Ideally, farmers would respond to higher prices with higher output. However, 65 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa consists of subsistence farmers who lack access to the inputs that allow for higher crop yields; fertilizer, high-yield seeds, and irrigation.
To beef up supply, aid organizations are calling for a second green revolution in Africa. Jacques Diouf, the Director-General of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), believes that Africa can supply the entire world population with enough food. “In the 1970s Africa used to be a net exporter of food. We have the land and we have water. Today only a paltry seven per cent of the land is under irrigation while four per cent is in sub-Saharan Africa. Compared to Asia which has 58 per cent of its land under irrigation, Africa is lagging behind,” said Diouf.
The first green revolution accompanied the introduction of inorganic fertilizers. The new fertilizers helped the world tremendously to raise its productivity and feed the growing population. Asia alone tripled its rice production since the mid-1960s.
The question can be raised as to why aid organizations have not been successful in sustaining the Green Revolution. Instead, in Africa, which, according to the World Bank’s Vice-President for Africa, has historically held a comparative advantage in agriculture, per capita food production has fallen over the past thirty years. Productivity in Africa is now one-quarter that of the rest of the world’s farmers. African nations have moved from a position of net exporter to one of net importer.
Trade barriers are one of the factors being blamed for high food prices. For example, fertilizers cost three times as much in Kenya as they do in Europe because of import tariffs and high taxes. Instead of trade liberalization, however, there is a dangerous call for self-sufficiency coming from international organizations and the governments of many countries. Eugene Nyambal, the Special Advisor for Africa for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), told the Cameroonian government that they should take the current crisis as an opportunity to further food sovereignty and self-sufficiency.
Self-sufficiency, however, may lead to even more food crises. According to Luther Tweeten, professor emeritus of agricultural trade and policy at Ohio State University, “Global food production varies only about 1 percent per year, but production in individual countries varies by multiples of world variation. So if every country goes it alone, a food crisis becomes more frequent.”
Policies that rely on self-sufficiency rather than free trade not only cause volatility in supply but also higher prices. Harvard University economist Dani Rodrik explains, “If you are for self-sufficiency, you must be willing to live with high prices.” Countries will not be able to exploit their comparative advantage or specialize in a particular crop. Rather they will become less efficient by being required to grow all crops.
Productivity must also be addressed. The Millennium Villages Project (MVP) coordinated by Jeffrey Sachs and Colombia University’s Earth Institute have found recent success in improving agricultural productivity. By simply providing farmers with improved seeds and fertilizers that are appropriate for the environment in which the crops will be grown, along with education on how to properly use them, output has tripled.
Despite the success of the project, MVP faces two crucial obstacles: scaling their initiatives from the village level to the district, national, or global level and continuing the subsidies. The villages are expensive to subsidize; currently it costs $110 per person per year for a total of approximately $1.5 million a year, which is higher than most other development projects. It would require $93.5 billion a year to provide the same level of subsidy to the entire malnourished population. Moreover, the subsidies are granted for only five years. After that, farmers will have to take out loans to make up the difference.
For more on the food crisis, click here.
To retrn to the food crisis spotlight homepage, click here.