Friday, December 03, 2010

How best to feed Africa, Part 2

As mentioned in our previous post on this topic, Africa has an untapped potential in agriculture. Many believe that the continent can grow enough food to feed itself, yet the continent has lagged behind all the others in food production.

Asia has seen explosive growth in the amount of food it grows since the 1970s, but that same type of expansion has not reached most of Africa. The country of Malawi has proved that it is possible to grow a surplus of food, and ever since the international community has changed their thinking on how to best aid Africa.

Despite this knowledge there is still debate on how to best move forward, scientists believe new technologies in in bio-tech can help, yet many environmentalists are reluctant to use them. From the Guardian, writer Madeleine Bunting examines this debate.

But if there is widespread agreement on the causes of the problem, there is an extraordinarily polarised debate about the best strategy to tackle the problem. On one side there is a powerful lobby which argues that biotechnology, massive investment in irrigation and mechanisation are the way forward, and on the other side are those who argue that these kinds of investments are usually tied up in big corporate deals in which local smallholder subsistence farmers lose out – either they lose their land or access to water, and often both.

Juma and his prestigious panel of international experts have attempted to pick a politically feasible path between these two positions. His report, A New Harvest, is being launched with the backing a clutch of presidents, including those of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

Inevitably, his enthusiasm for biotechnology will trigger anxieties among that alliance of European and African activists who believe that this entails Faustian pacts with multinational corporations. Another constituency will also be doubtful on the grounds that this kind of emphasis on biotech and science as the way forward in Africa lacks understanding of how development is largely a political process and crucially depends on the effectiveness of institutions – it is a weakness of westerners to believe that clever technology can sort any problem out.

One old hand in the field told me the other day that, on average, it takes 46 years for agricultural innovations to get from the laboratory to widespread use in the field in Africa; it's not lack of technology that is the problem but effective means to disseminate practical solutions. Technology might be able to achieve quick fixes in health on the continent, but they might be elusive in agriculture because it entails much more complex issues of land rights and power.

But what will delight these very critics is Juma's championing of the smallholder farmer – not as an encumbrance to development but as central to its achievement. At the very beginning – the first page of chapter one – he throws his weight behind the example of Malawi, which in 2005 defied USAid (and initially the World Bank) to put major investment into subsidised fertiliser and improved seeds in an attempt to boost maize production. Yields doubled and Malawi was meeting domestic need and exporting surplus maize within a year. Malawi became a poster-girl for western NGOs because it successfully challenged the best part of two decades of a consensus on aid in Africa – namely that the state should not subsidise smallholder agriculture.

No comments: