Thursday, May 10, 2012

Look out for ourselves

Africa is the only region in the world where agricultural production per inhabitant has fallen in the past 20 years, with productivity per hectare two times lower than the average for developing countries. Fertiliser use is only 13kg/ha, compared to 190kg/ha in East Asia, according to the FAO. Despite Africa's huge rivers and water resources, only 3% of the land is irrigated, compared to more than 20% in the rest of the world. Both the quality and quantity of food are wanting, with sub-Saharan Africa home to 239 million of the world's 925 million undernourished people in 2010.  Zimbabwe's agriculture minister Joseph Made announced in early March that 500,000ha of this season's maize crop – about one-third of the total area planted – has been written off because of erratic rainfall.

African governments have failed to keep to a pledge made in 2003 in Maputo to spend 10% of their budgets on agriculture. Spending hovers around 4%, compared to 11-14% in Asia.

International aid has also failed to materialise. In  2009, the G8 meeting at L'Aquila in Italy launched a three-year food security initiative with a $21.5bn pledge. Amid the sovereign debt crisis that followed, the money has not all materialised and the pledge will soon expire. Indian scientist M. S. Swaminathan – known as the father of Asia's green revolution – has lost faith in these global initiatives. "They've gone on making and making declarations. None of them really fulfil their promise. Countries, if they are going to depend upon assurances of this kind, will never make any progress. They must look out for themselves."

At the next G8 summit at Camp David on 19-20 May, aid agencies are mounting another campaign to prevent a looming crisis in the Sahel where 13 million people are at severe risk of malnutrition. Farmers are also sounding early warnings about failed harvests in the breadbasket of southern Africa.

According to the FAO's food price index of 55 commodities, the price of foodstuffs rose 127% between 2001 and 2011. For the urban and peri-urban poor living near the poverty line, price volatility in local markets injects a harsh uncertainly about where the next meal will come from. Urban families can spend 60-80% of their income on food, according to the FAO. Attempts to fix this problem have brought their own contradictions and imbalances. "The powers that be have deliberately privileged urban populations, and so imports, to the detriment of rural populations," says Mamadou Cissoko, honorary president of the Network of West African Farmer and Producer Organisations.

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