November 30, 2011
by Dennis T. Avery
Africa is the only continent where food production per capita is falling as its population continues to expand. Three-fourths of Africa's food is produced on small farms that get radically lower crop yields than its experimental farms.
Even if these little farms got adequate fertilizer and high-yield seeds, they still wouldn't get the higher yields produced by First World farmers because of the heavy weed populations fostered by Africa's high temperatures, high humidity, and intense sunlight. A Nigerian field has an estimated 200 million weed seeds per hectare!
African women are courting disabling diseases as they spend 300 hours per hectare per season to hand-weed a field of corn. The weeds also limit too many African families to one acre of low-yield corn per year. The kids are weeding instead of going to school because the family has to eat. The men have gone to the cities because poor roads mean they can't earn a living selling farm products from their villages, even if they were able to produce extra food for sale. AIDS has cut the available farm labor by at least 10 percent, and malaria by more than that. The healthy must spend their time nursing the ill.
The critical weeding time is the first one-third of the crop's existence, and that means weeding competes with planting on most small farms. Corn crop losses in an un-weeded field have been measured at 55n90 percent, rice yield losses at 50-100 percent. Poor weed control cut yields in a Kenya cassava field by 5 tons per hectare.
What should Africa do? The same thing First World farmers do in this age of technology—use herbicides. In a Nigerian test plot, atrazine on the corn crop doubled yields and cut costs by 60 percent. On peanuts, in Zimbabwe, herbicides cut weed control labor from 100 hours per hectare to one-fourth of an hour per hectare while yields rose sharply.
African governments are now pinning hopes on fertilizer as a crucial input to raise food yields and meet its fast-rising food needs without plowing down more wildlife habitat. Putting only fertilizer on a weedy corn plot can, unfortunately, increase yield losses! Weeds can often out-compete crop plants for the nitrogen in the soil. That is why the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) reported as early as 1998 that crop yields in Africa would stay at the subsistence level as long as the hand-hoe is the primary means of weeding.
Africa will need lots of little countryside farm stores to distribute the better seeds, fertilizers, and herbicides. It needs weed experts far below the PhD level, people who will live and work in the farming regions. It needs better roads, to bring in the inputs and take out food to sell in the cities. Without these rural enhancements the rural population will stay at subsistence level while increased land clearing will keep the wildlife at risk of extinction
The rest of the world needs to come to terms with the African population growth, which will be proportionally greater than anywhere else in the world over the next 40 years. After 2050, the population growth will be over, but any African wildlife species lost in the next four decades will be gone for good.
England's Prince Charles went to Africa last April and told them they need organic-only farming. They've been farming organically for thousands of years and have reaped hunger from low yields and economic stagnation in rural areas. That won't feed the population that's building in Africa any more than it will feed tomorrow's population in China, India, or Bangladesh.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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