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August 20, 2008

Malawi's agricultural success cannot be sustained under the present model

by Dan Taylor

A comment on The destruction of African agriculture. Any attempt to cover a very complex subject in the space of a few pages must inevitably be somewhat superficial in its analysis. Walden Bello’s ‘The ‘destruction of African agriculture’ is a good attempt to do so but suffers from a number of analytical shortfalls.

While the article starts with biofuel production it does not argue against the disastrous impact that biofuels has had on the global food crisis, and glosses over the fact that it is one of the major contributing factors at the present time. But I do not want to dwell on this and must myself be subject to the same criticism of trying to say too much in too little words.

The conflation in this article of structural adjustment, state failure and the more recent policies of global institutions in which privatisation has been mandatory for the developing world (together with the deforestation for, and use of, food crops for biofuel production) does little to clarify our current food crisis or the destruction of Africa’s agriculture.

Furthermore, the fact that African governments do little to promote agriculture either by investing a higher proportion of their national budget in this sector, or by enacting policies that link agricultural production to environmental and biodiversity conservation, raises some important issues of governance and accountability to their poorer citizens.

But all this is old news. The point that we wish to emphasise is that the rather predictable outcome of a privatisation process should not detract from the fact that business as usual, the industrial model of agriculture, is no solution – to repeat the findings of the latest IAASTAD Report - to the current food crisis.

In this regard we want to refer to the Malawi success story promoted in the article, one that is dependent on continued donor support, affordability in the face of growing fertiliser prices, and state patronage. In attributing the success of the scheme to farming inputs, insufficient attention has been paid to the fact that rainfall in Malawi over the past two agricultural seasons has been optimal. We are delighted that Malawi farmers were able to grow more food and our wish is for this to continue.

At risk of being harbingers of doom, it is clear that it cannot and will not continue – the sad fact is that Africa is susceptible to floods and droughts. The droughts will return, if not next year, then the year after, or the year after that. And at this point of time the crops will again fail. In any event donors will most probably have changed their priorities by then, but farmers’ reliance on an unsustainable model of agriculture will remain.

So what about sustainability? Part of the food crisis is the high costs of an agricultural model dependent on monocultures and fossil fuels at the expense of the environment. The threat of global warming tells us that we need to reduce risk and diversify agricultural production away from a reliance on single crops towards a diversified agriculture that is more in keeping with agricultural systems which have served Africa for millennia and more closely mimic the natural ecosystems.

Hence the use of readily available local resources using farmers own skills and knowledge – in other words a range of technologies, practices and systems that require few external inputs. The article shows little concern for the environment, while even the Malawi Government is recognising the unsustainbility of highly subsidised input packages in the current economic crisis. It is for this reason that it has asked us, through the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, to launch a national composting programme, to reduce reliance on an intervention that it cannot afford and neither can the farmers which it is designed to benefit.

So the World Bank, with regard to subsidies in this case, is right, even if it is not for the correct reasons. And while we must recognise the mistakes of the rather short-sighted policies of the past – of which structural adjustment provides us with a devastating example – we should look forwards not backwards. The positive role that the state must play should be re-emphasised in a policy context which recognises farmers as custodians of the environment and plays an affirming role in setting the policies that empower them while making them responsible for conserving the agricultural and biological diversity on which posterity depends. This is real agency for farmers as citizens and one in which they will no longer be subject to the fads and fashions of donor policies or the edicts of global multilateral institutions.

Pambazuka News

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