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April 10, 2007

Book review : history, pros and cons of the dominance of maize in Africa


Maize and Grace : Africa's Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500-2000. by James C. McCann.
Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 2005. xiii + 289pp.
ISBN: 0-674-01718-8.

reviewed by Allan G. Bogue*

A historian and African Studies specialist, James C. McCann has studied in Africa, conducted research there for international philanthropic agencies and written histories of Ethiopia and the African environment. In this book he describes "maize's historical encounter with the landscapes of Africa" from introduction to its current status as Africa's dominant food crop. Of concern also is the "implicit question" of whether the New World's gift of this crop has bestowed a blessing (grace) upon Africa.

More important as a food source in Africa than in comparable entities, maize is expected to double production by 2020. It is the world and Africa's most adapted food crop, thriving in many environmental conditions and farming systems. Some African nations devote more than seventy percent of their cereal acreage to maize.

Old African farmers were artisans adapting crop mixes to local ecology, soils, elevation, and moisture. Initially maize was valued for early maturity and easy food preparation. In contrast, writes McCann, North America and Europe developed an industrial model pointing to monocropping and use of chemicals to overcome differences in soil capability.

As a cereal in Africa, maize displaced wheat and sorghums, less often rice. A great variety of colors, field characteristics, and disease resistance developed in a process of folk selection of seed. Women gardened it; men tended it in field. It had political implications because it could feed armies or support social objectives. Early Africanization produced heterogeneity- now replaced by standardization of cultivation methods, reflecting, says McCann, the political ecology changing from local initiative, through colonialism to globalism. Some unique features remain including the fact that in Africa maize is primarily used as human food. Industrial phase maize is preferred in today's global system, explains McCann, because it can be controlled by the state and corporate agriculture, features economies of scale, and is comparable across geography and cultures.

Africa's maize crop increased area most strikingly in the twentieth century, particularly since 1950. In some African states it provides more than fifty percent of the food calories, for better or for worse. Documentary evidence of maize's arrival in Africa as a "stranger" cultivar is fragmentary. The types introduced reflected the New World contacts of the European nations whose traders worked the African coastlines.

McCann describes major features of the crop's adoption and development in key areas of Africa beginning with the Asante in Ghana where maize fueled their "hegemonic growth." Here maize produced two crops a year, fitting into the forest fallow system along with cassava. The Asante's maize-fed army expanded their reach into neighboring savannahs. Currently quality protein maize from the Ghana Crop Research Institute is allowing a shift toward monocropping. Despite some differences with Ghana, Nigerian farmers also found that maize produced the greatest returns. But McCann cautions that diversion from "a biodiverse forest ecology to virtual monocropping may be an increasingly fragile" trend.

Southern Africa developed two patterns of maize culture - one of small farms, often operated by women, following a subsistence strategy but also selling surplus grain in competition with large commercial farms in a national market supervised by marketing boards. Maize had first arrived in southern Africa by the mid 1600s. Dutch settlers brought mechanized agriculture which also revolutionized hinterland native agriculture, maize replacing sorghums.

After World War I, white farmers used open pollinated white varieties as a cash crop that provided the "agrarian economic base of the rapid expansion of settlers' rule in southern Africa." By 1930 maize had superseded wheat as a cereal in northern South Africa and the families of industrial workers left behind "on impoverished farms in the black homelands" of an apartheid society lived on the local crop. Meanwhile white settler farms grew, assisted by price controls, government credit, extension, and marketing activities that encouraged monocropping. So marked was the influence of southern Africa in maize research and administration that the 'white dent' variety became dominant in Africa.

McCann's last regional story describes the successes of hybrid varieties in Rhodesia and its successor states, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi. Learning of American hybrid maize research in the 1930s, plant breeders at the Salisbury Agricultural Research Station in southern Rhodesia
began to develop inbred dent lines. Working solely to sustain European-style agriculture, they produced a promising parent line in the 1940s, suited to the soils of the white commercial farmers, and continued work when the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland emerged.

They released the phenomenally successful hybrid, SR52 in 1960. Only after creation of the Rhodesian heir states, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi did black farmers benefit from improvements in hybrid maize, although the resulting monoculture increased vulnerability to drought. Maize had somewhat different histories in the three states but all (as also Kenya) are now marked by hybrid monocropping, production for a national market, and the major presence of agricultural science.

Interspersed amid the historical accounts of maize in various settings, McCann discusses two crises in African cereal culture. In Sierra Leone in 1949 a devastating attack of American Rust on the maize crop occurred, spreading rapidly over the next several years along the West African Coast and finally reaching Southern Rhodesia, Kenya, and Tanganyika. The villain was P. polysora, an American resident. Local plant scientists and "multilateral international agencies" rushed development of rust resistant maize and by 1953 promising strains were ready when the infection disappeared. P. polysora is now an African resident.

Africa's agricultural production is increasing at two percent per year while population grows at a three percent rate. This book is an invaluable source of information on a basic element in the situation, essential reading for anyone interested in Africa's history or current problems.

In the conclusion McCann cautions against the current emphasis on maize in Africa given the narrowing of genetic flexibility entailed in monocropping hybrid maize, the possibility of plant disease outbreaks, a growing danger from mycotoxins, drought and climate change, human epidemics enhanced by population mobility, and the volatility of international markets. "It is a gloomy prospect," he writes, "a cautionary alarm is justified."

Threaded through the narrative is a policy critique. African plant breeders long served the needs of only white commercial farmers and by ignoring the old varicolored maizes of the black farmers they restricted future options. McCann's ideal is biodiversity and local initiative.
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*Allan G. Bogue is Professor Emeritus (History) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

EH.NET

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