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February 18, 2009

Big farms may not solve all Africa's agricultural problems

by Michael J. Ssali

There was a debate in three articles of the January 2009 issue of the New African (www.africasia.com) about the adoption of modern agricultural technologies in Africa including the growing of Genetically Modified (GM) crops as the solution to the continent’s hunger problem.

In one of them, Is GM food the future for Africa? Sir David King of Oxford University is quoted to have said: “What was demonstrated in India and China was that modern agricultural technologies can multiply crop production per hectare by 70 to 100 per cent.”

In the same article however, Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, strongly supports organic farming as the way forward for the developing world and totally opposed to all environment-unfriendly farming technologies such as the growth of GM crops. His view is shared by the majority of NGOs linked to African agricultural development efforts.

Modern farming technologies are mostly about the use of machines such as tractors, and chemicals to control weeds or to boost soil fertility for large scale production of crops. Usually, the farmer operates on a wide expanse of land and generally applies such farming methods and technologies as those practiced in the industrialised world.

But is this necessarily the way for us in Africa to go? We happen to live on small plots of land. Here in Uganda for example, about 78 per cent of our population lives on small plots of land, measuring one, two, three, or four acres, and mostly practices small-scale farming. For us to switch to large farms would mean leaving some people landless which could invite unemployment and political unrest, with echoes of ettaka lyaffe balitwaala (our land is being grabbed). Africans generally share whatever little they have among themselves and cases of land fragmentation whatever its ills may be, are not rare.

Most debates about the future of farming in developing countries revolve around three questions. Should we adopt the so called modern science and technology into our farming systems to produce enough food, and to control crop pests and diseases? Should we as Africans make our own research on our traditional methods of farming and indigenous food crops with a view to coming up with African solutions to our own hunger problems? Should our governments focus on large-scale farming or small-scale farming?

We used to grow bananas, sorghum, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, yams, cassava, millet, lots of traditional vegetables and other crops before the coming of the white man. Why then should we have to depend on his wisdom and guidance to grow the same crops he found us growing and which are not even known in his homeland?

The more western technology we adopt, the more we have to spend on machinery and chemicals manufactured in the west. Yet the idea is not that if we came up with so much food as a result of using the machines and chemicals, the west would buy it. They simply have too much food already.

According to recent Food and Agriculture Organisation (Fao) estimates, food exports to overseas markets by the least developed countries have declined by 50 per cent in the past 40 years due to high tariff barriers and a generally unfair global trade system that limits African products’ access to overseas markets.

What the industrialised countries don’t seem to have enough of is organically grown food, and this is what we should focus on. They will earn the profits on the machines and chemicals but they will not be so keen on buying our surplus food. Not only has indiscriminate use of chemicals been discovered to have long term negative effects on the fertility of the soil but also the export market, for products grown with mindless application of chemicals is declining. There is a new belief in the west that the chemicals are dangerous to human health.

Our food and poverty problems must be solved right on our small plots of land and by ourselves as farmers and researchers. Inter-farm visits and information sharing among small scale farmers should be the thing to emphasise. Our national research organisations must turn to us the indigenous farmers of the indigenous crops and share our knowledge as we move forward together. Let our nations allocate more money to agricultural research, especially in the field of biological control of pests and the development of our nearly extinct African food crops.

A recent Panos report – Food for all says: “Small farms can more easily undertake environmentally friendly and low risk practices. They are seen as providing employment for large numbers of people in line with the emphasis on “sustainable livelihoods” as the best approach to reducing poverty. Small farmers are also more likely to grow the staple foods on which the hungry depend.”

While addressing a conference of Ministers of Agriculture and farmer leaders from Africa that took place in the Namibian city of Windhoek between February 9 and 10 2009, Mr Akinwumi A. Adesina, the Vice President of the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) said, “Efforts to raise food production in Africa must focus on the small holder farmers who form the overwhelming majority of the farming populations. We must avoid the temptation to focus on large-scale commercial agriculture that displaces small holder farmers and vulnerable populations.”

The Monitor

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