The Fertile Continent: Agriculture’s Final Frontier

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By Matt Styslinger

“Africa must feed Africa,” said Malawian President Mutharika upon becoming chair of the African Union in early 2010, asserting a pledge by African governments to champion development in their agricultural sectors.

More than half of the earth’s unused arable land that can still be exploited without endangering forests and other ecosystems is in Africa. (Photo Credit: Bernard Pollack)

But in an article in the November/ December 2010 edition of Foreign Affairs magazine, titled The Fertile Continent, Roger Thurow—Senior Fellow on Global Food Policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs—says, “The continent that has been fed by the world’s food aid must now help feed the world.”

The article highlights Africa as agriculture’s final frontier. “More than half of the earth’s unused arable land that can still be exploited without endangering forests and other ecosystems is in Africa…In contrast to much of the rest of the world, land and water resources in Africa have been largely underused.”

Worldwide, nearly one billion people are chronically hungry, and global population continues to rise. Global food production must increase dramatically with rising demand, and countries that have fostered gains in the past—like Brazil, China, India, and the U.S.—are reaching their maximum potential. “The countries that managed quantum leaps in agricultural production in the past cannot be counted on for repeat performances, unless great leaps in technology introduce new strains of seeds or suddenly turn unproductive lands into fertile soil,” says Thurow. In recent years, growth has slowed in corn, rice, and wheat production throughout the developed world. In India and China, water scarcity could result in a 30 to 50 percent reduction in wheat and rice yields by 2050, even as demands for those grains in Asia are due to rise by as much in the same period of time.

“Thus, more and more eyes are turning to Africa, agriculture’s final frontier,” Thurow says.

“Africa is so far behind the rest of the world agriculturally that it would make great gains simply by applying existing technology and developing the infrastructure that is common in the rest of the world.” Less than 5 percent of Africa’s arable land is irrigated. The continent is also lacking in farm-to-market roads, crop-storage facilities, and commodities exchanges. More productive hybrid seeds that became prominent in the developed world decades ago are still rare in Africa.

The green revolution—the post World War II movement that dramatically increased crop yields in the hungriest parts of the world through the spread of improved seeds and modernized farming technology—staved off famine in Asia and Latin America. From 1975 to 1985, world production of corn, wheat, and rice increased at twice the rate of global population. But the green revolution, for the most part, skipped over Africa. Thurow suggests that “if more efficient networks were developed to distribute and sell the harvests, boosting agricultural yields in Africa could be a major step toward feeding not just the continent but also the rest of the world.”

After several decades of neglect by the continent’s own governments and the outside world,” says Thurow, “Africa’s rural infrastructure all along the production chain has fallen into great despair.” Thurow’s article quotes Bill Gates who said at the 2009 Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines, Iowa, “Helping the poorest smallholder farmers grow more crops and get them to market is the world’s single most powerful lever for reducing hunger and poverty,” People everywhere are tied to a global food system, and international solidarity in the realm of food is needed.

Thurow points to promises made by the Obama administration. “A world where more than one billion people suffer from hunger is not a strong or stable world,” said U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner when he announced the new Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP) in 2009. “Promoting economic growth abroad increases prosperity and security at home.” The administration has asked for $3.5 billion to support agricultural development in poor countries—with the plans drawn up by those countries’ own governments—through its Feed the Future program. “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow, to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds,” said President Obama in his 2009 inaugural speech.

Unfortunately, the U.S. congress “has already been whittling away at the Feed the Future and GAFSP budgets,” says Thurow. “But the rich world neglects Africa at its own peril. It will be impossible to multiply global food production—that is, to reduce hunger in poor countries while meeting growing demand in emerging ones—in the coming decades if Africa’s farmers are not given the means to grow as much food as they possibly can.”

The upcoming State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet discusses how countries that are currently food-short could begin to feed themselves and generate surpluses to help other countries.

Matt Styslinger is  a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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