Africa / Agriculture / Brazil / Food Security / Malawi / Opinion piece / Soils

African agriculture: Basket case or bread basket?

This is the Market

(Illustration on Flickr by Vintaga Posters.)

Is Africa an agricultural basket case, or a potential bread basket? Michael Moran, in the GlobalPost, argues the case for the latter.

‘. . . Food security remains a problem in Malawi, as elsewhere in the so-called Guinea Savannah—a huge belt of arable (and largely untilled) land with unpredictable rainfall that stretches across Africa from the Atlantic coastline to the Indian Ocean. . . .

‘But for years, development economists, agronomists and—oddly enough, Latin America experts—have argued that Africa could not only be self-sufficient in food, but also a major player in commodities markets, if only the emphasis on food relief were replaced by a longer term strategy.

‘At the crux of the debate is the experience of Brazil, another tropical region that once had trouble feeding its people. Back in the 1960s, Brazilian agronomists began experimenting with soil chemistry in a vast barren region called the Cerrado. Nothing much edible grew there at the time, though the region comprised more than 20 percent of the huge nation.

‘After several years of intensive research, however, scientists discovered that the addition of phosphorous and lime, the region’s soil would support a wide range of crops. Today, the region produces 70 percent of Brazil’s beef, and its huge soya, coffee and pulp farms have turned Brazil into a major agricultural exporter.

‘But at a price: one man’s wasteland is another’s pristine wilderness. Today, the World Wildlife Federation lists the Cerrado as one of its most endangered ecosystems as farming and the ugly production of charcoal for Brazil’s steel industry scar the landscape.

‘Today, momentum is building behind a larger experiment in the Guinea Savannah along the lines of what Malawi briefly achieved. A recent World Bank study concluded that in spite of its poor soil quality, the warm tropical climate, annual precipitation of 800–1,200 mm and political complexities, some 20 million acres of land are suitable for agriculture. Now, less than 10 percent of that land is in agricultural use.

Thus, optimists argue, Africa’s own Cerrado sits fallow, ready to help bridge the gap between the 21st Century’s demand for food commodities and the current production levels buffeted by the vagaries of climate change, markets, changing dietary habits and surging population growth, particularly in the emerging world. . . . [I]n coming years, and Africa’s unique position as the continent with the largest areas of untilled arable land will loom large. Africa, in effect, could feed the world.

‘First, however, Africa will have to feed Africa. The United Nations Population Division projects the world population to increase from approximately 6.8 billion in 2009 to more than 9.1 billion in 2050. The majority of the growth will take place in developing countries, where population is projected to grow from 5.6 billion in 2009 to 7.9 billion in 2050. But Africa’s population is a special case: the continent is expected to double in size between 2009 and 2050.

The challenge is profound. [But if] Africa’s infrastructure is improved even a little—and it is improving steadily every year—the continent could indeed be an export powerhouse. . . .

Read the whole article by Michael Moran at GlobalPost: Africa, an agricultural powerhouse?, 30 Sep 2012.

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