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Sunday Times STLive By JANA MARAIS, 2011-05-07

'Neglect farming at world's peril'

About 925million people around the world go hungry every day - and 239million of them live in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

In addition the environmental research organisation has found that:

  • Agriculture's share of global development aid has dropped from 16% in 1980 to 4% today;
  • Just nine African countries allocate even 10% of their national budgets to agriculture;
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, just 4% of the cultivated land is equipped for irrigation;
  • In poorer nations 25%-50% of the harvest spoils before it reaches the table;
  • Worldwide, 800 million people depend on urban agriculture for their food needs; and
  • In Africa, 14 million people migrate to cities each year.

SA should invest more in agriculture and encourage urban farming to strengthen food security and counter the impact of rising food prices, said Danielle Nierenberg, project director at the Worldwatch Institute.

Nierenberg has spent the past year in 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa to investigate the most effective agricultural development interventions.

Poor urban dwellers spend an estimated 60% to 80% of their incomes on food and with food prices leading to social unrest in countries such as Mozambique, Senegal and Tunisia in recent months, governments "neglect agriculture at their peril".

Just nine African countries allocate at least 10% of their national budgets to agriculture, despite the crucial role it plays in many of these countries, according to Worldwatch.

Urban farming will be increasingly important in feeding South Africans, and the government should ensure the necessary regulations are in place to encourage food production.

For example, regulations often prevent rooftop farming as an insurance risk, while strict regulations govern the raising of livestock in urban areas. Access to farm land can also be a major issue, Nierenberg said.

The Cape Town city council, for example, wants to buy farm land used by the Philippi Horticulture Area, a farming project where residents grow fresh produce, to expand housing.

"Urban farming not only helps to feed poor people; it also has a beautifying aspect and can help to reduce violence in communities," said Nierenberg.

A number of innovative, successful urban farming projects exist across the continent.

In Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, a shortage of space has inspired women to start "vertical farming". Old maize sacks are filled with soil and the women grow crops in them by poking holes in the bags and planting seeds. They are able to feed their families and even sell surplus produce.

Small-scale farmers should also be included more when decisions are made on agricultural development, Worldwatch said.

Research efforts that involve small farmers alongside scientists can help meet specific local needs, strengthen farmers' leadership roles, and improve how research and education systems operate, it added.