Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Green Revolution in Africa: Feeding the World

There was a headline today indicating that China would subsidize food for poor families who were suffering due to rising prices. China’s leaders feared outbreaks of civil unrest might ensue. This news serves as a reminder that the conditions that caused dramatic price rises and food shortages in recent years have not changed. There remain at least a billion people who are not receiving enough food. Two articles that provide concise summaries of the issues involved have appeared recently.

Carlisle Ford Runge and Carlisle Piehl Runge provided an article in Foreign Affairs, January/February 2010, entitled Against the Grain: Why Failing to Complete the Green revolution Could Bring the Next Famine. The authors detail the factors contributing to rising food prices and the worldwide shortages.

Diminishing gains in output are the rule in regions that contributed most to the green revolution in the past. Degraded soil conditions and diminished water supplies have been the result of the push for ever-expanding productivity. The methods used are not sustainable over the long term. Meanwhile, demand is rising and the agricultural surplus is falling. The authors point out that world grain production was below the rate of consumption in six of the last nine years. Combining this with conversion of some resources to fuel production indicates that the ever growing world population will see shortages and higher prices for some time.

The authors predict that the worldwide production can be increased to meet the needs of the anticipated three billion additional people (before population growth levels off), but only if it acts quickly to raise the productivity of the remainder of the arable world to modern standards. Africa is the most obvious place to focus for gains.

The specific situation with regard to Africa and its agriculture is the subject of an article by Roger Thurow: The Fertile Continent. This appeared if the November/December, 2010 issue of foreign Affairs.
“Thus, more and more eyes are turning to Africa, agriculture's final frontier. Africa was largely left out of the green revolution, the postwar movement to push up crop yields in the hungriest parts of the world by promoting the use of new seeds and new farming technology. And so agricultural production on the continent could jump quickly if farmers there simply used existing seed, fertilizer, and irrigation technology. And if more efficient networks were developed to distribute and sell the harvests, boosting agricultural yields in Africa could be a major step toward feeding not just the continent but also the rest of the world.”
Thurow provides several reasons why agriculture in Africa was neglected by the international community. Part of the explanation was a lack of focus.
“Research for new breeds of seeds and better soil nourishment to improve the yields of the world's poorest farmers dwindled; priorities shifted to producing safer food in environmentally friendly ways for the world's well-fed.”

“Overall funding from rich nations for agricultural projects in the developing world also collapsed. According to the World Bank, official development assistance for agriculture from rich countries to poor ones plummeted from its peak of $8 billion in 1984 to $3.4 billion in 2004 (measured in 2004 dollars). Over the same period, the share of aid devoted to agriculture relative to total assistance crashed from about 18 percent to less than four percent. Agricultural assistance to sub-Saharan Africa briefly exceeded $3 billion in the mid-1980s, but it soon sank back to $1.2 billion, its 1975 level. The U.S. government's retreat was particularly dramatic: annual U.S. aid to agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa declined from more than $400 million in 1984 to just $60 million in 2006.”
Of equal importance were the self-serving policies imposed on African nations by the community.
“This precipitous drop in research and aid came just as international development theory began to doubt whether helping farmers in poor nations was the most effective way to fight hunger and poverty. In the 1980s, the World Bank and other international development institutions promoted "structural adjustment," a policy that required central governments to exercise fiscal discipline and reduce their debt. Governments in Africa were instructed to get out of the agricultural sector, among other areas, and let the private sector take over.”

“But in most African countries, the private sector was too small, too weak, and too undercapitalized to lead agricultural development; supply enough seeds and fertilizers; buy, transport, and store harvests; or build domestic and export markets. Starved of assistance, the continent's agricultural infrastructure -- research institutions, the roads connecting farms to markets, the network of so-called extension agents who carry new information and technology to farmers, post-harvest storage and distribution capability -- fell into a woeful state (refuting, it seems, the arguments of those who insisted that Africa would be better off without foreign aid).”
The major exporters of agricultural produce were encouraging Africa to limit its production because it was more efficient for the heavily subsidized nations to feed the continent with their excess production.
“Meanwhile, the international development community was asking African governments to stop subsidizing African farmers to encourage them to plant as much as possible. Many African governments were happy to follow this lead: even though small farmers made up a majority of the population in much of Africa, it was the urban voters who kept governments in power. But that left the continent's farmers bearing 100 percent of the risk of a very risky business. They were being asked to perform a high-wire act without a safety net, and they were the only farmers in the world who had to do so.”
They were told that with their cheap labor they be better off concentrating on manufacturing. In the other words, it is “better to produce underwear than maize.”

A severe famine in 2003 led to a change in attitude. There was a renewed interest in developing local agricultural capabilities. African leaders signed up to devote ten percent of their budgets to agricultural development. The World Bank also changed its emphasis and began to encourage state investment in local farmers. The prospects of international aid improved considerably when President Obama took office.
“In his [Obama’s] inaugural address last year, he proclaimed, "To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow, to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds." Those 30 words have since grown into Feed the Future, a program involving most departments of the administration -- from the Department of State and the Department of Agriculture to the Treasury Department and the National Security Council. Its goal is to help the world's poorest farmers grow enough to feed themselves and to have surpluses to sell on the market rather than have to rely on emergency food aid to survive. Obama has asked for $3.5 billion over three years to support agricultural development programs that the governments of low-income countries would draw up themselves.”

“The U.S. government has rallied international support for Feed the Future by citing global security concerns, pointing, for example, to the rioting that struck dozens of countries during the 2008 food crisis. At Washington's prodding, in 2009, the leaders of the G-8 countries pledged $22 billion over three years for agricultural development in the world's poorest countries. Then the G-20 called for the creation of a multidonor trust fund to help finance those efforts. The Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP) was launched this April, with an initial commitment from Canada, Spain, South Korea, and the United States, as well as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that totaled $880 million.”
The authors are optimistic that Africa can become a significant food producer. Their argument is based partly on the continent’s relative wealth in land and water supplies, and partly on the fact that its methods are so rudimentary now, that adding modern techniques is bound to generate a surge in output.
“Africa is so far behind the rest of the world agriculturally that it would make great gains simply by applying existing technology and developing the infrastructure that is common in the rest of the world, such as farm-to-market roads, basic irrigation systems, crop-storage facilities, and commodities exchanges. The hybrid seeds that revolutionized agriculture in the developed world several decades ago are still scarce in Africa.”

“According to the McKinsey Global Institute, if a green revolution ignites in Africa, the continent's agricultural output could increase from the current value of $280 billion per year to as much as $880 billion per year by 2030. Such growth is possible, the institute calculates, if Africa raises yields on key crops to 80 percent of the world average and brings more of its potential farmland into cultivation.”
Finally, there is a good reason why the world will need Africa’s output, and why nations like Saudi Arabia, China, and India are buying African land to provide food for their own countries.
“Also in contrast to much of the rest of the world, land and water resources in Africa have been largely underused. More than half of the earth's unused arable land that can still be exploited without endangering forests and other ecosystems is in Africa. And less than five percent of Africa's arable land is irrigated; abundant water sources, such as the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia, are largely untapped for farming.”

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