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Urban Cowboy: To feed the world, give credit where credit is due

Aid and grants are short-term solutions for farming, but you can’t run a business on them. Across Africa and in a nation like Cuba, access to credit is needed.
Urban Cowboy is Owen Roberts' weekly look at agriculture and food in Guelph.

Despite Sunday being World Food Day, nothing about it was trending on twitter that night.

Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rogers was, for his uninspired performance against the Dallas Cowboys.

So was #CowboysNation, and Seattle Seahawks. And later, #NLCS.

But really, nothing was being said about the day set aside to ponder efforts to help the 800-plus million people living with chronic hunger.

How come? Well, besides the fact that professional sports is huge in North America, I think the topic of world food hunger, and the numbers associated with it, are too big for people to digest.

Even tougher is individuals’ efforts to try to figure out what they can do to make a difference.

Lately, food waste has been a feed-the-world target in developed nations, because it’s something we have an opportunity to change, whether we’re University of Guelph students, mid-career wage and salary earners, or seniors.

Typically, we waste food because we don’t know how to prepare it, or don’t have time. We buy it, take it home, then it sits. And goes bad.           

The food chain begins with farmers. Value Chain Management International, an Oakville-based consultancy group, says any waste in the food chain is bad for farmers, no matter where they grow crops or raise livestock.

If some part of the food production line — processors, truckers, retailers and distributors, among them — is lacking, profitability suffers. And farmers have to make a profit to stay in business.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve talked to experts from two underdeveloped areas of the world, Africa and Cuba, about what farmers need to be profitable.

Certainly, many of the world’s hungry people live in Africa, and on a relative scale, their problems are much bigger than Cuba’s.

But both places are struggling. And their representatives — one, a farmers’ union leader, and the other, a government official — say they need the same thing: that is, access to credit.

Aid and grants are fine in the short term. But you can’t run a business on aid and grants. And farming is a business.

Think about credit in consumer terms. Imagine trying to run your household purely on cash. You need a new car, new appliances, home renovations. You need credit.

And so do farmers in Africa and Cuba. But unlike most of us, they have no equity. They don’t own their land. Creditors have nothing to seize if a loan goes bad, and are reluctant to give loans without security.

The African farmers’ union official I spoke with said helping facilitate loans to farms there would help a lot. “We don’t want grants,” he said. “We want loans. We need credit so we have some purchasing power.”

Weed control in CubaWithout mechanization, weed control is mostly a manual pursuit at this organic farm in Havana, Havana, Cuba. Photo by Owen Roberts for GuelphToday.

The situation in Cuba is a little different. Not only can farmers not get credit, neither can others in the ag sector, because of the US embargo (Cubans describe it a blockade). The embargo calls for any transactions with the US, for items such as machinery and inputs, to be paid in cash up front.

But where is a Cuban farmer or machinery dealer or fertilizer supplier who’s been subject to an embargo for 60 years supposed to get cash?

Bankers, financers and economic policy makers are not typically those we look to on World Food Day to help eradicate hunger. Rather, it’s considered a job for researchers, to help create new crop varieties and keep livestock healthy. Then, it’s up to those who actually grow the food, process it and distribute it.

However, those who control credit are standing in the way. Farmers can feed people if they can buy seed, fertilizer and machinery to produce food. But where they need credit the most, they can’t get it. And if the world hunger situation is going to change, this limiting approach must change too.