Ceres2030 team helps small-scale farmers cope with water scarcity
For decades, everyone from the United Nations to the New York Times quoted the same agricultural statistic: “70 percent of all the world’s food is produced by small-scale farmers.” Working in international development in places like Cambodia, Ghana, and Thailand, Vincent Ricciardi knew the statistic well — he frequently quoted it in the grant applications he wrote to potential donors. But after several years working directly with smallholder farmers in developing countries for organizations like USAID, iDE Global, and ECHO Asia, Ricciardi began to feel that the statistic did not match what he was seeing.
“I started to question those kinds of statistics: where does that figure come from? And I couldn’t find any source for it in the primary literature,” said Ricciardi, now a data scientist for the World Bank.
Working with a team of researchers, Ricciardi and his colleagues collected 55 countries’ worth of data and analyzed it looking at agricultural censuses and crop production. Three other teams used different data and methods, and they all came up with the same number: about 30 percent, not 70 percent, of food comes from farmers who own two hectares (roughly five acres) or less.
Ricciardi’s interest in questioning assumptions led him to the Ceres2030 project, which is using big data and diverse research teams to evaluate agricultural data to find the most effective interventions to help smallholder farmers and end hunger. The project is a collaboration between Cornell University, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, and the International Food Policy Research Institute. Understanding core data is key to developing effective and sustainable interventions to help achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of ending global hunger by 2030. Ricciardi leads the Water-scarce Solutions Research Team for Ceres2030.
“In order to achieve the SDG 2030 goals, we need to understand all the different interventions available to small-scale farmers, especially in water-scarce regions,” Ricciardi said.
“And we need this kind of baseline understanding of the evidence to see which interventions will be effective. The Ceres2030 project gave us another way to do that.”
Water-scarce solutions team
The Water-scarce Solutions team includes eleven people from four continents; there are experts in resource management, livestock, water management, remote sensing technology, economists, an ecologist, crop scientists, librarians, and an expert in big data. They’ve done a comprehensive review of peer-reviewed literature on how to cope with water scarcity in agriculture, looking at the effectiveness and feasibility of different irrigation technologies, soil techniques, intercropping with diverse species, and drip irrigation, among many other topics.
Other assumptions the researchers explored turned out to be true: for example, that small-scale farmers don’t have good water access. The Ceres2030 team looked at global-level satellite data to assess where irrigation exists in the world, and overlaid it with maps of where farms exist, measuring farm size. They found that smaller farms have less access to water than larger farms, and the problem is worse in water-scarce areas. The countries with the biggest disparities in water access — such as Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Chad — are also many of the countries experiencing acute hunger: of the 690 million people who are undernourished, 250 million live in Africa, “where the number of undernourished is growing faster than anywhere in the world,” according to the UN. Water scarcity will only become a more pressing issue as climate change worsens droughts.
Ellen McCullough Ph.D. ’16, another member of the Ceres2030 team, worked as a research analyst and program officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation before completing her Ph.D. In that role, she helped identify funding opportunities and set strategic priorities for the foundation’s entire agricultural development portfolio, which was around $2.5 billion at that time.
“Donor organizations are often eager to invest in areas where the need is high but others aren’t necessarily investing, because they want to add value and address gaps. I think Ceres2030 is really valuable because it helps to systematically identify the gaps that are most relevant for smallholder farmers in developing countries,” said McCullough, now an assistant professor of Agricultural & Applied Economics at the University of Georgia.
“This kind of evidence is exactly what funding agencies are looking for, to make the case for bringing their resources into neglected spaces.”
Working with smallholder farmers in Vietnam, Ricciardi saw first-hand how crucial it is that donor-supported interventions work in concert with locals, and remain innovative. The farmers Ricciardi worked with needed irrigation systems, but the standard irrigation technology — solid pipes with holes drilled through for water — was expensive and not useful for farmers whose land might be hilly or undulating. Ricciardi eventually worked with an NGO that helped farm stores sell ready-to-use bundles of cheap and available products that could be combined into a more effective system: flexible tubing that could be moved, twisted, and expanded as needed.
“It was super simple technology and a brilliant solution that actually saved farmers water — it only required an idea to be shared with a farm supply store owner,” he said. “That’s the kind of intervention where donor support could make an impact in areas facing water constraints.”
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