On Thursday, August 22, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center welcomed an audience of more than 225 people to the Conversations event “Connecting Smallholder Farmers to Science.” Speakers included Ruth Kaggwa, PhD, Danforth Center STEM education and outreach manager, and Donald MacKenzie, PhD, director of the Institute for International Crop Improvement at the Danforth Center. The conversation was moderated by Natalie DiNicola, chief communications officer of Benson Hill and vice-chair of the Danforth Leadership Council.

Natalie launched the conversation with some eye-opening facts about Africa. By the year 2050, there will be 2.2 billion more people in the world, and more than half of that growth will come from Africa. In fact, nearly 40% of the world’s population will be African by the year 2050. Whereas only 2% of the U.S. public works in agriculture, that figure is closer to 80% for Africans. And yet, harvests in Africa are among the lowest in the world, up to 50% less than other farmers’.

Donald MacKenzie, Ruth Kaggwa and Natalie DiNicola onstage at Conversations.

Ruth agreed: “Agriculture is the backbone of the economy in my home country, Uganda, and the majority is smallholder farming on less than 20 acres.” She went on to describe a farming system that is primarily rain-fed and dominated by women and children, with family members, especially school children providing the labor. “Many farm children drop out of school.”

The majority of farming in Africa is rain-fed and dominated by women and children. The goal is to feed the family. –Ruth Kaggwa, PhD, educator

Ruth shared her personal story, which involved growing so many sweet potatoes that she later claimed to have an allergy, so great was her distaste for them. “Farming was a chore for me until I received an agriculture scholarship to college, then I realized I could help improve things.”

Don joined the Danforth Center in 2018 after serving as head of regulatory affairs for the Golden Rice Project. He spoke after Ruth, addressing the need for partners on the ground, detailing the assistance his team provided to Kenya and Tanzania on how to regulate field trials. He also shared the story of improved cassava, resistant to a devastating virus. The chairman of a regional farmers’ organization was elated and ready to take the new variety home, but cannot yet do so until clearing more regulatory hurdles.

An advantage at the Danforth Center is that everything we do is all about collaboration,” -Don MacKenzie, PhD, IICI director

Both Ruth and Don acknowledged the “enthusiasm and excitement” of smallholder farmers for improved varieties, but agreed there were also a lot of misconceptions about gene-edited crops. “One advantage at the Danforth Center is that everything we do is all about collaboration,” said Don. “We work with local organizations to bring these crops forward. They have authority and ownership over the whole process.”

Why It Matters

Smallholder farmers aren’t small. In fact, their impact on the world’s food supply is startlingly large. Farmers with land of less than 25 acres account for some 98% of the world’s agriculture and produce 80% of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. These smallholders, half of whom are women, are essential to crafting sustainable food systems to feed the world. Scientists at the Danforth Center are working to support and empower them, bringing cutting-edge science to the people who need it most. You can help us with your gift of financial support. Donate today.