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June 13, 2012

'Agribusiness support for G8 proposal is a sales pitch for their products'

The battle lines over the G8 nations' New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition were very quickly drawn after the announcement of the initiative.

On one side mainly American and European companies had their press releases gushingly supporting the plan all ready, complete with how many millions they were going to generously throw at the Africans. The wording was such that one would initially think these businesses had become philanthropists, as if they had suddenly decided that it was not politically correct to be seen to be looking for business opportunities.

But it was not hard to see the reason for their enthusiasm. The G8 plan puts the 'donor' countries' agribusiness corporations at its center. Is that necessarily bad? After all, there are arguably few people in the world today who do not regularly consume one or another product made by global agribusiness.

The problem is that there is very little linkage between the business model of American and European agribusiness and the reality of small scale African farmers, who are ostensibly the target beneficiaries of the G8 plan. The 'investment' that agribusiness will obviously be most interested in is simply and primarily to increase their market share in Africa, which is perfectly understandable. But not everyone accepts that this would coincide with the best interests of African farmers.

Certainly, making millions of African farmers new and bigger customers of U.S.and European agribusiness would help explain the salivating eagerness of these companies to support the G8 plan.

So a suspicion amongst cynics is that it is another aid programme, but mainly for Western agribusiness to get a bigger foothold in African agriculture, rather than primarily to assist African farmers to improve their lot.

That is the gist of an article by Julian Oram, 'Sustainable Intensification in Africa Feeds the Greedy Agribusiness.' Oram works for Greenpeace.

He writes, 'These corporations are currently waging an epic PR battle to convince people that their products are what should feed the world. Nowhere is this hypocritical PR offensive more evident than in Africa. The agribusiness is pretending to be feeding the world, while all they are doing is feeding their own profits by putting local people out of business, destroying social and traditional nets as well as the environment.'

Oram continues, 'Since the food crisis of 2007/2008, global agribusiness has redoubled their efforts in pretending that their production methods and products will be ending hunger in Africa. The basic premise is to boost productivity through new policies and investment programmes targeted specifically to small-holder food producers. What these companies are promoting with sustainable intensification really amounts to a continental-scale sales pitch for their products: namely, patented seed varieties (including genetically engineered (GE) crops) and agricultural chemicals.'         

If the G8 were to help increase access to fertilizer and hybrid/GM seeds to millions more African farmers than can get them now, that would be very good business for companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and many others. 

But what would be so wrong with this if those millions of African farmers also dramatically increased their crop yields and incomes? Surely the profit motive and the generally bad public image of agribusiness does not in any way obviate this potential great benefit in 'development?'

Oram's answer: 'The problem is the high-tech, high-input and high-cost model of farming that they promote, which is utterly inappropriate for the vast majority of farmers in Africa, and indeed for small-holder food producers around the world. After decades of intensification in agriculture, more people go hungry than ever before. The intensive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, in conjunction with patented 'improved' seed varieties, is environmentally unsustainable, economically unaffordable and exacerbates social inequalities.'

'Worryingly, the multi-billion dollar agribusiness spin is working. Sustainable intensification is now all the rage amongst the international public crop research bodies as well with major donor agencies, multilateral development banks and large philanthropic foundations.'

So many grand initiatives that were going to dramatically and quickly 'fix' the problems of agriculture in 
Africa have come and gone over the years while the problems largely remain. Where there is progress, it is not because of any big new 'aid' project, but as part of the normal course of 'development,' including taking note of the lessons of the past.

From the way Western agribusiness corporations are salivating in anticipation of the potential benefits to them of the G8 plan, it will clearly have its beneficiaries. Whether those will include a significant number of small scale African farmers very much remains to be seen.

One thing that is clear is that the G8 plan does nothing to bridge the huge ideological divides on what general  model of development African agriculture should pursue.

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