Date Published:Feb 29, 2008
Approach any serious-looking college student in the Boston area, where I teach, and ask them what kind of food and farming system they would like to see. Most will say they don't want food from factory farms with a large carbon footprint. They want foods locally grown on small family farms. They don't want crops grown using synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides; they want crops grown "organically." They want farm animals to be able to range freely. They want "slow" food rather than fast food. And they don't want "Frankenfoods"—crops developed through genetic engineering.
What might such an idealized food system actually look like? Take a trip to Africa. The small farmers who populate the continent's impoverished countryside are living out something close to this post-materialist fantasy. Two-thirds of all Africans depend on farming or animal grazing for their food and income, and nearly all of their operations are small-scale.
Eighty percent of the labor on these farms is done by women and children, in part because it provides so little income for working-age men. There is no power machinery (only two tractors for every thousand agricultural workers) and only 4 percent of crops are irrigated. More than two thirds of all cropland is still planted with traditional crop varieties rather than with scientifically improved varieties. The animals—mostly cattle and goats—for age for their own food.
Agribusiness firms are nowhere to be seen, and chemical fertilizer applications per hectare are less than one-tenth the industrial world average. Insecticides and herbicides are not affordable, so crops suffer pest damage, and the weeding is done by children who would be better off in school. Nobody grows genetically engineered crops because governments in Africa—following Europe's lead—have not approved such crops for use.
Nearly all of Africa's farms are thus de facto "organic." Poor and non-productive, but organic.
Africa's traditional rural food systems are definitely "slow." To serve maize meal (called nsima) to her family, an African woman must first spend a season planting, weeding, harvesting and storing her corn, then she must strip it, winnow it, soak it, lay it out to dry, carry it to a grinder or pound it by hand, dry it again, and finally—after walking to gather enough fuel wood—cook it over a fire.
Cereal crop yields in Africa are only one-third as high as in developing Asia, and only one-tenth as high as the United States. Average income from this kind of farming amounts to only a dollar a day, which is why nearly 80 percent of all those officially classified as poor in Africa are farmers, and why one third of all farmers are chronically malnourished.
Without modern agricultural science, food production in Africa has fallen ominously behind population growth. Total agricultural production per capita today has fallen 19 percent below the level of 1970. Increasingly, Africans must depend on imported food aid.
Africa's urgent need for agricultural modernization is being rudely ignored. When elite urbanites in rich countries began turning away from science-based farming in the 1980s, external assistance for agriculture in poor countries was cut sharply. As late as 1980 the U.S. Agency for International Development was still devoting 25 percent of its official development assistance to the modernization of farming, but today it is just 1 percent. Nearly 30 percent of World Bank lending once went to agricultural modernization, but now it is just 8 percent.
In Europe, meanwhile, some official donors and nongovernmental agencies are working to block farm modernization in Africa. Despite Africa's worsening soil nutrient deficits, European donors like to promote costly organic farming techniques as the alternative to chemical fertilizer use. This is not how European farmers escaped poverty. Only 4 percent of cropland in Europe is currently being farmed organically (and less than 1 percent in America), but European NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace tell Africa's poor this is the path they should follow.
European governments and NGOs also promote regulatory systems that block the use of genetically engineered crops, including crops capable of resisting insects without pesticide sprays. Europe's own science academies have found no new risks to human health or the environment from any of the genetically engineered crops placed on the market so far, but since overfed Europe can do without this technology, underfed Africa is told to do the same.
In this fashion, and perhaps without realizing it, wealthy countries are imposing the richest of tastes on the poorest of people. The rich are, in effect, telling Africa's farmers they should just as well remain poor.
Robert Paarlberg is a professor of political science at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and the author of "Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa" (Harvard University Press, March 2008).