Sustainable agricultural development

Over the past two weeks, I’ve read a bunch of articles written by African agricultural experts, and talked to government officials and NGO representatives about the best way to develop Ghana’s agricultural sector. Most of the experts seem to agree about a few basic points, namely that Ghanaian agriculture suffers from low productivity due to low soil fertility and farmers using sub-optimal practices and insufficient inputs for their crops. Common problems include a lack of irrigation (which restricts growing to the rainy season), the small/inefficient size of farms (85-90% of cultivated land is on farms of two hectares or less), lack of fertilizer and pesticide use, and farmers using saved seeds rather than hybrid, improved varieties. (Improved seeds, incidentally, are not the same thing as genetically modified seeds. They’re just seeds bred for certain climatic conditions; GM seeds are effectively illegal in Ghana due to government regulations and the amount of time it takes to get new seeds approved by the government.)

With problems defined this way, most agricultural strategy I’ve come across, both from the Ghanaian government and assorted NGOs, seems to focus on building a more industrial agricultural system. Publications point out that the vast majority of Africa’s farmers are subsistence level (1% of the US population farms, and these farmers grow a surplus of food; meanwhile, 70ish% of Ghanaians farm and the country still imports staples like rice). As far as I can tell, this is seen as a bad thing. Most strategies for agricultural development suggest that the way forward involves larger farms, fewer farmers, more efficient distribution, irrigation, increased fertilizer use and improved seed varieties.

Certainly, the desire to increase agricultural productivity makes sense. The world population continues to grow, and more and more people are thinking, talking and writing about the coming food crisis and what it will mean. The world needs to grow enough to feed everyone who’s here, plus the 3 billion people who are coming by the end of the century. Inequality of distribution is a huge part of the picture, as are the inefficiencies of meat production (industrial/factory farmed animals, which account for virtually all meat production, are fed about nine calories of soy or corn for every calorie of their meat we end up eating).

I’m not convinced, though, that the agricultural strategy being pursued by the international development community is the best way to do this. Some inefficiencies in Ghanaian agriculture are well worth addressing: farmers could make better use of organic fertilizers if they were priced more affordably and distributed more efficiently, for example. But the tone of the policy documents I’ve read seems to suggest that Ghana (along with other African countries) needs to modernize quickly and move people away from farming if it wants to lift its people out of poverty. This isn’t a bad idea in moderation, but if you take it to its logical conclusion, you’re going to end up with a food system like the US. Which, to my mind, is not a good thing.

American agriculture is incredibly efficient. It’s very good at getting cheap food to people, and has allowed us to grow into a country where poor people are often obese. Many American diets are deficient in critical nutrients, but almost all have enough calories to keep people from starving.

This is the success story that the architects of American agricultural policy like to tell, but it comes with a lot of external costs which we’re becoming increasingly familiar with. E.coli, bird flu, cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, animal torture, substandard agricultural working conditions and identical tomatoes which can be shipped across the country but don’t taste like anything—these are all costs we pay for cheap food. We don’t pay consensually, or often knowingly, but we do pay, sooner or later.

There’s a huge debate about whether or not cheap food is worth it. Industry and government reps have been known to defend the system, saying that these risks are exaggerated and the alternative—starving masses—is worse. I believe we have other choices, and there’s been a good amount of research showing that organic farming techniques can produce as much or more food than their industrial counterparts. But ultimately, it’s a pointless debate to have. Cheap food is built on oil. Agricultural chemicals are petroleum- based, synthetic fertilizers require oil to produce, and huge transport distances are unsustainable in a world with finite oil reserves. There’s debate about how long we have left, but we’re using up a finite resource, which means we’re going to run out eventually. And when we get close—when oil prices go up, and instead of spiking, they keep climbing—food is going to be expensive. This has already started to happen around the world, and I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon.

So in a world of uncertainty, with rising food prices, it makes sense to grow more food. But it also makes sense to be cautious, to build models that are resilient and sustainable in addition to being high-yielding. For Ghana, it will probably mean improved seeds, better irrigation technologies, more organic fertilizer and fewer farmers. But that doesn’t have to mean emulating the US’s industrial system. It doesn’t have to mean growing cash crops for export, like cocoa, at the expense of crops which are consumed locally. Right now, I can walk two blocks from the Burro office to the Koforidua market and buy pineapples, cassava, yam, tomatoes, onions, ginger, garlic, oranges, limes, lemons, eggs, peppers, lettuce, carrots, cucumbers and eggplant, all of it grown locally by small farmers. You’d be hard-pressed to find this much local variety in any American supermarket, even in California. I believe that Ghana, and other developing countries, will be able to figure out a way to meet the challenges facing their agricultural producers. But I also hope that the changes required won’t replace the Koforidua market with something that looks like Wal-Mart or Safeway.

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