(Photos by MediaClubSouthAfrica.com)
It was Mark Twain who once wittily advised, “Buy land: they’re not making it anymore.”
It turns out that African farmers don’t really have a choice. The New York Times reported last month that a “new global land rush [is] gobbling up large expanses of arable land” in Africa.
Unfortunately, the farmers are only now finding out that their land belongs to the government, who in turn leases it out to the highest bidder, in an effort to shore up foreign investment. National governments in Africa have cited a lack of capacity to develop the land as a driving factor of selling the land to bidders, which is a valid point. Yet, foreign aid for agriculture has steadily declined—75 percent in the last 30 years. There are three troubling aspects to this new phenomenon.
There is impeccable economic sense to using Africa’s fertile lands for large-scale commercial farming to feed the growing global population. Both the investors and African nations stand to benefit. However, as it goes with such agreements, ensuring equity is quite another story. The article cites some disturbing examples that further illustrate this point.
Secondly, what constitutes commercial farming in the first place? This raises further questions about seed production, distribution and use, and genetic modification. African farmers and consumers, as we know, are diametrically opposed to GMOs and as an environmentalist, my hope is that their precautionary approaches will prevail. Interestingly, the article comes at the heels of a recent landmark publication by professor Calestous Juma of Harvard University, which asserts Africa’s capacity to feed itself within a generation and provides a clear plan focused upon infrastructure expansion, technical education, business development, and enhanced use of modern technology (including biotechnology). While there are clearly a number of valuable elements and lessons to be learned from it, I find it somehow disheartening to hear yet another call for the bioengineering of food. In turn, this adds to my skepticism about the land grab in Africa.
Finally, there is clearly a big versus small debate to be had here: large-scale, commercial farming versus agrarian or smallholder farming. The World Bank’s current stance is a push for adoption of large-scale agriculture, even as a host of research points to an inverse relationship between a size of a farm size and its output, and a refusal of an African-led (and donor- or state-supported) green revolution. Moreover, the assumption that farmers exiting the smallholder sector will naturally and easily transition into contract farming and/or wage employment within the large-scale sector does not account for the tendency of contract farming to exclude poorer or smaller producers, a transition to export cash crops (instead of food staples), and ensuring food security.
For both foreign investors and African governments, results better come fast. Adding to the masses of the landless poor, while achieving mixed results, will simply be another example of an autocratic policy informed by misguided judgment at best or greed at worst. It can only go so far. Zimbabwe, Brazil, and South Africa serve as illuminating examples. Agriculture is a way of life for over 70 percent of Africans, and sidelining traditional practices, compromising environmental integrity, and muscling out the poorest farmers will compromise both the health of the land and of the nation. Over the last several years, the U.S. has witnessed the emergence of a movement that supports responsible consumption and environmentally sustainable agricultural practices. African agriculture should be no different. While food aid is unsustainable and productivity gains must be quickly achieved, it is not clear why large-scale commercial farming on land owned by foreign investors is the only solution.
In an effort to end every post with a response (however trivial) to the question of “what can I do,” I suggest the following: support an organization like Grain, which advocates for farmer control over agricultural biodiversity in the global South. Google “smallholder farming.” Pick up a book by Aldo Leopold. And as always, think twice about what you put in your mouth.