Helping Africa to Help Itself: The Ideology of Food

By Glenn Ashton · 1 Aug 2013

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Picture: Gates Foundation/Flickr
Picture: Gates Foundation/Flickr

Just as Chicken Little is convinced that the sky is going to fall on his head, the constant repetition of the scaremongering trope that we are under collective, imminent threat of starvation because of our burgeoning global population has persuaded the uninformed that this is so. This narrative is about as nuanced as the recent movie World War Z, where zombies overrun a helpless population.

Just as the zombie movie presents an implausible, Hollywood take on the world, the ostensible food crisis is similarly misrepresented. We presently produce more food per capita than we ever have. In fact we generate sufficient food to feed a balanced and healthy diet to every human on earth. That almost half of the food we produce is wasted is hardly mentioned. In other words the hunger zombie is as illusory as the Hollywood version.

If this is so, why is at least one sixth of humanity prone to food insecurity? The problem is our food supply is neither equitably distributed, nor is most of it even directed toward feeding people. Fact is most of the food we grow feeds animals and motorcars, not people. This is because it is profitable to feed cars, cows and chickens. It is not profitable to feed poor people. This is why so many people are hungry.

Should you doubt the veracity of this claim, consider these facts: More than 80% of the maize grown in the USA, the biggest global producer, is turned into animal feed and ethanol for fuel. The same is happening to maize, sugar and soya from Argentina and Brazil. A single biofuel plant in the UK consumes more wheat than South Africa imports each year.

A 2012 study by Tufts University estimated that the US maize-to-ethanol programme cost poor nations over US$ 6 billion between 2006 and 2011. This was instrumental in triggering food riots in Mexico and elsewhere around the world during the 2008 financial crisis when food prices skyrocketed through market distortion created by speculative trading. This partially explains the perversity of South Africa exporting white maize to Mexico, the home of maize.

The modern representation of the horseman of the apocalypse embodying famine would look more like a Wall Street banker than the spectres of overpopulation or insufficient food. The commodification of food as a globally traded resource has transformed food from a source of nutrients to a source of money. The poor cannot eat money. Neither has money any brain – just like a zombie.

The problem is that the poor in regions like sub-Saharan Africa simply cannot afford it. There generally is sufficient food, but it is not getting to where it is needed. Short of changing the entire global economic system, how do we start to solve this problem?

Over the past 15 years there has been a concerted push to improve the situation of African agriculture, both from within Africa and via external agencies. The internal thrust largely arose out of the neo-liberal New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), which developed an agricultural programme known as the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP).

CAADP was premised on working with local stakeholders, while attracting suitable investment into African agriculture in order to match productivity levels elsewhere. These commendable goals have failed to create significant transformation because poorly resourced local farmers and civic groups have found it extremely difficult to engage, either because they lack adequate resources to do so, or because they are simply unaware of the programme at all.

Allied to CAADP but driven entirely by external, Northern agencies, the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa, known as AGRA has had a rather more sinister influence. This programme receives significant private funding, primarily through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, assisted by philanthropists like Warren Buffet and recently, the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim.

As a consequence AGRA is beset by powerfully ideological inclinations, primarily along the lines of neo-liberal alignment, allied with technocratic interventionism. Consequently there is extensive input from corporate entities such as GMO seed companies like Monsanto, from fertiliser groups, as well as from state entities like the US Aid, the UK’s development arm DFID and other OECD, as well as some African governments to provide legitimacy.

The ideological baggage inextricably embedded in these programmes threatens their long-term success for identical reasons that repeated external attempts to reform African agriculture have failed since the mid twentieth century. The primary reason for these failures are because researchers and aid groups have attempted to impose external developmental models like the “green revolution” on traditional farmers without properly understanding the fundamentally different requirements of the far more marginal farming systems found in Africa.

