The past weekend saw a nutrition summit in London. The conference recognised what economists and development practitioners have known for a long time: hunger and malnutrition are usually caused by poverty, limited healthcare and bad feeding practices, rather than an absolute shortage of food.
Nutrition is also getting global attention through the ‘New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition’. The New Alliance was formed at a G8 summit in May 2012 and brings together governments and multinationals in food and farming. The New Alliance has come in for some stiff criticism from NGOs recently, particularly in the UK, which has prompted me to take a critical look at it.
I should start with a disclaimer: I have worked on agriculture for developing country governments, a consulting firm and an NGO, but I am probably closer – by experience or inclination – to the backers of the New Alliance than its detractors. I also plead guilty to spending more time in offices in capital cities than with farmers. I have never been comfortable with this balance, and if I go back to working on agriculture in the future I hope to do so in a more practical capacity and spend less time on policy. Nevertheless, I wanted to get these issues clear in my mind.
The case for the New Alliance is that we need private sector capital and expertise to reduce hunger and nutrition. After nearly 50 years of large-scale aid to agriculture, with disappointing results in nutrition at least, that seems like a reasonable proposition. After all, in Africa, food production has failed to keep pace with growing populations; and in India, where food production has kept pace, hunger and malnutrition has barely fallen in recent decades. (The second question has been investigated extensively by Amartya Sen, and more recently Banerjee and Duflo’s ‘Poor Economics’ touches on it). In both of these regions, the private sector has been largely absent from food production and delivery, though it continues to play a major role in growing cash crops.
Second, let’s consider the case against. There are two arguments here: that the ‘New Alliance’ is dominated by Western corporations who have no business in developing agriculture; and that it is a cover for land grabbing by investors at the expense of small farmers. George Monbiot recently made this critique, and while his characterisation of it appears extreme, it is shared by many European NGOs, and no doubt many in Africa as well.
The first argument – the New Alliance is dominated by multinationals – is, in my view, only a relevant argument against the New Alliance if you are ideologically hostile to multinationals in general. I can’t speak for all farmers, but most whom I have met, including in historically statist Ethiopia, don’t mind whether they buy their seed or fertiliser, or sell their produce, from or to a corporation, a government or a cooperative. What matters is the price, the quality of the product (if buying) or timeliness/reliability of payment (if selling). Our team in Ethiopia found that farmers with as little as hectare of land were willing to pay up to three times as much for privately produced seed as for seed distributed by the public seed companies, because of its higher quality. We also found that when cooperatives act like businesses and offer farmers the best price, as in France, they thrive; when they become agents for the state or prone to corruption, as in much of Africa, they become irrelevant.
The second argument feels more salient, since land grabbing is undisputably going on in Africa – indeed, Liberia, where I live now, was the first independent African country to lease land to foreign investors, the Firestone Rubber Company, in 1926. The six countries that have agreed cooperation frameworks for the New Alliance, beginning with Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania, have all welcomed foreign investors into agriculture in recent years, with mixed results. Their governments are typically enthusiastic (see this example from Nigeria), but that is not enough, since governments may not necessarily have the interests of their people, or at least not all smallholder farmers, at heart.
Looking for a balanced perspective on the New Alliance, I found two reviews useful: from the ONE campaign and the Future Agricultures Consortium. ONE has scrutinised 80 letters of intent, as outlined in the cooperation frameworks for the first six countries. They find a wide range of investors and countries represented, including European, US and African companies; seed and fertiliser sellers like Syngenta and Yara; and output buyers like Mars and Cargill. None of these are primarily land buyers, or investors. Indeed, input providers seem to be getting involved in the New Alliance primarily because they want to sell to the millions of smallholders who offer their biggest market. That seems fair to me as long as nobody forces farmers to buy from them. The ONE campaign also points out in this article that the letters of intent are dominated by companies who want to buy from African farmers, rather than sell to them.
However, the letters of intent don’t seem to be specific enough to rule out land grabbing, or at least, not to rule it out without the deep community consultation and engagement that is needed to make it ‘free, prior and informed’. For this, a briefing from the Future Agricultures Consortium is instructive, because it looks at an established project that has now been ‘adopted’ by the New Alliance, Tanzania’s Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor. Their finding is more nuanced: the New Alliance is vulnerable to the same imbalances of power and unequal access to markets that already affect farmers all over Africa. If the investments concentrate on technology, like seeds, they may miss the most important constraints: infrastructure and legally guaranteed (i.e., titled) access to land.
The implication is that the New Alliance needs to incorporate governance factors, for example make sure that smallholder farmers have title to the land they farm. However, what of the large areas of land that are communally owned, used for grazing, or sparsely inhabited? Not every patch of land has a single owner, nor should it. Should we just leave this land as it is?
Here I think we need to be realistic and accept that if we want to feed a population of 9 billion without cutting down what remains of the rainforest, we have to accept that existing farmland and under-used savannah will have to be used more intensively. In sparsely populated regions, like eastern Zambia or central Tanzania, extensive commercial farms may be the best way to do that. In densely populated Rwanda or Ethiopia, intensification seems a much better prospect. Here I think the multinationals have an important role to play, as long as they don’t crowd out traditional, low-impact methods of intensification.
The agricultural revolution of the 19th century rested on the brutal (genocidal?) colonisation of Argentina, Australia, Brazil and the US Great Plains. The green revolution in Asia in the 20th century relied on unsustainable use of irrigation and fossil fuels. I am hopeful that with our improved education, communications and technology, the coming agricultural revolution in Africa will be fairer, greener and more sustainable than any before. On balance, I think the New Alliance can contribute to that.