Africa's farm revolution - who will benefit?

Small-scale farmers in Mozambique - who collectively grow most of Africa's food. Photo:  União Nacional de Camponeses.
Small-scale farmers in Mozambique - who collectively grow most of Africa's food. Photo: União Nacional de Camponeses.
A farming revolution is under way in Africa, pushed by giant corporations and the UK's aid budget. It will surely be good for the global economy, writes Sophie Morlin-Yron, but will Africa's small farmers see the benefit?
Many millions of small farmers that were once merely poor, will be propelled into destitution, the chaff of a neoliberal market revolution as pitiless as it is powerful.

World leaders in agriculture and development gathered in London last week at the The Economist's 'Feeding the World Summit' to discuss global solutions to tackling Africa's food security crisis.

At the event, which cost between £700 and £1,000 to attend, industry leaders spoke of new innovations and initiatives which would help fight poverty, world hunger and malnutrition, and transform the lives of millions of farmers worldwide.

Just one farmer

But there was only one farmer among the speakers, Rose Adongo, with barely a handful more in the audience. A Ugandan beef and honey farmer, Adongo was unimpressed by the technical solutions offered by the corporate speakers.

For her, the main issue was land ownership for farmers - and desperately needed changes in Ugandan law, under which women have no right to land ownership even though 80% of the country's farmers are women, and they produce 60% of the food.

If only a woman could own land - currently passed down from father to son "she can produce more food". Besides that she wanted cheaper fertilisers and an end to the desperate toil of hand working in the fields. Much of the land is currently plowed by hand which "can take weeks to do".

Among the excluded ...

But many were excluded from the event - and desperately wanted their voices to be heard. Among them was Jyoti Fernandes, from The Landworkers' Alliance (member of La Via Campesina), a producer-led organisation representing small-scale agroecological producers in the UK.

"Agribusiness feeds the rich; small farmers feed the rest", she said. "None of our members could afford to attend the Feeding the World Summit.

"Yet we have a strong interest in feeding the world and are concerned that food conferences dominated by agribusiness directly threaten our ability to produce affordable, healthy, local food.

Solving world hunger, she insisted, "is not about industrial agriculture producing more food - our global experience of the green revolution has shown that the drive towards this industrial model has only increased the gap between the rich and the poor."

Improving access to land and water

"Feeding the world is about increasing access to resources like land and water, so that people have the means to feed themselves, their families and their communities.

"Small family farms produce the majority of food on the planet - 70% of the world's food supply! If conferences, like this one, exclude the voice of small farmers, then the debate about feeding the world is dominated by the rich and the solutions proposed will only feed their profits."

As Graciela Romero of War on Want commented in The Ecologist last week, it is that small farmers are feeding the world - not corporations:

Many millions of small farmers that were once merely poor, will be propelled into destitution, the chaff of a neoliberal market revolution as pitiless as it is powerful.

"Millions of small-scale farmers produce 70% of the world's food. Yet they remain excluded and forgotten from exchanges which affect their livelihoods or concern how to end world hunger."

Private investment

Among the 27 speakers at the event were Nestlé Head of Agriculture Hans Joehr, Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant, Cargill Vice-Chairman Paul Conway, UN Secretary General for Food Security and Nutrition David Nabarro, and representatives from the World Food Program and World Vision.

And despite the involvement of some NGOs, academics UN officials, the main topic of discussion was private sector investment in agriculture.

Lynne Featherstone, a junior UK minister for International Development, said the way forward is newly developed efficient fertilisers, pest tolerant crops and private sector investment:

"There is substantial room for improvement, and helping farmers increase productivity while consuming fewer inputs is a priority. With partners such as CGIAR we have developed more efficient fertilisers and pest tolerant crop varieties."

UK spending £280m to support private sector engagement

She also outlined the Government plans to invest £280m from its aid budget funding in businesses and organisations under the Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition (AFNC).

This private sector initiative - which has also involves 14 Governments - ostensibly aims to lift 50 million people in Africa out of poverty by 2022, by attracting more private investment in agriculture. Featherstone explained the rationale:

"Economic growth in these countries is best achieved through agricultural growth, which has the power of raising incomes and getting people out of poverty. And the private sector can catalyse that agricultural growth with sustainable agricultural investment."

But is it really about land grabs?

But critics fear that is has rather more to do with getting governments on-side so corporations can carry out land grabs - taking the best watered and most fertile land away from African farmers and delivering it up to investors to plant cash crops across the continent, while turning once independent small farmers into a a proletarian underclass of landless plantation workers and rootless urban workers.

