Keeping Africa Pesticide Free, Dirt Poor
September 25, 2000
by Dennis T. Avery
BRIDGE NEWS September 22, 2000
CHURCHVILLE, Va. – Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations, says "I challenge the foremost experts in the world to think through the barrier of low agricultural productivity in Africa. I implore the great philanthropic foundations, which have stimulated so much good and practical research on agriculture to rise to this vital challenge."
That's from his new book on the role of the United Nations in the 21st century. Nice words. But there's no evidence that either the United Nations or the First World are ready to put aside politics-as-usual and do anything remarkable to feed Africa.
In fact, the United Nations played no role in the original Green Revolution, which gave the world outside of Africa its current food abundance.
Instead of supporting high-yield seeds and chemical fertilizer, the United Nations tried to organize commodity cartels that would have increased food prices. Fortunately, the cartels failed, technology tripled the world's crop yields and today food costs for the poor are the lowest in history.
However, today's United Nations has hundreds of officially recognized non-governmental organizations actively campaigning for low-yield farming.
Many of them have signed a "Leipzig agreement" demanding Africa and the Third World be reserved as a subsidized "gene museum" for antique crop varieties. They may falsely hope low yields will suppress population growth.
America's agricultural experiment stations, which provided the original science and scientists for the Green Revolution, are being pressured by the urban public's fear of global overpopulation.
Few Americans realize the one-time population surge is nearly over, and that it was caused by modern medicine's lower death rates, not by increased food production.
Many corporations, which once established hybrid seed farms and developed new ways to protect crops from pests, have been frightened out of farming by public disapproval and increasingly punitive government regulation.
The latest victims are the biotech companies, like Monsanto, which invested billions in agricultural research, only to have experimental plots destroyed by activists and their stock values battered by urban scare campaigns.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug and former President Jimmy Carter have recently proven African crop yields can be doubled or tripled with the best seeds currently available, when supported by modest use of fertilizer and pesticides.
But the very European countries that make heaviest use of farm chemicals are demanding Africa not use them. Borlaug says that without chemical fertilizer, African soils are in a downward spiral to destruction, and that enhanced yields cannot be protected without some pesticide use.
Africa's own governments are also a major part of the problem. In the 1970s, an American-sponsored experimental farm in Ethiopia bred seeds capable of doubling yields.
Then a Stalinist dictator, Col. Mengistu Miriam, took power and gave the new seeds to his army, instead of to farmers, and the army had no idea what to do with them. Ethiopia stayed hungry.
Today's African governments aren't much better. Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe is encouraging his political supporters to invade the country's high-yield farms. These farms have provided much of the country's food, nearly all of its foreign exchange and a high proportion of its jobs.
Soon Zimbabwe will be hungry again and poorer than ever. But Mugabe, already in power for more than 20 years, will stay in the president's palace a bit longer.
Nigeria, with 120 million people, and a land area nearly as big as France and Spain combined, has been misruled for decades. Despite new high-yielding corn varieties and the introduction of the soybean, Nigeria has barely been able to feed itself due to lack of such basics as fertilizer and good roads.
South Africa ended apartheid, but it still has few jobs for blacks. Ten million Zulus are supposed to live in acid-soil homelands where they can do little more than hoe a few scrawny corn plants and herd a few cattle on the threadbare pastures.
Ironically, there is lime in the area to combat the acidity. Brazil has developed some crop varieties that do better in the acid soils, and Mexican researchers have genetically engineered acid-tolerant crops. But there is no investment to make the Zulu homelands more productive.
When will the world be ready for an African Green Revolution? Certainly not yet.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.