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Pam Johnson (right), meets with Elizabeth Phiri, a farmer in Zambia’s Eastern Province, where they and others talked about the things all farmers need to be successful during Cargill’s Learning Journey in June 2015.

The Shared Challenge for the World’s Farmers

By Pam Johnson for Cargill

I am a sixth-generation farmer from Iowa who has both the honor of growing food and feed, and the pleasure of eating three nutritious meals every day. I am one of the lucky ones on the planet who doesn’t have to worry if my family has food to eat and clean water to drink each and every day. Food security is something I think about regularly as a farmer, but it is more of an abstract concept than an issue that stares me squarely in the face daily. Many others around the world are not as fortunate. Recently, I got to meet some of them.

At the invitation of Cargill, I travelled with about 25 others from around the world on a Learning Journey to South Africa and Zambia to study food security issues and food systems. As part of Cargill’s 150th anniversaryCargill’s 150th anniversaryCargill’s 150th anniversary, the company is interested in bringing people from different types of organizations together to ask big questions about how the world will feed itself in the years ahead. Participants came from the private sector, academia, nonprofits, development agencies and media.

Although I’ve devoted my life to growing food and have worked with fellow farmers in other parts of the world, I had never traveled to Africa. Particularly in Zambia, the experience brought concepts to life as we were immersed in the challenges and opportunities of smallholder farmers, many of whom make less than a dollar a day. These are farmers who live on the land but are food insecure; if they don’t grow it, they don’t eat. The difficulty of producing enough food for their families is compounded by limited access to water. Women bring water back to the villages by carrying large buckets on their heads. Securing the bare necessities is a daily struggle.

Yet their optimism is incredible. We drove for miles down dusty paths into the bush to meet with some of these farmers, and it was a very moving experience as they came out of their homes to welcome us. They invited us into their fields to see their cotton and maize crops. Farmer to farmer, I talked with them about the things we all need to be able to grow enough food.

The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization has issued a grand challenge to all farmers around the world. We must produce more food in the next 50 years than has been grown in the last 10,000 years combined. It’s projected there will be 9.7 billion mouths to feed on the planet by 2050. The world’s growing population will need all farms, large and small, organic and conventional to meet that need.

Addressing hunger and food security can be a formidable task, but it can be done. There are many who are working today in Africa and finding answers to the problems that we witnessed. We could see they are making a difference. Cargill has outreach programs through its 170 farm service centers that are helping 60,000 smallholder farmers with access to inputs and financing, as well as agricultural best practices. Organizations like Comaco and Zasaka are creating the marketing opportunities and tools to help. Portable water pumps and hand-operated corn shellers are being designed and built using local craftsman and the expertise of an MIT student and others committed to the task. Corporations, NGOs and religious institutions are but a few that are engaged. We will need all these efforts and more.

Food security is everybody’s business as we look toward the future. We all want to live in a more stable world where people are fed and have their basic needs met. As the Learning Journey participants return from a meaningful exploration of Africa, we are asking ourselves: what can I do both personally and professionally about hunger? Later this month, the Meridian Institute, which joined us on the journey, will release a summary of findings from the trip. But it is also a personal question I have pondered since getting back. We came, we learned, and now the question is: What can we do next?

Yet even as I grapple with this, I am inspired by the conversations I had with those women smallholders on the ground. Their spirit and determination, as well as their entrepreneurism and ingenuity, are the same as those of farmers the world over. I saw great need, but also great progress and hope.

Pam Johnson is a farmer in Iowa and past president of the National Corn Growers Association.

This content is provided by Cargill. It was not written by our editorial staff, nor does it necessarily reflect the editorial views of National Geographic.