Maize farmers in Malawi.
[For more discussion on the "population question", click HERE.]
By Raj Patel
May 5, 2011 -- http://rajpatel.org, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- Here’s a piece I wrote for Foreign Policy, updated with news about revised population estimates for the rest of the century.
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The world’s demographers this week
increased their estimates of the world’s population through the coming
century. We are now on track to hit 10 billion people by 2100. Today,
humanity produces enough food to feed everyone but, because of the way we distribute it, there are still a billion hungry. One doesn’t need to be a frothing Malthusian
to worry about how we’ll all get to eat tomorrow. Current predictions
place most of the world’s people in Asia, the highest levels of
consumption in Europe and North America, and the highest population
growth rates in Africa — where the population could triple over the next 90 years.
There are, however, plans afoot to feed the world. One of the
countries to which the world’s development experts have turned as a test
bed is Malawi. Landlocked and a little smaller than Pennsylvania,
Malawi is consistently among the world’s poorest places. The latest figures
have 90 per cent of its 15 million people living on the equivalent of
less than US$2 a day. By century’s end, the population is
expected to be nearly 132 million. Today, some 40 per cent of Malawians
live below the country’s poverty line, and part of the reason for
widespread chronic poverty is that more than 70 per cent of Malawians
live in rural areas. There, they depend on agriculture — and nearly
every farmer grows maize [corn]. “Chimanga ndi moyo” — “maize is life”, the local saying goes — but growing maize pays so poorly that few people can afford to eat anything else.
If you arrive in Malawi in March, just after the rainy season,
growing food seems like a fool’s game. It’s hard to find a patch of red
soil that isn’t a tall riot of green. From the roadside you can see
maize about to ripen, with squash and beans planted at the base of the
thick stalks. Even the tobacco fields are doing well this year. But
there’s a rumble in this jungle. Malawi’s swaying fields are a
battleground in which three different visions for the future of global
agriculture are ranged against one other.
The first and most venerable development idea for Malawi sees these
farmers as survivors of a doomed way of life who need to be helped into
the hereafter. Oxford economist Paul Collier is the poster child for
this “modernist” view, one that he presented in a scathing November 2008
Foreign Affairs article
in which he cudgeled the “romantics” who yearned for peasant
agriculture. Observing both that wages in cities are higher than in the
countryside, and that every large developed country is able to feed
itself without peasant farmers, Collier argued the virtues of big
agriculture. He also called on the European Union to support genetically
modified crops and for the United States to kill domestic subsidies for
biofuel. He was one-third right: biofuel subsidies are absurd, not
least because they drive up food prices, siphoning grains from the bowls
of the poorest into the gas-tanks of the richest — with limited
environmental gains, at best.
Collier’s contempt for peasants seems, however, to rest on something
other than the facts. Although international agribusiness has generated
great profits ever since the East India Company, it hasn’t brought
riches to farmers and farmworkers, who are invariably society’s poorest
people. Indeed, big agriculture earns its moniker — it tends to work
most lucratively with large-scale plantations and operations to which
small farmers are little more than an impediment.
It turns out that if you’re keen to make the world’s poorest people
better off, it’s smarter to invest in their farms and workplaces than to
send them packing to the cities. In its 2008 World Development Report, the World Bank found that, indeed, investment in peasants was
among the most efficient and effective ways of raising people out of
poverty and hunger. It was an awkward admission, as the World Bank had long
been trumpeting Collier’s brand of agricultural development. Farmers
organisations from Malawi to India to Brazil had been pointing out that
access to land, water, sustainable technology, education, markets, state
investment in processing, and — above all, access to level playing
field on domestic and international markets — would help them. But it
took three decades of lousy policy for the development establishment to
realize this, and they’re not quite there yet.
Because of its colonial legacy, Malawi had long been following
conventional economic wisdom: exporting things in which the country had a
comparative advantage (in Malawi’s case, tobacco) and using the funds
to buy goods on the international market in which it didn’t have an
advantage. But when tobacco prices fall, as they have of late, there’s
less foreign exchange with which to venture into international markets.
And being landlocked, Malawi also faces higher prices for grain than its
four neighbours — Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania — simply
because it costs more to transport into the country. According to one estimate,
the marginal cost of importing a ton of food-aid maize is $400, versus
$200 a ton to import it commercially, and only $50 to source it
domestically using fertilisers. Particularly at a time when food and
fertiliser prices are predicted to rise, Malawi is wise to consider how
vulnerable to the caprices of international markets it wants to be.
This partly explains why, in the late 1990s, almost a decade before it became fashionable, Malawi
bucked the advice of its international donors and decided to spend the
majority its agriculture budget on fertiliser, the first and perhaps
most necessary ingredient in prepping the soil for producing viable
crops. The government gave farmers a “starter pack” with enough beans,
improved seeds and fertiliser to cover about a fifth of an acre.
