Big Ag in sub-Saharan Africa could turn the continent’s small-scale farmers into wage laborers with no say in how their land is utilized.
Last week, while touring Dakar, Senegal’s capital, President Obama touted his vision to reduce hunger in Africa. He emphasized food security, saying that far too many people on the continent endure poverty and chronic hunger while speaking of a “moral imperative” to rectify this. He also announced that Senegal had become the tenth country to join the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. This “alliance,” however, has been fraught with controversy since its launch last year.
The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition is a partnership between the G-8, African governments and private companies including Monsanto, Syngenta, Cargill and Yara, a Norwegian nitrogen fertilizer company. The Alliance was launched by President Obama in May 2012 at Camp David to “support agricultural development” and aimed at “lifting 50 million people in sub-Saharan Africa out of poverty over the next ten years.”
Officially, the idea is to eradicate hunger by “unleashing the power of the private sector.” African countries willing to participate in the partnership would receive hundreds of millions of dollars in donor assistance as well as promises from private companies to invest a few millions more in the development and “modernization” of their agriculture.
The initial New Alliance launched in Camp David included Tanzania, Ghana and Ethiopia. It was expected to expand to any other African country willing to join. Soon thereafter, these first countries were followed by Mozambique, Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso. Early June, at the G-8 summit organized by the U.K. in Northern Ireland, Nigeria, Benin and Malawi also joined, along with Senegal, making ten the total number of African countries now part of the partnership.
Developed countries giving some cash to modernize African agriculture and lift people out of poverty seems all very well and good; one might wonder why anyone would criticize or contest it. Yet in recent weeks, an increasing number of individuals, associations and NGOs have been sounding alarm about the program. In May, a letter of protest signed by a range of African organizations and entitled “Modernising African agriculture: who benefits?” was widely circulated, and the subsequent outcry has become deafening.
At the mercy of investors?
African civil society and NGOs harbor grave concerns regarding the approach of the New Alliance. First, the cash comes with some strings attached: African countries are required to adopt legislation that will improve the business climate, favor investors and open up their markets. This could threaten the self-determination and sovereignty of African states by leaving them at the mercy of investor agreements.
Second, the New Alliance aims at increasing the adoption of “improved” seed varieties, fertilizers and other technologies. Currently, small-scale farmers in Africa use open pollinated varieties of seeds which allow them to save and select the best seeds that are more resilient and appropriate to local conditions; yet, they now may find themselves obliged to use hybrid or GM seeds, owned by companies that sell them and — since these are largely sterile seeds — cannot be saved and re-used, obliging the farmers to buy them again every season.
Third, the New Alliance is designed to facilitate the conversion of millions of hectares of land used for subsistence agriculture to industrial or commercial agriculture. This is based on the assumption that industrial agriculture will increase productivity and that an increased productivity will help fight hunger. But hunger and food shortage most of the time are not due to low productivity: there is enough food in the world to feed everyone. More often, the problem is getting the food to where people need it. In Tanzania, for example, researchers have linked food shortages to poor market access and weak distribution networks.
Evidence also suggests a focus on large-scale, industrialized models of production can have a harmful impact, including severe soil degradation, the pollution of water as a result of the excessive use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, the concentration of land in the hands of large holders and the marginalization of small holders. The New Alliance hence poses a risk that powerful national and multinational investors may capture the market and leave the poorest with depleted soil and water resources.
Marginalizing small-scale farmers
Currently, African food security rests fundamentally on small-scale and localized production. The majority of the African population continues to rely on agriculture as an important, if not the primary, source of income and livelihood. In most sub-Saharan African countries, agriculture is the primary economic activity for between 50 percent and 90 percent of the population. Corporate agriculture risks either turning small-scale farmers into wage workers or forcing them out of agriculture altogether.
African governments, desperate for some financial relief, are willing to make whatever changes are necessary to bring capital into their countries. But African associations and NGOs are concerned that “the main purpose of this Alliance is to create reliable conditions for corporate investment in Africa’s agricultural sector” and that it “risks serving primarily as a vehicle for market access by multinational companies, paving the way for them to extend their reach into African markets and exert control over African resources,” says a recent report from the CIDSE, an alliance of 17 Catholic development agencies.
The New Alliance imposes a growth-oriented development model on Africa. And if it works, African agriculture will be sucked into the world system and suffer all its repercussions – like violent fluctuations in the prices of commodities and seeds – and remove any possibility for African governments to intervene. Yet in a recent report, the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food clearly indicated that governments from developing countries should have the possibility to insulate domestic markets from external factors that sometimes exacerbate food insecurity.
There is a need to understand the local context and to enable communities to develop sustainable business models to suit their own sociocultural and economic needs. Consultation at the grassroots levels would have revealed that African farmers’ true interests are diametrically opposed to those of Western agribusiness. But they have not been consulted. This reveals the undemocratic nature of the New Alliance, with small-scale farmers being excluded from the design of the process. Instead, the G-8 partnership has adopted a top-down approach that talks about the importance of small holders but in practice fails to take their interests and well-being into account.
The G-8 countries have managed to dominate the narrative in the media. They want the global public to believe that the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition is a partnership in favor of African agriculture motivated by compassionate and humanitarian feelings, whereas in reality, the deal is more likely to benefit foreign investors. And since private sector actors are accountable first and foremost to their shareholders — and with their primary goal being the generation of profit — this program raises questions about the fundamental compatibility between private, corporate interests and the alleviation of hunger and poverty.
While claiming to increase agricultural productivity, these projects are likely to facilitate the appropriation of land and the displacement of small-scale farmers with high-input, industrial agriculture using hybrid or GM seeds. These are the same intensive agriculture systems that in developed countries contribute to carbon emissions, degrade and contaminate soil and water resources, destroy biodiversity and usurp land ownership.
Above all, these industrial agriculture practices are not sustainable. Yet this is the model developed countries want to impose on sub-Saharan Africa.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.