Breaking the Cycle of Food Shortages in Africa with Fertilizer and Technology
Aug 25, 2011
By Gilbert arap Bor: Kapseret, Kenya
The United States has survived its debt-ceiling showdown, but it just found an extra $17 million for famine relief in East Africa. This new commitment, announced earlier this month by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, boosts the amount of aid for Ethiopia, Somalia, and my country of Kenya to more than $580 million this year.
The humanitarian aid will reach 4.6 million people. They need it: Over the last three months, almost 30,000 East African children have perished as victims of the region’s worst drought in years.
The assistance shows that even in the hardest of hard times, the United States is a generous nation.
As much as East Africa needs help right now, the long-term solution isn’t more of the same. Food aid is at once an urgent need and evidence of a deeper problem. In East Africa, we must begin "breaking the cycle" of food shortages, as Clinton put it, so that we can support ourselves rather than depend on the charity of others.
For that to happen, Africans must accept 21st-century agricultural methods, including biotechnology and modern fertilizers. This is the best way for farmers to increase their yields and start to make it possible for the continent’s farmers to feed themselves.
Kenya took a positive first step by gazetting the country’s biosafety regulations on August 15th, paving the way for commercialization of GM crops in the country. By this gazettment, Kenya is now fully compliant with the international requirements on the development and utilization of the technology. It became the fourth African country to do so, following Burkina Faso, Egypt, and South Africa.
For years, Kenyans have battled needless fears about biotech crops. Let’s hope that Agriculture Minister Sally Kosgei put these worries to rest a couple of weeks ago with her blunt talk. "I have been consuming soya beans imported from Britain which are GMO, yet they have not had an effect on my health," she said. "So nobody can die out of eating GMO foods."
The Roman Catholic bishops of Kenya also have embraced biotech. They endorsed the government’s decision to permit GM crops, advising people to eat genetically modified foods to check starvation amid a serious drought that has threatened the lives of 2.9 million Kenyans and more in the Horn of Africa. This is contrary to opposition from some non-governmental organizations and MPs to a government plan to import genetically modified maize from South Africa, saying "We are in favor of non-genetically-modified-foods, but if there is a crisis and they can resurrect the person for one week, eat them."
I agree with Minister Kosgei and the bishops: I plan to grow GM crops on my small farm as soon as possible because it will help my land produce more food. All Kenyan farmers should welcome biotechnology, just as a previous generation welcomed hybrid seeds.
The time for full acceptance of biotechnology has arrived: "Most Kenyans wear clothes that have been made using cotton that is grown using GMOs and a sizable number have consumed GM foods bought from supermarket shelves," observes a Tanzanian newspaper.
The other crucial ingredient for agricultural success is fertilizer. African farmers don’t use enough of it—far less than their counterparts elsewhere, according to the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Program, a project of the African Union. In North America, farmers put more than 200 kg of fertilizer on each hectare they cultivate. In East and Southern Asia, the figure is 135 kg and in South Asia it’s 100 kg. Latin America comes next, with 73 kg.
Africa trails them all—and not by a little bit, but by a lot. Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa use only 9 kg of fertilizer per hectare.
Farmers in other countries are able to add enough fertilizer on their land to build up the fertility and replace important nutrients after a crop is harvested, but here in Africa we sprinkle it like a rare spice (when we use it at all).
There are plenty of reasons for this sad state of affairs. Prices for fertilizer are two to six times the world average. Supplies are low due to poor infrastructure. Some farmers doubt the value of fertilization. Elsewhere, the problem is reversed: Landlords think so highly of it that they’re likely to reclaim land that’s been fertilized. This serves as a disincentive for sharecroppers to use this essential product.
Bureaucratic obstacles also get in the way. In Kenya, the government subsidizes fertilizer but requires farmers to obtain paperwork from local agricultural extension officials, deposit cash in a bank, and finally collect fertilizer from an agency. This is a lengthy and intimidating process, especially for small-scale farmers.
In his book "Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet," Jeffrey Sachs cites evidence suggesting that if African smallholder farms take advantage of modern technologies—and especially fertilizer—their yields could increase tenfold.
This is the ultimate solution to Africa’s food insecurity: more productivity. Biotechnology and fertilization are two of its essential ingredients.
Gilbert arap Bor grows maize, vegetables and dairy cows on a small-scale farm of 25 acres in Kapseret, near Eldoret, Kenya. He also teaches at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret campus. Mr. Bor is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.