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How (not) to feed Africa

The food shortage in Africa is now widespread. But the drought that has accompanied this shortage is not peculiar to Africa - it is the condition of Africa that is peculiar and has created the famine conditions.

What is a drought? Even in the wettest of environments, if farmers plant crops in anticipation of average rainfall and it is below average, there will be shortages. If fluctuations from the average are to blame, then the solution is to maintain the supply of food through storage. That is what is done in industrialized countries. Last year there was serious drought in the US - but, because the infrastructure needed to store and move food has been built, you do not hear of famine there.

In Africa the economy is almost entirely agrarian. When the harvests fail, people who lose their crops have nothing else. They cannot buy food from the market even if it's available. So they go hungry. In Zambia there are huge amounts of cassava in the north of the country but it cannot be moved to the south where the hungry people are.

In most situations in Africa, just moving food would suffice to alleviate the shortages. In Ethiopia, while I cannot be sure that it would be sufficient for the whole year, certainly there is plenty of food at the moment. However, the Ethiopian Government is too poor to buy food locally, let alone transport it to the areas where there is a shortage. So, on current estimates, about 40 million people need food aid.

People talk of 'Africa' as if it were a country. But you could fit Holland, France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland into Ethiopia - and still have extra space. We are talking of huge areas and mountainous terrain, which is a major constraint on transport.

The year before last in Ethiopia, when there was surplus food, farmers couldn't sell their produce and didn't get the cash they needed - 100 kilos of maize would sell for as little as $4. Saudi Arabia wanted to buy this cheap maize. But by the time the maize got to the port its price would have trebled because transport costs are so high. It was marginally cheaper for Saudi Arabia to buy maize that came from the US.

So what is the solution to the food problem in Africa? Number one is that storage facilities have to be given priority. To reduce the need for transport, storage has to be decentralized.

Second, there has to be enough stored food to cope with the vagaries of the weather and other variables. If Malawi had had sufficient storage it would have weathered its current problem. But the year before last, under pressure from the World Bank to pay its debt, it was told that it had to sell its grain surplus.

‘Food is power. We use it to change behaviour. Some may call that bribery. We do not apologize.’

Catherine Bertini, former executive of the World Food Programme.


Making sure enough food is stored is not so difficult. Empowering people economically, so that they can buy food from the market, takes a lot more investment. Just making food available to those who can buy it - and getting countries to help those who can't - would be a great improvement on the present situation.

Of course, the weather is highly variable now - climate change is a reality. In Ethiopia most people live in the highlands, where it used to be too cold for malaria. Now the malaria zone has moved up by about 100 metres. The same is true of tsetse flies that bring sleeping sickness to animals.

Even so, concerted efforts by both industrialized and developing countries could help solve much of the problem of famine. One cause for optimism is that Europe no longer gives aid in the form of food. It gives money, so that food can be bought locally and domestic agricultural production is stimulated. If the food comes from outside, you depress agricultural production locally. The US still gives food aid only in kind - if it gave aid in cash then maybe African countries could be helped to be better prepared for famines.

Southern Africa is vulnerable to drought because there they are very dependent on just one crop - maize. In good years maize is highly productive, so governments have been forcing people to give up their traditional crops and grow maize instead. Crops such as sorghum and millet are good at withstanding fluctuations in moisture, but are now hardly grown. The Malawi Government has said it will try to bring back the old crops to reduce the vulnerability of agricultural systems.

In Zimbabwe and Tanzania it has been compulsory for farmers to plant certified seed from specific companies, which only provide maize. Those seed companies are now being taken over by big transnational corporations - mostly from the US - thereby undermining our food sovereignty. Our ability to control the production of what we eat is fundamental, not just for nations but for communities. Control from outside is not a good sign for the future.

Nor is genetic modification (GM). The UN's Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety says that a genetically engineered crop can only be introduced into a country by prior informed consent. In the case of GM food aid sent to southern Africa by the US this did not happen. The US does not want to be a party to the Cartagena Protocol. Even so, the World Food Programme should not have ignored it and, without the consent of the recipients, transported genetically engineered maize into those countries.

Whether or not to give people this food is an extremely difficult dilemma. Some countries have agreed to do so, provided the maize is ground into flour so it can only be eaten, not used for seed. But Zambia has said absolutely no. While they still had time before the crisis hit, they preferred to search for alternative sources of non-GM food aid.

If I were in Zambia, and I discovered there was no way I could get non-genetically engineered food, I would do what Malawi did. I would accept, but insist that the maize came in the form of flour.

But is that really the only choice - when the land area under genetically engineered crops around the world is a tiny percentage of the total? It was a desire to force the issue when these countries were at their weakest that lay behind this.

In most situations in Africa, just moving food would suffice to alleviate the shortages


The Cartagena Protocol says the precautionary principle should be used, and that therefore genetically engineered maize is to be considered risky unless it has been proven not to be so. That requires a whole set of tests, including an environmental-impact assessment, which take a long time. The African countries have all signed the Protocol and want to put in place systems of approval and regulation - they have been pre-empted by the US giving genetically engineered maize.

There is another insidious problem. It arises from the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement at the World Trade Organization. Article 34 states that anyone caught in possession of seed is a criminal unless they can prove that they came by it legitimately. So I have to prove that I am not responsible for, say, cross-pollination. How will I prove that? Am I going to ask the wind? Am I going to ask the butterflies, bees and insects? All Africa's farmers will become criminals.

Article 8(j) of the Convention on Biological Diversity recognizes local communities as owners and sustainable users of biodiversity. This indigenous knowledge is increasingly exploited by Western corporations who seek to patent valuable natural resources, local community knowledge and technologies.

Smallholder farmers, who are the vast majority in Africa, generate and conserve agricultural biodiversity that is the basis of all plant breeding. This non-renewable resource can be exploited in times of environmental change to develop new crop types - and is especially valuable in the face of growing climate instability caused by global warming. It is also the source of medicines and other key resources used by local communities.

Smallholder farming is labour intensive and provides a sustainable livelihood system for whole communities. This critically contributes to the economy and social cohesion of the country. Replacement of these systems with mechanized industrial agriculture can lead to massive workforce layoffs and unemployment, as was the case in the Green Revolution in India.

If humanity is going to come out of this mess, it must base its strategy on equity. All our local communities should be organized so as to look after each individual person's welfare. We now have a global community that calculates how to maximize the benefits for some at the expense of the majority.

Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher is General Manager of the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority. He won the 2000 Right Livelihood Award for leading negotiations on behalf of developing countries in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. This article is adapted from a speech he gave in December 2002.

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