International donors weren’t pleased. A USAID official decried the
program as consigning farmers to a “poverty treadmill” in which farmers
would be stuck growing just enough maize to survive, but never enough to
get rich. Although the program had modest success, it took off when
Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika expanded the program over the
2005-2006 growing season, quadrupling the amount of fertiliser
available. Although driven by domestic political promises, his
international timing was perfect — he was embarking on a policy whose
time had come. And this is why what happens in Malawi’s fields today
matter so much beyond its borders.
History of agricultural policy
To understand why, we need a quick history of agricultural policy in
developing countries. Many developing countries were, especially before
World War II, pantries to be raided by their colonisers.
Post-independence, rural areas were often net contributors to government
revenues, but there were some assurances of stability, with government
schemes to buy crops at guaranteed prices. Internationally — especially
in Asia — the post-war era saw governments pressured to feed a restive
population that was increasingly wondering whether their lot wouldn’t be
improved through socialism and a change in land ownership. In order to
fight the Cold War in foreign fields, the US government and key
foundations invested heavily in agricultural technologies such as
improved seed and fertiliser. These technologies were designed to keep
land in the hands of its feudal owners, food plentiful and communists
at bay. In 1968, William Gaud, the USAID administrator, dubbed it a "Green Revolution", because it was designed to prevent a red one.
For a range of mainly geopolitical reasons, the Green Revolution was
implemented with less fervor and success in Africa than in Asia. The
International Fertilizer Development Center observed
in 2006 that $4 billion worth of soil nutrients were being mined from
the African soil by farmers who, struggling to make ends meet, weren’t
replenishing the nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous in the ground
beneath their feet.
The prescription for declining soil quality lay, however, not in
addressing the policy causes of farmer’s environmental panic — a
systematic neglect since the 1980s to which the World Bank itself
admitted in an internal evaluation
— but to fix the soil with technology. So in 2006, the Rockefeller
Foundation (the original sponsors of the Green Revolution in Asia)
joined the Gates Foundation to launch The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, or AGRA. This is the second brave new development policy that hopes to feed Africa.
Soil technology the answer?
AGRA claims to have learned the lessons of history, rejecting
Collier’s view and focusing on policies that “unlike the Green
Revolution in Latin America, which mostly benefited large-scale farmers
because they had access to irrigation and were therefore in a position
to use the improved varieties … [are] specifically geared to overcome
the challenges facing smallholder farmers”.
So did it work in Malawi? It depends on the goal. If the aim was to
increase output, then yes. Although economist and Earth Institute
Director Jeffrey Sachs recently over-egged the data by suggesting that production had doubled because of the fertiliser subsidy (it only increased by 300,000–400,000 tons or up to 15 per cent, the rest being mainly due to the return of the rains), the amount of maize in Malawi has undoubtedly gone up.
As the 50 million people who are food insecure in the United States know all
too well, though, having enough food in the country doesn’t necessarily
mean that all people get to eat, and Malawi still has more than its fair
share of glassy-eyed and underweight children. Chronically hungry kids
have low height for their age and the number of children malnourished in
this way — “stunted” is the term in the statistics — has remained
stubbornly high since the subsidies began.
Measuring increased yields of maize from fertiliser and starter kits
doesn’t necessarily translate into a society that is well fed and
economically viable in terms of agriculture. Rachel
Bezner Kerr, a professor of geography at the University of Western
Ontario who also works in Malawi as a project coordinator for the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities Project,
isn’t surprised. “Any nutritionist would scoff at the notion that
increased yield automatically leads to increased nutrition”, she says.
Bezner Kerr told me that having more crops in the fields and bigger
yields can actually be a bad thing, taking “women out of the home and
away from domestic work. Particularly if they are doing early childcare
feeding, this can lead to poorer nutritional outcomes.” What happens
within the household is crucial in translating increased output into
Indeed, gender matters when it comes to food and farming. Sixty
per cent of the world’s malnourished people are women or girls. Yet the
UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization recently pointed out that
by increasing access to the same resources as men, women could boost
their farm’s output by up to 30 per cent, leading to a 4 per cent increase
in total agricultural output in developing countries. In Malawi, 90
per cent of women work part time, and women are paid some 30 per cent less
than men for similar jobs. Women are also burdened with care work,
especially in a country ravaged by HIV/AIDS. Even if they own land and
have access to the same resources as men, women find themselves torn
between the demands of child and elder care, cooking, carrying water,
finding firewood, planting, weeding and harvesting.
