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July 03, 2008

Prominent ecologist cautions against piecemeal approach to African agriculture

Caution needs to be exercised in developing African food production to avoid long-term social and environmental harm, according to an ecologist credited with averting mass hunger on the continent.

Hans Herren, president of the U.S.-based Millennium Institute, says that some of the prescriptions offered for extricating Africa from its current crisis over high food prices may ultimately cause more damage than good.

Best known for developing a system of biological protection against the mealybug insect that threatened to destroy cassava production in Africa during the 1980s, Herren took issue with recommendations made by Jeffrey Sachs, the prominent economist who is one of the top advisers to the United Nations on the fight against poverty.

Whereas Sachs has been advocating that fertilisers should be provided in bulk to African farmers, Herren noted the liberal use of chemical fertilisers can cause widespread pollution.

Describing fertilisers as only "an interim solution", Herren added: "Yes, we need phosphates in some areas that are too poor, but with nitrogen we have to be careful because it very easily pollutes rivers. What I fear is that the whole crisis around food and food prices will just promote quick fixes that are not really dealing with the causes (of the underlying problems for African agriculture)," Herren he said. "We have to deal with all this as an ensemble. You cannot just pick out something."

Referring to the ongoing Doha round of world trade talks, Herren contended that dismantling tariffs that are designed to ensure that farmers in poor countries are not submerged by imports, will not prove beneficial. "In Europe we have barriers, so why should a Kenyan farmer not be protected from imported maize?" he asked.

A somewhat different analysis was offered by Akin Adesina, the Nigerian-born vice-president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

"Fertiliser use per hectare in sub-Saharan Africa is the lowest in the world," said Adesina. "It is the only region in the world with a huge fertiliser deficit. Fertiliser is not the only solution but without it no agriculture grows."

Nonetheless, Adesina argued that efforts to develop farming must pay heed to ecological concerns. "What Africa needs is a uniquely African 'green revolution', one that recognises biodiversity and one that takes issues of the environment very seriously," he argued, alluding to a process of growth in farming that began in Mexico in the 1940s before being emulated by other poor countries such as India.

Adesina also lamented that Africa has been "enduring a silent hunger for so long" and that the "only reason we are talking about it today is that it has spilled out of the rural areas into urban areas" where unrest has occurred because of public anger over price increases. He suggested that high food imports in Africa -- which climbed from 88 billion dollars to 119 billion dollars between 2006 and last year -- has hampered the development of agriculture on the continent. "Why should Africa be the only region in the world that is begging for food?" he asked. "That is totally unacceptable."


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