Paulus Verschuren, Special Envoy on Food and Nutrition Security, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Netherlands attempted to strike a balance:

"We are not going to fix the zero-hunger challenge without involving the private sector, but we need to set the criteria for these transformational partnerships. They need to have a business outcome and a development outcome."

Corporations keen to help small farmers ...

Representatives of major food corporations also insisted that they wanted to work with small farmers and help them to produce their crops efficiently while meeting development objectives.

Nestlé's Corporate Head of Agriculture, Hans Jöhr, claimed to be willing to work with small farmers as well as large to fulfil development objectives and improving resource efficiency:

"The issue of feeding the world has to been seen in perspective of rural development, and not only technology", he said. "And it's definitely not about talking small versus big farmers, I think that was really the yesterday talk. It's about people, individuals, it's about farmers.

We cannot go on polluting and destroying

"So in this meeting about farmers, when we are talking about farmers, we are going back to what we have listened to, the restrictions we all face in business is natural resources, natural capital. It's not only about the land, it's mainly about water.

"This leads us to looking into production systems and methods and understanding that we cannot continue to go on with polluting destroying and depleting natural resources and with wasting them.

"Farmers who don't know how to farm waste a tremendous amount of natural resources and agricultural materials because they don't know how to store, and are not linked to an outlet to markets. That means that we have to help them better understand the production systems."

Productivity must be raised

Vice Chairman of Cargill, Paul Conway, emphasised the importance of secure land ownership: "The number one thing here isn't technology, it isn't finance, it's security of tenure of the land, which is absolutely critical."

And Monsanto's CEO Hugh Grant played down the importance of genetic modification in improving crop yields in Africa, from 20 bushels of grain per hectare to India's typical level of 100 bushels.

"There is no reason Africa shouldn't be close to India, it's all small-holder agriculture. Why is it 20 today and not 90? Now forget biotech, that's eminently achievable with some sensible husbandry and land reform ownership, the tools are in hand today."

"We have set goals to double yields in the next 30 years with a third less water, agriculture gets through an enormous amount of water. The first 70 per cent of which goes to agriculture, the next 30 per cent goes to Coke, Pepsi, swimming pools and everything you drink and all of industry, and that isn't sustainable.

We believe our sole focus on agriculture is vital as the world looks to produce enough nutritious food to feed a growing population while conserving, or even decreasing, the use of precious natural inputs such as land, water and energy."

Farmers 'invisible and irrelevant'

But Mariam Mayet, Director of African Safety for Biosafety - which campaigns against genetic engineering, privatisation, industrialisation and private sector control of African agriculture - was not convinced.

To the constellation of famous speakers and corporate representatives, she said, small farmers were a simple obstruction to progress:

"We know that all of African farmers are invisible and irrelevant to those at this summit. These producers are seen as inefficient and backwards, and if they have any role at all, it is to be forced out of agriculture to becoming mere passive consumers of industrial food products.

"Africa is seen as a possible new frontier to make profits, with an eye on land, food and biofuels in particular.

"The recent investment wave must be understood in the context of consolidation of a global food regime dominated by large corporations in input supply such as seed and agrochemicals especially, but also increasingly in processing, storage, trading and distribution.

"Currently African food security rests fundamentally on small-scale and localised production. The majority of the African population continue to rely on agriculture as an important, if not the main, source of income and livelihoods."

Can the chasm be bridged?

If we take the sentiments expressed by corporate bosses at face value - and why not? - then we do not see any overt determination to destroy Africa's small farmers. On the contrary, they want to help them to farm better, more productively and efficiently, and more profitably.

And perhaps we should not be surprised. After all that suits their interests, to have a growing and prosperous farming sector in Africa that can both buy their products and produce reliable surpluses for sale on global food markets.

The rather harder question is, what about those farmers who lack the technical or entrepreneurial ability, the education, the desire, the extent of land, the security of land tenure, to join that profitable export-oriented sector? And who simply want to carry on as mainly subsistence farmers, supporting their families, producing only small surpluses for local sale?

The small subsistence farmer has no place

Stop and think about it, and the answer is obvious. They have no place in the new vision of agriculture that is sweeping across the continent, with the generous support of British aid money.

Their role in this process is to be forced off their land - whether expelled by force or by market forces - and deliver it up to their more successful neighbour, the corporation, the urban agricultural entrepreneur, to farm it at profit for the market.

And then, either to leave their village homes and join the displaced masses in Africa's growing cities, or to stay on as landless workers, serving their new masters.

This all represents 'economic progress' and increases in net production. But look behind the warm words - and many millions of small farmers that were once merely poor, will be propelled into destitution, the chaff of a neoliberal market revolution as pitiless as it is powerful.

Is this really how the UK's aid funds should be invested?



Sophie Morlin-Yron is a freelance journalist.

Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.


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