These problems are better addressed through social change — abetted by programs like the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities Project
— than chemistry. Yet these are precisely the kinds of programs that
are crowded out by fertiliser subsidies. The fertiliser program has been
a jealous child, sucking resources away from other programs. The
opportunity cost of fertiliser for farmers is money
that might have been spent on something else — a serious concern when
global fertiliser prices are going through the roof. Research by the
World Bank in Latin America and South East Asia
has suggested that it’s smarter for government to subsidise public
goods like agricultural research and extension services and irrigation,
rather than directing money at private inputs like fertiliser.
Again, this matters beyond Malawi’s borders, particularly in
sub-Saharan Africa. The world’s population growth is scheduled to be
driven by “high fertility countries” — most of which are in Africa. The
UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter,
recently argued that the world might be better fed not by pumping the
soil with chemicals, but by using cutting-edge “agroecological”
techniques to build soil fertility, and using policy to achieve
environmental and social sustainability. In a review
of 286 sustainable agriculture projects in 57 developing countries
covering 91 million acres, a team led by British environmental scientist
Jules Pretty found production increases of 79 per cent — again, far
higher than the fertiliser subsidy in Malawi, and with a far broader
range of ecological and social benefits than increased food production.
These programs succeed, in part, because they don’t see hunger as the
consequence of a surfeit of peasants or a deficit in soil, but as the
result of complex environmental, social and political causes. You don’t
just need chemists to solve hunger — you need sociologists, soil
biologists, agronomists, ethnographers and even economists. Paying for
their skills is the opportunity cost of spending precious dollars on
imported fertiliser. Of course, agroecology is an entirely different
paradigm than one in which technology is dropped into laps from foreign
laboratories accompanied by a sheet of instructions. The programs
require much more participatory education work, and much more investment
in public goods, than the Malawian government and donors currently seem
inclined to provide.
Agroecology is the third development vision battling for the future.
In Malawi, it works. By growing cowpeas and groundnuts with maize —
expanding the range of crops — Bezner Kerr’s program has beat the
fertiliser program’s yield by 10 per cent and increased nutrition
outcomes too. Yet even agroecology has its limits. Fifteen per cent of
Malawians remain ultra poor, living on less than a dollar a day and unable
to buy enough to eat. They tend to be people who are landless, or who
have poor quality land and have to sell their labour at harvest time,
just when they need it the most. They remain untouched by the Malawian
The future doesn’t look terribly promising for agroecology. Concerned
about the financial sustainability of its fertiliser subsidy program,
the Malawian government is about to embark on a Green Belt project, in
which thousands of acres will be irrigated to induce foreign investors
to begin large-scale farming of sugar cane and other export crops. The
foreign exchange brought in by this program, it is hoped, will bankroll
the fertiliser spending. The result will help balance the country’s
current account, but as a consequence, thousands of smallholders are
scheduled to be displaced to clear lands that will attract the kind of
large-scale agriculture of which Collier would approve.
Particularly in the light of the new population projections for the
21st century, it seems foolish to stick to 20th century agricultural
policy. Recall that the agroecological interventions in Malawi turned on
women’s empowerment. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has famously argued
that there are few policies better placed to improve individual, family
and community lives (and lower fertility rates) than education
— particularly the education of women and girls. The prophesies
presented to us by demographers vary widely — change the assumptions,
and you end up with a world of between 8 billion and 15 billion people.
No matter what the future holds, though, it’s clear that a world in
which everyone gets to eat depends on women’s empowerment — and rather
than treating that fact as something irrelevant to feeding the world,
agroecology puts it right in the middle.
A great deal of past agriculture policy has been designed either
economically to bomb villages in order to save them, or to administer a
technological quick fix in order to postpone politics. Collier wants to
get rid of peasants. New fads want to keep them, but keep them knee deep
in chemicals. Yet if we are serious about feeding the hungry, in Malawi
or anywhere else, we need to recognise that the majority of the hungry
are women, and that we need more public, not private, spending on those
least able to command rural resources. Because when it comes to growing
food, those who tend the land are anything but fools.
[Raj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He has
degrees from the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics
and Cornell University, has worked for the World Bank and WTO, and
protested against them around the world. He’s currently a visiting
scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for African Studies, an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a fellow at The Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First. He is currently an IATP Food and Community Fellow.
He has testified about the causes of the global food crisis to the US
House Financial Services Committee and is an advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
In addition to numerous scholarly publications, he regularly writes for
The Guardian, and has contributed to the LA Times, NYTimes.com, The San
Francisco Chronicle, The Mail on Sunday and The Observer. His first
book was Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and his latest, The Value of Nothing, is a New York Times best-seller. To see Raj’s latest events, visit the Events page on his website.]