In the Guardian’s editorial (Feeding Africa, 29 July) the suggestion is made that, without improved seed varieties and fertiliser, African agriculture is a lost cause. This cannot go unchallenged. Farming in the UK elicits a peaceful picture of sheep grazing on green pastures, large fields of crops, and tractors. This image is far from the reality of the farms that produce the majority of Africa’s food. The average African farm is less than a hectare, the farmer is normally a woman and her main implement of cultivation is the hand hoe – this situates African agriculture in a very different context.
The editorial cites “subsidised seed and fertiliser” as the reason for Malawi’s farming transformation, “more than doubling productivity in a single year”. More than 25 years of working in rural Africa has taught me that this is an oversimplification of a very complex set of structural constraints and one that lulls us into a false sense of security. The suggestion is that if you get modern seeds and fertiliser to farmers then Africa’s food insecurity is solved. This modernist assumption that the industrial model of agriculture can solve Africa’s problems simply returns us to the failed policies of the 1960s and ignores the deleterious environmental impact of high input agriculture.
This puts Malawi’s “success” story in a different light. Malawi’s over-dependence on maize for national food security is short-sighted. Input subsidies do not target the poorest and the strategy depends on continued donor support, thereby raising questions of affordability in the face of growing fertiliser prices. Since the scheme is subject to state patronage, it breeds farmers’ dependence on the state.
In attributing the success of the Malawian scheme to farming inputs alone, your leader pays insufficient attention to the optimal rainfall that Malawi experienced over the past agricultural seasons. Droughts and floods in Africa have put paid to best intentions; at some time in the future crops will fail again, at great cost to Malawi’s farmers.
The conclusion that “growing more food … is the part that matters most” is unhelpful since it overlooks the question of longer-term sustainability. Hunger is an abomination, but alleviation in the short term is merely food aid in a different form. A permanent solution is required. We need alternatives to monocultures and fossil fuels. My organisation, Find Your Feet, promotes agroecology – agricultural systems that more closely mimic the natural ecosystems that have served African farmers for millennia. These resource-conserving approaches reorient attention from single crops to diversified risk-reducing strategies that mitigate the effects of climatic unpredictability, and return control to Africa’s farmers.
Business as usual is not an option: new solutions to new problems are needed and science and technology must play a role. Agroecology challenges us to acknowledge the perspicacity of Africa’s farmers and resist the inclination to transfer to Africa more of the same old package – the technologies, market freedoms and mindsets – that created the food crisis in the first place.