?
Unfortunately, all countries in the world suffer from at least one form of malnutrition.
Unfortunately, all countries in the world suffer from at least one form of malnutrition. In rich countries, overconsumption of calories is widespread and associated with overweight, obesity, and various chronic diseases. In poor countries, undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies are still widespread, even though overweight and obesity are also rapidly on the rise. We need dietary change towards more balanced and healthy diets everywhere. There is no secret recipe; cultural differences need to be respected. But overall, diverse diets with whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and moderate quantities of animal-source foods are particularly healthy. And fresh and lightly-processed foods are generally healthier than ultra-processed foods, which often contain large amounts of sugar, salt, and fat.
Many of your research papers address the problems being faced by the developing nations and the possible solutions. Could you tell us about some of your personal experiences?
One important lesson that I learned during my studies is that we should not impose our romanticized western views on poor people in terms of how development should look like. For instance, in Europe we often think that small subsistence farmers in Africa are happy when they produce their own food on their tiny amount of land. But this is not true. Smallholders in Africa can hardly produce enough food for themselves, so they are happy when they get access to new technologies or other opportunities that can help to increase their income. They are also happy when their children can get a good education so that they can leave the drudgery of smallholder farming and find a better job in the city. Small farmers are subsistence-oriented because they lack better opportunities, not because they love smallholder farming so much. I always enjoy it very much talking to poor people directly in order to learn seeing the world through their eyes. This can lad to much better research and policy decisions.
No amount of emphasis is adequate on this subject. What are your views on deforestation and food production?
There are very clear tradeoffs.
There are very clear tradeoffs. The growing world population needs more food. We can either increase food production by raising yields on the crop land that is already in use, or by cutting down more forests to further expand the crop land. Of these two options, raising yields is the much more sustainable alternative, because land-use change through deforestation and the expansion of crop land is the biggest killer of natural biodiversity and the largest single factor that contributes to climate change. People who are arguing against new technologies, which can help to increase crop yields sustainably, often do not see this tradeoff. Sustainable development will not be possible without developing and using new agricultural technologies. But of course we also need more sustainability in how we consume, which means reducing waste and excessive meat consumption.
For our readers, what is Fairtrade and how does it aid the small farmers?
Fairtrade is a voluntary ethical standard to improve the living conditions of farmers and farm workers in developing countries. Fairtrade products are somewhat more expensive than other products, meaning that consumers pay a higher price in order to promote positive social development. This works relatively well for a few luxury products such as coffee, tea, and cocoa, where Fairtrade-labeled products have achieved a market share of 5-10% and more in some rich countries. However, Fairtrade does not work well in staple foods such as cereal grains. The reason is that certification and monitoring of the Fairtrade standard is costly, and consumers do not have the same willingness-to-pay for Fairtrade-labeled grains as they have for tropical luxury products. This means that Fairtrade can help to promote social development in certain situations, but should not be seen as a standalone instrument to improve the situation of small farmer more generally.
Please tell us about your growing up years.
I grew up in a small town in Germany and occasionally had the chance to accompany my dad on his professional trips to countries in Asia and Africa. Thus I became very interested in developing-country problems and how to solve them. Even though I did not grow up on a farm myself, I decided that studying agricultural sciences was useful, because economic and social development typically starts with the agricultural sector. I have never regretted this decision.
Tell us about your self-motivation and those who inspired you into the field of agri-sciences?
In my eyes, overcoming poverty and hunger while protecting the environment and the climate are the biggest challenges that we have to face in the coming years and decades.
In my eyes, overcoming poverty and hunger while protecting the environment and the climate are the biggest challenges that we have to face in the coming years and decades. Agriculture and food systems are central to this task, and I am really passionate to contribute to solving some of the big world problems. I had several important people who encouraged and supported me on my career path. Initially, my parents were not so happy that I decided to study agriculture, because at that time agriculture was considered a backward sector, but once they realized that I was serious they fully supported me. I also had great teachers, professors, and colleagues, who encouraged and guided me on my path. Looking up to role models can be very motivating. Then, I was lucky to become full professor myself already at the age of 34. We should never stop learning and trying to further improve ourselves, but of course now I am using a lot of my time and energy to teach my students and be a good mentor for their passions and career paths. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing one’s own students thrive professionally.
Our readers are mainly the youth from different parts of the world who look up to achievers such as yourself for inspiration. A word of advice for them?
You will succeed as long as you are passionate about what you do.
It is always important to be passionate about what you do. So finding the right area that can create and sustain this passion is really key. What area exactly this is can only be answered individually. Of course, it is always useful to listen to others’ advice and seek this advice proactively, but in the end important decisions can and have to be made by yourself. This is true for the choice of the study subject as well as for all other steps that follow. You will succeed as long as you are passionate about what you do.
With various academic degrees, several science prizes that he obtained for his work, and a vast number of published studies, Professor Matin Qaim who is with the University of Goettingen in Germany is one of the leading experts in agricultural sciences and food security. His main research areas include sustainable food systems, nutrition-sensitive agriculture, pro-poor development of the small farm sector, and the economics of agricultural innovation. He has also worked on controversial topics such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their potential role for sustainable agricultural development.
Read more about professor Qaim here.
Photos: From the Archive of Professor Qaim; Shutterstock