Small farms are turning to desert around the world; the U.S. must help

Roger Engstrom
Farmers in Mozambique learn about a corn planter.

I guess my travel isn’t typical for a senior citizen from Ames. Last summer, for instance, I took a 21-hour flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, then flew 370 kilometers north to an arid, hilly area where I spent the next 10 days teaching workers at local poultry houses how to formulate their feed.

I take such trips – with some regularity – at my age because I ardently believe in the critical importance of sustainable agriculture, both here in the United States, but also abroad.

While it may seem hard to believe, most people on this planet still grow their own food – on fields smaller than a baseball diamond. They are subsistence farmers. Most are poor, and growing poorer. That’s because worldwide, we’re losing agricultural land at a frightening rate. Each year, productive farmland the size of Iowa turns to desert, or is lost through flood or other degradation.

Harmful farming practices often contribute to this loss. In developing countries, farmers often cut down forest or slash and burn vegetated areas in a desperate effort to find productive soil. But this only furthers the downward spiral of erosion, depleted soil, and poverty.

Our changing climate hastens this trend through intensifying droughts and storms. Midwest farmers know all about this, of course. But many Americans don’t realize a similar tragedy is happening in climate hot spots in Africa, Central America and Asia.  

Failing agriculture is threatening the stability of these regions. Across 42 African countries, collapsing soil health has caused $127 billion in cereal production losses, 12.3% of their average GDP. The migration we see to the U.S. southern border is caused largely by degraded soil. Up to 80% of crops were lost last year in some areas of the so-called dry corridor of Central America, according to field studies by Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

All this is tragic, but also frustrating because there is a reasonable solution. It’s soil and water conservation practices. For instance, CRS found even during severe drought, crop yields in Central America were on average 40% higher when farmers mulched, applied small but appropriate levels of fertilizer and used other simple practices.   

That’s why I go overseas. When I retired a decade ago from agricultural development and equipment operations and repair, I continued volunteering with Farmer to Farmer, an international agricultural mentoring program run by the U.S. Agency for International Development. That’s why I was in Ethiopia this summer.

I tell this not to toot my horn but to underscore how much good these outreach services provide in countries with limited resources – the same way local agricultural extension helps American farmers.

But the assistance is a drop in the bucket compared to the need. An estimated 1.3 billion people live in agricultural land that is teetering on the edge of productivity.  

Let’s remember that the next time someone says we should cut U.S. foreign aid. The current administration keeps trying to do that. Thankfully, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have resisted so far.

If anything, we should boost our assistance. We should realize that if agriculture continues to fail in poor countries, even rich nations will be staggered by the impacts.  

Roger Engstrom of rural Ames is retired from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).