Food for Africa

2013-08-02 00:00

JUST as Chicken Little is convinced that the sky is going to fall on his head, the constant scaremongering that we are under imminent threat of starvation because of our burgeoning global population, has persuaded the uninformed that this is so.

This narrative is about as nuanced as the recent movie World War Z, where zombies overrun a helpless population.

Just as the zombie movie presents an implausible take on the world, the ostensible food crisis is similarly misrepresented. We generate sufficient food to feed a balanced and healthy diet to every human on Earth. That almost half of the food we produce is wasted is hardly mentioned.

So why is at least one sixth of humanity prone to food insecurity? The problem is that our food supply is neither equitably distributed, nor is most of it directed towards feeding people. Most of the food we grow feeds animals and motorcars. This is because it is profitable to feed animals and cars. It is not profitable to feed poor people.

Should you doubt this claim, consider these facts. More than 80% of the maize grown in the United States is turned into animal feed and ethanol for fuel. The same is happening to maize, sugar and soya from Argentina and Brazil. A single biofuel plant in the United Kingdom consumes more wheat than South Africa imports each year.

The commodification of food as a globally traded resource has transformed food from a source of nutrients to a source of money. The poor cannot eat money.

How do we start to solve this problem?

Over the past 15 years, there has been a push to improve African agriculture, from within Africa and via external agencies. The internal thrust largely arose out of the neo-liberal New Partnership for African Development (Nepad), which developed the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP).

CAADP was premised on working with local stakeholders, while attracting suitable investment into African agriculture in order to match productivity levels elsewhere. These commendable goals have failed to create significant transformation because poorly resourced local farmers and civic groups have found it difficult to engage, either because they lack resources, or because they are unaware of the programme at all.

Allied to CAADP, but driven entirely by external, northern agencies, the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (Agra) has had a more sinister influence. Agra receives significant private funding, primarily through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, assisted by philanthropists such as Warren Buffet and Carlos Slim.

As a consequence, Agra is beset by powerfully ideological inclinations, primarily along the lines of neoliberal alignment, allied with technocratic interventionism. Consequently, there is extensive input from corporate entities such as GMO seed companies, fertiliser groups, as well as from state entities such as U.S.Aid, the UK’s development arm DFID, and other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development members, as well as some African governments to provide legitimacy. The ideological baggage embedded in these programmes threatens their long-term success for identical reasons that repeated external attempts to reform African agriculture have failed since the mid-20th century. The primary reason for these failures are because researchers and aid groups have attempted to impose external models like the “green revolution” on traditional farmers, without understanding the marginal farming systems found in Africa.

The most successful African food-security improvement programmes have been inclusive, not coercive. The present drive to green African agriculture is accompanied by a powerful commercial imperative. Experience has repeatedly shown that the imposition of expensive, high-input systems on resource-poor farmers is doomed to fail.

Coupled to this push for external inputs, is a massive drive to purchase some of the richest farmland in Africa to produce food and biofuel crops profitably, mainly for export, using intensive industrial-agricultural models. These projects stand to undermine any gains made either by Agra or CAADP, as traditional owners are displaced from productive land to marginal production zones or urban areas.

If we are to reform the productive capacity of African agriculture, then such programmes should address African requirements. Certainly, Africans should accept assistance from external donors but this must be employed sensitively, in concert with local interests. It is important that local interests include the people they are meant to assist. While this may be axiomatic, the reality is that Africa is prone to patronising and inappropriate aid and assistance relationships.

The identical interests of the purveyors of agricultural inputs, seed, fertiliser and chemicals, along with their ideological collaborators and benefactors in international finance, are essentially indivisible from those who inform us that the famine zombies loom large. These interests are indivisible from those who promote food as fuel, animal feed and commodity, rather than as a source of human nutrition, and who stand to profit from these investments.

If we are to solve the problem of hunger in sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere, we need realists, not ideologues. The irony is that the neoliberal, techno-fix obsessed ideologues call the realists, who have their ears to the ground, ideologues.

This perpetuates a familiar, yet bitterly intransigent, neocolonial cycle. The agenda is yet again set by wealthy outsiders who bludgeon their will on Africa.

• Glenn Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society.

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