Africa, Climate Change, Development & Aid, Environment, Europe, Food and Agriculture, Headlines

DEVELOPMENT: 'African Agriculture Needs Green Growth'

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Jul 3 2008 (IPS) - Caution needs to be exercised in developing African food production to avoid long-term social and environmental harm, according to an ecologist credited with averting mass hunger on the continent.

Hans Herren, president of the U.S.-based Millennium Institute, says that some of the prescriptions offered for extricating Africa from its current crisis over high food prices may ultimately cause more damage than good.

Best known for developing a system of biological protection against the mealybug insect that threatened to destroy cassava production in Africa during the 1980s, Herren took issue with recommendations made by Jeffrey Sachs, the prominent economist who is one of the top advisers to the United Nations on the fight against poverty.

Whereas Sachs has been advocating that fertilisers should be provided in bulk to African farmers, Herren noted the liberal use of chemical fertilisers can cause widespread pollution.

Describing fertilisers as only "an interim solution", Herren added: "Yes, we need phosphates in some areas that are too poor but with nitrogen we have to be careful because it very easily pollutes rivers.

"What I fear is that the whole crisis around food and food prices will just promote quick fixes that are not really dealing with the causes (of the underlying problems for African agriculture)," Herren told IPS. "We have to deal with all this as an ensemble. You cannot just pick out something."

Referring to the ongoing Doha round of world trade talks, Herren contended that dismantling tariffs that are designed to ensure that farmers in poor countries are not submerged by imports, will not prove beneficial. "In Europe we have barriers, so why should a Kenyan farmer not be protected from imported maize?" he asked.

Herren visited Brussels Jul. 2 to discuss a recently published report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The IAASTD is linked to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the group which binds together scientists advising the UN's member countries.

According to the IAASTD study, sub-Saharan Africa has been an exception to the pattern of agricultural development seen in most of the world since the 1960s. Although world cereal production has doubled, hunger and malnutrition remain high in south Asia and much of Africa.

Aid specifically geared to help unlock the potential of African agriculture has slumped, too. Even though the total amount of all development aid given by rich countries to the poor grew by 250 percent between the early 1980s and 2005, the proportion of that assistance devoted to farming fell from 17 percent to 3 percent.

The IAASTD also argues that public funding is more likely to help poor farmers than private sector investment, and that a concerted effort is required to ensure the long-term sustainability of agriculture. At the moment, agriculture accounts for over half of all worldwide emissions of methane and nitrous oxide that are linked to human activity. Both these gases, which are released as a result of chemical use and intensive livestock rearing, contribute to climate change.

A somewhat different analysis was offered by Akin Adesina, the Nigerian-born vice-president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

"Fertiliser use per hectare in sub-Saharan Africa is the lowest in the world," said Adesina. "It is the only region in the world with a huge fertiliser deficit. Fertiliser is not the only solution but without it no agriculture grows."

Chaired by Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, AGRA is mainly financed by two outlets for corporate philanthropy: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Nonetheless, Adesina argued that efforts to develop farming must pay heed to ecological concerns. "What Africa needs is a uniquely African 'green revolution', one that recognises biodiversity and one that takes issues of the environment very seriously," he argued, alluding to a process of growth in farming that began in Mexico in the 1940s before being emulated by other poor countries such as India.

Adesina also lamented that Africa has been "enduring a silent hunger for so long" and that the "only reason we are talking about it today is that it has spilled out of the rural areas into urban areas" where unrest has occurred because of public anger over price increases. He suggested that high food imports in Africa – which climbed from 88 billion dollars to 119 billion dollars between 2006 and last year – has hampered the development of agriculture on the continent. "Why should Africa be the only region in the world that is begging for food?" he asked. "That is totally unacceptable."

Adesina was taking part in a seminar which examined the roles played by foundations funded by major companies in Africa. The seminar was organised by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), an organisation dealing with relations between Europe and some 80 African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries.

Olga Sulla, an economist with the World Bank, noted how about 5 percent of the assets held by the planet's 700 billionaires go to philanthropy. While most of the corporate-funded foundations in the U.S. have been supporting projects within that country and in so-called emerging economies like Brazil and India, only a small number are showing a greater interest in African agriculture.

Rudolf Buntzel, a specialist in rural development with the Church Development Service in Germany, voiced concern that foundations tied to big companies may not defend the interests of the poor as vigorously as campaign groups do. "There cannot be poverty alleviation without oftentimes getting into conflicts with powerful vested interests," he argued. "My question to these new donors is: are you willing to get involved in conflicts?"

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