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TRADE: UNCTAD “Forgets” Real Risks Faced by African Farmers

Julio Godoy

BERLIN, Jun 30 2010 (IPS) - The latest UNCTAD report on science and technology repeats previous calls for a “green revolution” in African agriculture but contains no mention of the real and present dangers that the international trade and financial framework presents to African farmers.

In the report, titled “Enhancing Food Security in Africa Through Science, Technology and Innovation”, UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) warns that sub-Saharan Africa is very likely to miss the first millennium development goal (MDG) due to ineffective farming techniques and wasteful post-harvest practices.

MDG one is about eradicating extreme hunger and poverty by 2015.

To avoid such failure, UNCTAD wants what its secretary general Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi calls “a new green revolution for Africa” not based on foreign models but “built on Africa’s own indigenous technology and knowledge requirements, and the nutrition and food security needs of its people”.

This green revolution should take into consideration “the capabilities of Africa’s millions of smallholder farmers … to cope with the continent’s varying climate conditions. Building capabilities for science, technology and innovation of relevance to local agriculture are the only path to achieve this,” the report points out.

UNCTAD’s version of the “green revolution” must at the same time answer global challenges, such as the adaptation to climate change and the overall decline of investment in agriculture, and meet new demands, such as the need for bio energy.

In addition, UNCTAD says, future African agriculture must resolve structural constraints, particularly the difficulty with access to credit by local farmers, which also determine their ability to “cope with the rising prices of land, seeds and other agricultural inputs.”

To meet such objectives, a new African agricultural policy must focus on smallholder farmers who have proven effective at contributing to economic growth and food security. Smallholders make up over half the population in most developing countries and their farms are often efficiently run and enjoy significant growth potential,” the report’s authors recall.

However well-intentioned, the UNCTAD report has been dismissed as “yet another collection of not particularly inventive suggestions”, as Uwe Hoering, a German expert on trade and agriculture for the Luxembourg-based information service on globalisation and North-South relations, World Economy and Development in Brief, put it.

According to Hoering, UNCTAD intentionally forget to mention that the worst risks African agriculture faces lie in the international framework set by the multinational agro-industrial sector, international organisations such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation, and by the agricultural and trade policies of the industrialised world.

“The greatest enemies of the small African farmers are the agro-industrial sector; unsteady prices for food at the world markets caused by speculation; and so-called free trade agreements,” Hoering told IPS.

“The agro-industrial sector dominates the research and technology development for the agriculture,” Hoering added. “All these factors drive agriculture at the local and the global level in the opposite direction as the one the UNCTAD calls for – towards monocultures, and towards more private seed patents and other expensive farming inputs.”

The UNCTAD report also fails to comment on the so-called land grab campaign, the buyout or leasing of large areas of rich arable land in many African countries by foreign companies or state funds. This land grab is seen as harmful for sub-Saharan African smallholder farmers and for the continent’s food sovereignty.

Because UNCTAD simply ignores such real factors, its report is short of “convincing arguments, and fails to provide a real promising vision for a turnaround for African agriculture”, Hoering said. The report remains “a collection of arbitrary suggestions, which try to pass by reality.”

Hoering’s criticism echoes that of other European development experts and activists.

In a joint report, the German bureaux of the humanitarian organisations Oxfam and Food First Information and Action Network (FIAN) complained that three years after the start of the world food crisis, “the agro-industrial sector (in the industrialised countries), with the help of governments, continues to powerfully push the liberalisation of international food markets and the acceptance of genetically modified agriculture (GMA).”

The survey, titled “Grenzenlos und billig” (“Borderless and cheap”), shows that the food industry in the developed countries uses the stalemate in the international trade negotiations to advance bilateral trade agreements with the developing countries in order to gain access to new markets for their food goods.

Oxfam and FIAN criticised European governments for continuing to support the exports of agricultural goods to development countries, particularly to Africa. “Instead of promoting food export (towards developing countries), the industrialised world should be supporting fair trade,” Marita Wiggerthale, expert on agriculture at Oxfam in Germany, told IPS.

“When Europe exports more agricultural goods to the poorest countries of the world, especially in Africa, it is not helping the people there. Quite the contrary,” Wiggerthale said. “Such exports crowd out local food production.”

One of the main lessons to be learnt from the world food crisis is that developing countries, especially the poorest ones in Africa, “need to increase their local farm and food production and to break their dependency from the world markets,” Wiggerthale added. “Developing countries also need to better protect their markets from imports.”

UNCTAD mentions none of these factors. Instead, the document puts forward 12 main recommendations, the core of them being putting “smallholder farmers … at the centre of policy so that agricultural research, development, and extension services meet the real needs of small-scale farmers”.

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