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DEVELOPMENT: Ending Africa's Food Crisis

Tarjei Kidd Olsen

OSLO, Sep 19 2008 (IPS) - Africa's food crisis can be alleviated by modernising agriculture and reforming supply chains so that small-scale farmers get cheaper fertiliser and high-yield seeds, experts and officials at a conference in Oslo have argued. But so far, they say, funding is lacking.

The funding issue came up again at the third and final conference of the Africa Green Revolution Conference (AGRC) held in Oslo last month. The series was initiated in 2006 by Norwegian fertiliser giant Yara International, which has also co-hosted the conferences.

Yara's initiative follows a call by Kofi Annan in 2004, as then UN secretary-general, for increased public-private partnerships to create an African 'green revolution', a term referring to 'green revolutions' in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

In a matter of years these 'revolutions' greatly increased wheat yields in countries such as India and Pakistan through high-yield wheat seeds and modernised farming techniques. Some supporters of these revolutions say a billion people have been saved as a result. Their architect, 94-year-old U.S. agronomist and Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, attended the 2006 conference to lend his support.

The key recommendation from last year's conference was that a global fund should be created to help finance investments in Africa's agriculture, including initiatives aimed at reducing the prices that farmers have to pay for fertiliser and high-yield seeds by improving delivery mechanisms and the national infrastructure.

As there is still no such global fund, this year's meet focused on financing options. However, so far most of the monetary pledges made by donors have not been honoured.

According to Jeffrey Sachs, special advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, sufficient funding for agriculture projects will make it easy to "double, triple, or even quintuple" Africa's production of staple foods, as seen in Malawi, which used fertiliser vouchers on a national scale to go from an importer to an exporter of maize in just two years.

"We have been very concerned about the very slow progress in Africa, and the waning interest over many years by various development actors, as regards smallholder agriculture and its potential," Lennart Båge, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) told IPS at the conference.

"I hope that now – with the food crisis that has really had a tremendous impact on poor people in Africa – that there is a new realisation that we need to re-engage with agriculture in terms of a political priority, in terms of a funding priority, and to get all hands on deck, whether they be government, aid donors, or the private sector."

In most cases, Båge said, the African farmer is a smallholder woman farmer who is "producing for herself, her family, and sometimes the market. We can boost that production so that a bigger share goes to the market.

"Given the very low prices on the international market because of dumping (of western food surpluses), and export subsidies, it's been easier for poor countries to import artificially low-priced food from the international market than it's been to develop their national systems by increasing productivity and production, as well as linking them to the market – which requires roads, storage, agro-processing, value addition, irrigation, and so on."

Båge pointed out that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that the world will need to produce 50 percent more food by 2030 to feed the planet's growing population.

"When you look at the underlying problems, there is one very stark fact, and that is that productivity growth in agriculture, which used to be four to six percent in the early 1980s, has gone down by one to two percent. We're actually on a trend of decline that is not sustainable," he said.

"We can do a lot with our existing knowledge and experience if we just get the funding to backstop it and make the smallholder production much more productive. We don't have the funding today, but we have, in words, a stronger commitment than in the past because of the food crisis."

The next African Green Revolution Conference will be held in Africa, although the date and venue are yet to be decided.

At this year's conference Norway announced that it will partner with Yara to improve the availability of fertiliser to African farmers. A broader public-private partnership agreement with other fertiliser companies is expected to be announced at the UN at a later date.

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