No quick fix to Africa’s food problems

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

African countries require less of an Asian-style 'green revolution' than a 'cultural revolution' involving ideas, attitudes and institutions. This must include, but not be limited to, a belief in science-based innovation.

If United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan had expected a simple answer when he asked scientists two years ago what they could do about the food crisis in Africa, he will have been disappointed when he received their reply last week. The implication behind the way that Annan's question was phrased — how can a 'green revolution' be achieved in Africa? — is that the solution might be found in a set of relatively straightforward scientific and technical innovations in plant breeding. After all, it was the development of new, high-yielding strains of rice and wheat that lay behind the original 'green revolution' that was achieved in Asia and Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps Africa could benefit in a similar way?

But, as the scientists' response, which was presented to Annan at a ceremony at the UN headquarters in New York last Friday, makes clear, Africa is a different case. The response came from a panel established by the InterAcademy Council (IAC), a body set up by scientific academies across the world to provide expert advice to the UN system and other international bodies on science-related issues. As their report, Realizing the promise and potential of African agriculture: Science and technology strategies for improving agricultural productivity and food security in Africa, makes clear, many factors combine to make the alleviation of food shortages in Africa – both acute and chronic – significantly more complex than in Asia.

At root is the wide diversity of farming and food systems on the continent, a reflection partly of the variety of ecological and climatological conditions, partly of cultural traditions. Other factors range from a lack of a sound scientific infrastructure in educational institutions, to inadequate roads and storage facilities which mean that, even when food is produced, it often can't get to where it's needed, or rots before it can be used.

Political urgency

One of the main virtues of the IAC report is the extent to which it underlines that, unlike Asia and Latin America, there are no technical fixes to Africa's food problems (a particularly refreshing conclusion at a time when proponents of genetically-modified foods are claiming to offer one). Rather, it emphasises that creating a situation in which the continent is able to provide enough food for its population requires action at many levels.

Some of these are scientific; new, high-yielding crop varieties are certainly needed, and GM foods are likely to have their place, alongside new varieties produced by more conventional breeding techniques. Others range from the need to stem the brain drain of the best and brightest graduates in agricultural sciences, to the political measures required to ensure an adequate 'enabling environment'.

If there is a weakness in the report, it is perhaps the reluctance to send a sufficiently strong political message about the urgency of actions at all these levels. It is already widely recognised that the way farming subsidies in rich countries block market access for many farmers in poor countries is an international disgrace. But so too is the fact that spending on agricultural research in the whole of Africa in less than half of that spent by a single university in the United States. Or even that scientific research is almost non-existent in many of the continent's universities, the legacy of decades of neglect by donor agencies and national governments alike.

A familiar complaint

Part of the problem, of course, is drawing attention to the problem is not new. It arrives on television screens across the world whenever part of the continent, be it Sudan, Ethiopia or Southern Africa, suffers a particularly severe drought, leading to widespread famine, and equally widespread — if often only temporary — concern about Africa. It is also familiar to aid agencies, ranging from the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation, to the centres that make up the Consultative Group in International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The latter in particular perhaps receive less credit from the IAC panel than they are due for the substantial amount of work they already carry out across the continent on issues identified in the report (such as the four crop systems identified for priority treatment).

Furthermore the politics of food is no stranger to Africa. Unsurprisingly on a continent where security of food supply is the top item on the personal agenda of a high proportion of the population, there is a widely-used saying that  "the politics of Africa is the politics of the stomach". The danger is that the IAC report could, if left to fend for itself, become yet another well-meaning contribution to an ongoing debate that fails either to address or to become embedded in wider political realities.

That would be a wasted opportunity. For the report does contain an important message that is new, namely that boosting food production and food security across the continent requires a multifaceted but coherent strategy. It is a strategy that has science and technology at its centre (and therefore requires nurturing the individuals and building the institutions capable of delivering this science, as well as a substantial increase in financial support). But it is also a strategy that acknowledges that science and technology can only take root in a fertile environment.

Meeting realities

This means more than just persuading either national politicians or international aid agencies to put support for agricultural research even higher up their agenda. It also means ensuring that the potential benefits of agricultural science are genuinely moulded to the needs of local farmers (hence the insistence in the report that farmers organisations become directly involved in research priority setting). Which in turn means concentrated efforts at using modern communications technology to provide information on the range of choices that are available; M. S. Swaminathan, the 'father' of the Green Revolution in India, and one of the co-chairs of the IAC panel, speaks of the way that such technology can be used  for the important task of 'demystification' of modern science and technology (for example, in the techniques of tissue culture).

Equally important is the need to ensure that agricultural science and technology is sufficiently sensitive to the requirements of ecological sustainability. It is easy enough to say, given that soil fertility levels are already low — and that the fertiliser inputs required to reverse this are relatively high, often costing more than it does in Europe or America — that Africa can ill afford the environmental degradation that has too often accompanied efforts to boost agricultural productivity elsewhere. Yet too often ignorance, mixed with unreflective pursuit of the technical fix that chemical herbicides and pesticides offer, levy a heavy toll in both human and environmental health.

Indeed, if there is to be a revolution to meet Africa's food needs, what is needed is less of a Green than a cultural one. Perhaps it should also appropriate the Maoist slogan 'let a hundred flowers bloom', reflecting the fact that complementary initiatives are needed across the continent, at all scales and levels of activity. The message of the revolution should not lie in preaching a blind faith in agricultural science and technology. Rather it should underline the need to promote ideas and attitudes, and the individuals and institutions they embody, to ensure that agricultural science and technology are better placed — and better handled — to enable them to fulfil the potential that they offer to the continent.