Africa, Development & Aid, Food and Agriculture, Headlines, Poverty & SDGs

DEVELOPMENT-AFRICA: "Political Will" Needed To Address Food Crisis

Kwamboka Oyaro

NAIROBI, May 9 2008 (IPS) - The need to give agriculture top billing on governmental "to do" lists has been highlighted at a telephone briefing to discuss the current food crisis as it affects Africa.

Three top-level scientists from agricultural research institutes addressed journalists Thursday on what has caused food prices to rocket. The press conference also dealt with strategies that African countries might adopt for increasing future yields, mitigating the effects of the crisis, and coping in the event that staples such as rice and maize continue to rise in price.

"In the short run we need soil fertility," said Dennis Garrity, director general of the World Agroforestry Centre, headquartered in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

"Farmers in Africa desperately need nutrients in all forms to replenish their depleted soils. The continent is the lowest user of nutrients, as farmers use less than 10 percent of the fertilizer required per crop."

With fertilizer prices having increased sharply on the back of rising oil costs, governments might have to intervene to improve soil quality: "Fertilizer prices have tripled or even quadrupled…Governments must consider expanding fertilizer subsidies immediately. In addition, farmers must access markets. This will encourage them to increase their production," Garrity said.

The continent&#39s farmers also need training in how to restore soil nutrients in inexpensive ways, such as planting fields with legumes. Nodules on the roots of these plants contain bacteria that can take nitrogen from the atmosphere and fix it in compounds which then benefit both the legumes and other plants. Nitrogen, essential for all life forms, is present in large quantities in the air; however, the majority of organisms are unable to make use of the element as it occurs in the atmosphere. (For a related story, see: &#39ENVIRONMENT-COTE D&#39IVOIRE: Soya By Way of War&#39.)

There are signs that Kenya may be making progress with the issues outlined by Garrity.

This week, President Mwai Kibaki launched a loan facility of some 48 million dollars for the East African country&#39s farmers, in association with the International Fund for Agricultural Development, Equity Bank – a local firm – and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. The alliance is a donor-funded group based in Nairobi.

Low yields in Kenya have been attributed, in part, to lack of funds for buying agricultural requirements. This year, food production has suffered additionally as a result of low rainfall and the violence sparked by disputed presidential elections held Dec. 27.

The need for improved seeds was also raised during the telebriefing. Marianne Banziger, director of the Global Maize Program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo, CIMMYT), said that in Africa only 35 percent of farmers have access to better types of maize seeds – this despite studies showing that improved seeds can ensure good harvests, and help avert food shortages.

CIMMYT has its main office in Mexico; however, Banziger is based in Nairobi.

Papa Abdoulaye Seck, director general of the Africa Rice Center, noted that strategies to improve agriculture – increased use of fertilizers and better seeds, as well as other interventions – could not be adopted in isolation of each other. Food security would only be realised with a holistic approach to agriculture, he said. The centre is temporarily headquartered in Cotonou, Benin.

Malawi provides an illustration of what can be achieved with such an approach.

This Southern African country suffered from ongoing food shortages until four years ago, when the United Nations helped farmers to obtain fertilizer, seeds and other agricultural requirements. "The country moved from starving to surplus production," said Banziger.

The food crisis is blamed on several factors. These include greater use of crops for biofuels, increased consumption in certain rapidly developing Asian countries, crop failure in various states, and the aforementioned rise in the oil price.

According to the World Bank, overall food costs rose by more than 80 percent globally between February 2005 and February this year. The crisis has sparked protests and riots in several parts of Africa.

"We (scientists) knew in 1999 that this food crisis will occur. Food production has remained static while population and demand have increased. Today we know that there are diseases coming up which will affect production. But solutions of science come in three to 10 years," said Banziger.

"Political will is needed to realise any solutions," she added, addressing an issue also raised by Garrity.

"The crisis will wake up the political sector to making agriculture once again the priority it is supposed to be," he said.

The briefing was organized by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which brings together countries and a variety of organisations in supporting 15 research centres around the world.

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