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February 21, 2011

Africa increasingly questions the sustainability of dependence on maize for food security

by Chido Makunike

Since the introduction of maize into Africa several centuries ago, a large part of the continent has become dependent on it as its staple starch. For many countries in Africa, 'food security' is now often mainly defined by the availability and affordability of maize.

Yet this soil nutrient-hungry cereal is proving to be increasingly difficult for many African countries to grow. Yields are stagnating or dropping as the fertility of tired soils declines. A relatively minor proportion of African farmers, most of whom farm on a subsistence level, can afford fertilizer. Many countries have inputs subsidies programmes but their reach and effectiveness varies widely. The long-term sustainability of these expensive, often highly politicized and donor-funded schemes is questionable. Sustainable farming methods of boosting soil fertility and crop yields are often not easy for small scale farmers to practice for field crops like maize for one reason or another.

Then there is the important new factor of climate unpredictably that can throw off a rain-dependent country's best farming preparations.

In the face of these and many other pressures on the successful cultivation of maize, the annual needs of this crop of most countries are increasing along with their booming populations. For many countries in Africa, this necessarily means expensive partial importation of maize, and often dependence on relief efforts by international agencies and foreign donor governments. The result is that many countries are chronically on the brink of maize famine.

Because of how critical to food security maize has become in Africa, it has also become a very 'political' crop.  A government's fortunes can easily, quickly rise or fall on the basis of its perceived success or failure at 'feeding the nation' with maize, whether through increased production or when necessary, through import. No government can afford to be found wanting in its efforts to ensure the nation is maize-secure.

This means Africa's governments are in perpetual efforts to boost domestic maize production. But apart from the increasing agronomic and climatic challenges of growing maize, there are many others which have made long-term maize self-sufficiency a mirage for most African countries. Policies to encourage farmers to boost production may be contradicted by policies to then fix the farmer's selling price (sometimes below the cost of production) in a populist attempt to keep the staple 'affordable' to the poor majority. This inevitably results in decreased production the following year. Frequently drought, and occasionally floods, can destroy a country's carefully prepared farming plans.

Many countries bust their budgets to subsidize the purchase price of maize, but this often has many other unintended negative consequences, and the sheer size of the challenge of long-term subsidies for a major food like this has meant this is not a realistic long-term solution either.

Malawi in recent years has succeeded in turning its maize fortunes around from famine to exportable surplus with a fertilizer and seed subsidy programme which has so far coincided with good rains. As negligible quantities of its maize are grown under irrigation, it remains to be seen what will happen in the event of the inevitable drought. Inappropriate fertilizer application during low rainfall periods may even hasten the demise of moisture-stressed maize plants by scorching them.

This potential problem is compounded by the fact that farmers have been encouraged to abandon traditional maize varieties that are well-suited to local conditions, including frequent dry spells and soils of marginal natural fertility. The commercial hybrid varieties many have taken up provide their higher yields under specific, idealized conditions of fertilizer application and rainfall availability. When those increasingly unpredictable ideal conditions do not exist, or are 'mistimed,' the result is often massive crop failure and yields even lower than the 'old-fashioned' traditional varieties would provide in similar stress conditions.    

Zambia also has recently enjoyed maize surpluses, said to be largely due to the efforts of large-scale Zimbabwean farmers who fled the land reform upheaval in their neighbouring homeland.

Zimbabwe itself has begun to experience a turn-around in its crop production and may in a few years again achieve maize self-sufficiency. Led by its small-scale farmers, most of this increased production is rain-fed, as in most of Africa, meaning the gains of several years can be stalled or reversed in just one bad drought year. As it is, the expected bumper maize harvest of what had so far been an excellent rain season is threatened by a long in-season dry spell that has brought the maize crop under severe stress. Better-adapted cereal varieties such as millet and sorghum are bearing up much better than maize under the dry spell.

In response to the agronomic difficulties of growing a crop in conditions that are increasingly unfriendly for it, many coping mechanisms are being tried. Those few countries with fairly well-developed research capabilities have on-going maize seed-breeding programmes to develop varieties better suited to the increasingly harsh growing conditions. A much-heralded recent addition to these national efforts has been the WEMA (Water Efficient Maize for Africa) maize-breeding programme in several countries, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  
Yet there is reason to worry that all these may be merely stop-gap efforts. They may delay but not indefinitely put off the stark reality that large parts of Africa may be simply increasingly becoming unsuitable for maize cultivation.

The food security and therefore political implications of this are stupendous. This may be why many policy-makers and researchers who should (and probably do) know better have not made the paradigm shift to beginning to look for and encourage better-suited alternatives to maize. Instead, political expediency and various entrenched institutional interests have led to continued efforts to coax maize to do better in the increasingly hostile climatological and agronomic environment of Africa.

What the pyramid scheme of continued dependence on an inherently Africa-unsuitable crop like maize means is that when it is eventually, finally widely recognized that the continent simply needs to begin to move away from a maize-based food security, the change required may be too sudden to avoid widespread famine and overall social and economic calamity in many countries.

It will neither be easy nor quick to change the idea of maize as the basis of nutrition. Because of its economic and political importance there are many maize special-interests groups in countries that grow, import and export it who would likely resist efforts to reduce Africa's dependence on it. Governments will want to be cautious not to be seen as shirking their responsibility in ensuring maize-security for their citizens.

Yet all the signs over several decades now are that the days of growing maize sustainably in much of Africa are numbered in ways that cannot be overcome by more fertilizer, subsidies, imports and various other schemes. The uptake of maize in Africa may be one of the world's most successful examples of the introduction of a crop from one region of the world to another. But it may also be an important example of where it must be thought of as having worked for a certain limited period.

While there is yet no organized effort to look beyond the maize-based era of food security for Africa, there are encouraging signs that there is nevertheless a growing recognition of the problem, and the need to begin to explore alternatives.

In Kenya, a heavily maize-dependent country that often experiences shortages of the crop, a recent report said there was a noticeable dietary shift away from maize to alternatives like potatoes, said to now be the second most consumed food. The reasons for this are complex and while potatoes may not necessarily replace maize, greater variety of available and affordable options must be part of the mix of solutions.

At a recent climate change conference, voice was given to the need for a change in the 'culture of maize' by which too many Africans define whether they are food secure or not. Just the unprecedented naming of the issue/problem in this way is an important step towards eventually asking how to tackle it.

There are many and varied on-going good efforts to try to address the conflict between Africa's growing maize need and the rapidly worsening conditions to grow it. Unfortunately, those efforts do not yet significantly and in a coordinated way include changing thinking away from the dangerous African dietary dependence on maize, and on the work of beginning to explore and offer realistic alternatives. Given the speed of the deterioration of overall conditions for maize, that is work that is long overdue and needs to start in earnest now.

African Agriculture

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