African agriculture is worlds apart from experiences in the northern hemisphere, be it in North America with its huge infrastructure and wealth, or even India or China with considerably more predictable weather patterns. Just as the first green revolution bypassed Africa, the attempt to impose a new green revolution, as well intentioned as it may be, is seriously handicapped by numerous challenges.

The most successful African food security improvement programmes have been inclusive, not coercive. The present drive to green African agriculture is accompanied by a powerful commercial imperative. This is analogous to the provision of extension services by vested interests. Experience has repeatedly shown that the imposition of expensive, high-input systems on resource poor farmers is doomed to fail.

African agriculture requires direct to farmer, low cost, knowledge rich inputs. Many successful models to enhance productivity have emerged amongst developing farmers over the past few decades. These include rice intensification, multiple cropping methods, improved breeding programmes and drought resistant agricultural methodology. These, together with improved distribution, marketing and infrastructure have proven far more successful than externally imposed high input, high tech models, unsuited to local conditions.

Coupled to this push for external inputs is a massive drive by private interests to purchase some of the richest farmland in Africa. These projects are motivated solely in order to profitably produce food and biofuel crops, again mainly export, using intensive industrial agricultural models. These projects stand to undermine any gains made either by AGRA or CAADP, as traditional owners are displaced from vast swathes of productive land and into marginal production zones or urban areas.

So where does this all lead? In short, if we are to reform the productive capacity of African agriculture, which can be significantly improved, then such programmes should address African requirements. Certainly Africans should accept assistance from external donors but this cannot be inseparably linked to externally imposed ideological baggage, but must be employed sensitively, in concert with local interests.

It is also important that these local interests cannot be drawn solely from administrative and political structures, as is predominantly the case at present; they must include the people they are meant to assist. While this may be axiomatic, the reality is that Africa is particularly prone to patronising and inappropriate aid and assistance relationships. Many of the programmes presently associated with AGRA take this form.

A recent example is a communication from a five star hotel in Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania by a former PR head of Monsanto, who tweeted he was working on pushing the benefits of GMOs as part of the continued thrust of that industry into the continent. It is notable that Gates and his fellow compradors like Calestous Juma, a neo-colonial ideologue academic, continue to place inordinate emphasis on GMOs as a technological fix, rather than addressing the ground realities touched on above.

These sorts of interventions epitomise the patronising and prescriptive recipe being served up to African farmers. The problem is that these interventions stand to do more harm than good, even where the intentions are good, which is not always the case.

And so, to return to our initial point of departure: The identical interests – the purveyors of agricultural inputs, seed, fertiliser and chemicals, along with their ideological collaborators and benefactors in international finance – are essentially indivisible from those who inform us that the famine zombie trope looms large. These interests are indivisible from those who promote food as fuel, as animal feed and as commodity, rather than as a source of human nutrition and who stand to profit from these investments.

So yes, there certainly are ways to improve African agricultural productivity. However imposing external economic and agronomic models and ideologies on the one hand, while expropriating vast swathes of land on the other is both contradictory and antithetical. If anything it is indicative of the underlying inability of the wealthy purveyors of external assistance to detach themselves from those spreading the trope of the zombie plague. Their solution, to make inedible money grow on trees, which are insufficiently robust to weather the vagaries of Africa’s uncompromising realities, is as illusory as the zombies.

If we are to solve the problem of hunger in sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere in the world, we need realists, not ideologues. The irony is that the neo-liberal, techno-fix obsessed ideologues call the realists who have their ears to the ground ideologues, pot calling kettle black. All that this achieves is to perpetuate a depressingly familiar yet bitterly intransigent neo-colonial cycle. The agenda is yet again set by wealthy outsiders who bludgeon their will on Africa by dominating the dialogue and media through the dissemination of ideological cant.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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Charles
1 Aug

Excellent Summary

Well written, Glen. I think that this, together with energy security, is the most important issue facing us in the next decade. We can start by re-introducing local fresh food markets, in every suburb, and prepare to fight the regulatory barriers that the state and it's corporate partners will try to impose on this.

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