The African agricultural question

by Bernard Graciet

Bernard Graciet works for an agricultural supply multinational and wrote this note at our request. He is open to a dialogue on these subjects, including new technologies and GMOs.

The problem

Since the dawn of time, man has struggled to extract subsistence from the earth. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that the entire Western world has been able, thanks to a better understanding of biology, to reach beyond food self-sufficiency without interruption.

The green revolution of the 1970s allowed Asia to produce sufficient quantities of food thanks to a spectacular increase in the productivity of crops such as wheat and rice. Meanwhile Africa has remained largely isolated and local food production has not been able to meet the growing demand for basic products such as wheat, rice, corn, cassava, soya and other oilseed crops.

Despite its vast potential, $19 billion in food is imported each year to the continent and more than 200 million Africans, one fifth of the population, suffer from malnutrition (FAO).

This crisis was aggravated in 2008 by the global shortage of grain due to limits on yields and a drought which affected many parts of the world.

This sudden awakening of the "fear of food shortages" in developed countries has alerted the world to the fact that it has neglected to continue efforts in research and development that had for 30 years ensured a steady increase in yields.

Much has been said about this issue over the past year, but in reality little has been done and it is clear that without a massive increase in production, the crisis will return and will be long-lasting and far-reaching, particularly in developing countries.

According to the FAO, agricultural production will have to double in order to feed the 2.5 billion extra inhabitants that the world will have by 2050, plus the one billion who are currently malnourished. This takes into account the increase in living standards in major Asian countries where demand for food is rising fast.

In this context, the FAO already estimated in 2007 that the population suffering from malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa stood at around 200 million people. The situation in 2009 can only get worse, due to the economic and financial crisis.

Agricultural Africa - the facts. Is there any hope?

We believe that Africa has an exceptional potential for development and that there is no reason why it should not be able to feed its population properly both now and in the future.

With 500 million cultivable hectares, Africa’s agricultural potential is larger than the total surface area of the European Union. Furthermore, a lot of land has not been used much or at all, for example in Ethiopia and Tanzania. Admittedly, water supplies are unevenly distributed, but some countries could produce a lot more by making better use of their water reserves.

This is why we have a very positive vision of the potential for agricultural development on the African continent.

Why so many failures?

There are many deeply contrasting situations in Africa, so we find amazing examples of farming success alongside significant declines. Certain countries that were self-sufficient in food 40 years ago are now net importers of food.
The main reasons for several African countries falling behind are, in our opinion:

  • Wars that prevent farming or devastate crops.
  • Absurd policies that can transform a bread basket into a food desert (Zimbabwe).
  • The lack of land legislation, which discourages investment in improving soil fertility, a long-term activity. This is a serious problem.
  • The lack of infrastructure, roads, means of transport, crop storage capacity, access to markets.
  • The lack of training of many small farmers in technical matters.
  • The lack of access to fundamental agricultural production inputs, high-quality seeds, fertilisers, crop protection products. Without this chain of production, progress is impossible.
  • The lack of access to irrigation.
  • In certain areas, the overuse of land, with a resulting fall in fertility.
  • The outdated ideology of some western NGOs who have an idealistic and misguided attitude towards agricultural production.

What we recommend, specifically, to increase productivity

To develop agriculture in Africa, the development of new technologies does not have to be the number one priority.

Contrary to the point of view of certain international organisations, we believe that on a continent where grain yields are only one fifth of the average achieved in developed or emerging countries, existing technologies have shown for a long time that they are perfectly sufficient to create a true revolution in terms of yields. Instead of carrying out complex and futuristic research, what is required is the establishment of:

  • An agricultural training and advisory structure.
  • Credit policy allowing small producers to buy high-quality seeds, a fundamental part of the final yield.
  • Maintaining or developing subsidies required for purchasing fertiliser. If you don’t feed the plant there is no hope.
  • Developing methods of irrigation that optimise the use of water.
  • Protecting crops against competing weeds through proper weeding.
  • Checking and eliminating when necessary, insects and fungi parasites that destroy crops, before and after harvest.
  • Developing a storage and transport policy to allow the farmers to access markets to sell their foods.

All of this is not a "multinational agricultural model." This action plan is simply common sense, the majority of crop failures being caused by not paying attention to this.

Not accepting the laws of nature and thus the basic principles of agricultural production can only be blamed on ignorance or ideology.

We believe that before putting more land under cultivation, it is necessary to produce higher yields from hectares currently in production. It is only later on that moving onto advanced technologies could be justified.

It is important to consider how to manage the land without damaging the African Culture (the sense of community). It is equally important to consider, on a political level, which market protection mechanisms can secure prices, for example those based on the European CAP model.

Bernard Graciet