African farmers can rise to food security challenge
AFRICA could make a significant contribution to feeding the growing world population but ‘primitive’ farming practices must be overhauled.
Agricultural leaders speaking at the Agco Africa summit in Berlin said Africa ‘holds the key’ to feeding 9 billion people by 2050.
Agco chairman Prof Martin Richenhagen said Africa had more than 60 per cent of the world’s uncultivated crop land.
Prof Richenhagen said: “I think Africa can become an exporter one day but at the moment it has a lot of demand internally.”
The summit heard how a model farm in Zambia is training farmers in modern agricultural practices and machinery, with investment from agricultural machinery specialist Agco.
Former federal president of Germany Dr Horst Kohler said for Africa to be able to rise to the challenge it would need to see progress in a range of areas. These include property law, irrigation, proper use of fertilisers, sales, training and infrastructure.
Gudrun Kopp, Minister of Economic Co-operation and Development in Germany, said a lack of these measures was doing nothing to attract potential investors.
Speakers including Minister of Agriculture and Forestry of the Republic of South Sudan, Dr Betty Achan Ogwaro, agreed investors were unlikely to support businesses if there was not a ‘visible route to market’.
Dr Kohler said the continent had come through the financial crisis ‘relatively unscathed’ and quoted the 2011 World Bank report which said ‘Africa could be on the brink of an economical take off as China was 30 years ago and India 20 years ago’.
“Agriculture has enormous potential in Africa and for Africa but the obstacles facing Africa are also great,” said Dr Kohler.
“The African continent is lagging behind other countries and still has 240 million people going hungry. This figure is 20m more than four years ago according to reports from United Nations.”
He added agriculture had been ‘stagnating for decades’ as families just produced enough for themselves.
Instead of incentives to produce more, Dr Kohler said African farmers were faced with disincentives, with a lack of infrastructure and storage holding back food production.
Dr Kohler said growth in agriculture would provide more private sector investment and trigger growth in the economy, creating jobs.
The UK perspective on African agriculture
UK food and farming experts claim Africa could increase food production but farmers would need a variety of measures made available to them, including GM.
NFU director of policy Martin Haworth, who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last year in aid of Farm Africa, said practical, on-the-ground advice and expertise, such as that provided by Farm Africa for specific projects, was also desperately needed.
Mr Haworth said the cassava project, which was funded by the NFU’s Africa 100 appeal, helped introduce a new and better variety of cassava and taught farmers how they could add value to the product.
Chairman of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC) Dr Julian Little said biotechnology would be an appropriate addition to the agricultural ‘tool kit’.
Dr Little said: “GM crops are also already used by 16 million farmers in 29 countries, over 90 per cent of whom are small scale, resource-poor farmers in developing countries.”
GM crops currently grown in Africa include maize, cotton and soya beans.
He said: “In addition to the economic benefits these GM crops bring farmers, the increased yields reduce the need for fragile marginal lands, unsuitable for crop production, to be ploughed, and for tropical forest, rich in biodiversity, to be felled to make way for slash and burn agriculture.”
“Research is also thriving with African and UK-based research institutes forming public-private partnerships to conduct trials into local crops. This includes trials of disease-resistant bananas and drought-tolerant, vitamin-fortified sorghum.”
But Dr Little said Europe was doing nothing to ease the pressures on African agriculture.
He said: “Europe is a major importer of African crops and the malfunctioning European regulatory system for GM hinders the use of biotechnology by African Farmers who rely on the export market.”
“It also sends an anti-science message to countries which are in the process of formulating their own regulatory regimes for biotechnology.”
Dr Felix M’mboyi, member of the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum, argued the influence of the ‘affluent west’ was ‘denying many in the developing world access to technologies which could lead to a more plentiful supply of food.’
Prof Giles Oldroyd from the John Innes Centre said work was underway to tackle low food production.
Prof Oldroyd said: “It is not so much about unused farming land, which many would argue is vital to sustain healthy ecosystems in Africa. Rather it is about raising the productivity of existing farmland.”
He said recent research by Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Centre found crop yields in Africa were down 20 per cent on their Western counterparts.
“Much of this is because of poor seeds and poor plant nutrition,” he added.
Last year, the John Innes Centre received a $10m (£6.4m) grant from the Gates Foundation to develop GM corn, wheat and rice which need little or no fertiliser, through nitrogen fixation.
Prof Oldroyd said the work would benefit farmers who cannot afford fertiliser and the centre signed an agreement to ensure technology would be made available to African farmers.
However, opponents of GM crops, including the Soil Association and Friends of the Earth (FOE), say results will not be achieved for many years but food shortages can be addressed by cutting food waste.
FOE senior food and farming campaigner Clare Oxborrow said: “GM crops are not the solution to the food challenges we face. World food production needs a radical overhaul, but this should be based on less intensive practices which increase agricultural diversity, deliver resilience to the impacts of climate change and benefit local communities.”
The Farm Africa charity has been working to help farmers improve productivity by:
- doubling and tripling harvests
- becoming self sufficient
- reducing poverty and hunger forever