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May 27, 2008

Outdated farming methods are why African agriculture is so unproductive

by Dan Gardner

Many explanations have been offered for the food shortages and soaring prices afflicting much of the world but one that's rarely heard is the disastrously low productivity of African agriculture.

Per hectare farm yields in sub-Saharan Africa are only about one-third those in Asia. They are one-tenth American yields. If African productivity were to rise even to Asian levels, much of the current food crisis would vanish -- and many of the poorest people on earth would be far better off.

Why is African agriculture so unproductive? It's not the fault of African farmers, who "handle their tools, cropping systems, and animals with experienced judgment and considerable skill," writes Robert Paarlberg, an expert on agriculture at Wellesley College and Harvard University. The problem is that the technologies used by those farmers are the same they've used for centuries, if not millennia. "No matter how long or hard they work with these unimproved technologies," Paarlberg writes, "their productivity will remain constrained and their incomes will scarcely rise."

Making a bad situation worse is Africa's rapid population growth. More mouths means more pressure on land and other resources -- a big reason why African productivity is not only low, it's falling. In 2005, Africa's farms produced three per cent less per capita than in 2000 and 12 per cent less than in 1975.

As Paarlberg puts it in the title of his book, recently released by the Harvard University Press, Africans are "starved for science."

What we see today in Africa isn't new. Traditional farming techniques are good enough to keep farmers alive -- barring the occasional famine -- but they aren't enough to lift people out of poverty. Only the introduction of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery allowed European and American farmers to boost productivity and prosper. In the 1960s and 1970s, the widespread application of the same technology, plus the introduction of improved seed varieties, brought similar gains to Asia in what became known as the "Green Revolution."

It's easy to forget that in the 1960s it was Asia, not Africa, that was considered the hopeless case. "There were Malthusians in the 1960s, and into the 1970s, who argued we should stop giving food aid to India because it would only keep people alive to have more children who would starve in greater numbers in the future," Mr. Paarlberg says from his office in Massachusetts.

Fortunately, the Malthusians were ignored. Food aid was delivered. Lives were saved. And rich countries poured money into agricultural research and development. Within 20 years, Asian agriculture had transformed. And 20 years after that, Asia looks set to lead the world.

The Green Revolution never came to Africa, Paarlberg argues, mainly because rich countries focused their resources on Asia. When the productivity of Asian agriculture soared, and the food crisis of the 1960s and 1970s passed, the donors lost interest in the whole subject.

"Over the last 20 years, the donor community has effectively stopped assistance for agricultural modernization in Africa. The percentage of U.S. bilateral development assistance that goes to agriculture has fallen from 25 per cent to one per cent. The World Bank has cut its lending for agriculture from 30 per cent of its lending to eight per cent of its lending. European donors have cut back as well," Paarlberg notes. "So Africa has had the rug pulled out from under it."

African governments simply don't have the resources to pay for major agricultural investments. So food production stagnates. Populations climb. And the future looks grimmer by the year.

Making things worse, Paarlberg argues, is a cultural shift in rich countries.

Agricultural technology and "industrial farming" have fallen out of favour in the West. The cutting edge of agricultural science -- genetic modification -- is widely feared.

Organic is in. No pesticides. No synthetic fertilizers. No genetically modified organisms. We tend to think of organic as a modern movement but it really amounts to removing the technologies developed over the last century and returning agriculture to its roots. It is pre-modern. Just like Africa's farmers.

"Many NGOs working in Africa in the area of development and the environment have been advocating against the modernization of traditional farming practices," Paarlberg says. "They believe that traditional farming in Africa incorporates indigenous knowledge that shouldn't be replaced by science-based knowledge introduced from the outside. They encourage Africa to stay away from fertilizers, and be certified as organic instead. And in the case of genetic engineering, they warn African governments against making these technologies available to farmers."

The NGO-led campaign against genetically modified organisms has been particularly successful. African elites have become so convinced that GMOs are dangerous to human health -- despite reams of evidence to the contrary -- that the president of Zambia once referred to them as "poison." Even facing famine, many African countries have refused to accept American food aid containing GMO varieties -- the same GMO varieties eaten daily by almost every American.

Only South Africa permits its farmers to plant GMOs, thanks to a regulatory system set up shortly before western environmentalists launched the anti-GMO crusade.

In the right-left paradigm of politics, Paarlberg's argument may be dismissed as "right-wing." Just how wrong that is can be seen in the foreword to his book.

One of the foreword's authors is Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution. The other is former U.S. president Jimmy Carter. Both are Nobel Peace Prize winners. Both are humanitarians who have saved countless lives. And both say Paarlberg is right.

Robert Zoellick, the new president of the World Bank, seems to agree. After admitting the bank was wrong to abandon African agriculture, Zoellick recently announced it would double loans to the sector in 2009.

So is the food crisis shaking up the West's thinking? Paarlberg is uncertain. He ruefully notes that at the same time the World Bank changed course, the U.S. government's development agency announced a cut in funding for a network of international agricultural research centres.

This is hardly the stuff of which Green Revolutions are made.

The Ottawa Citizen

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