Ag proficiency in Africa needed to feed world

Helping Africa’s smallholder farmers to increase production and to succeed in farming on their own terms may be key to global food security, an industry expert says.

Speaking here Tuesday at the 2012 BASF Agricultural Solutions Media Summit, Chris Mallett, corporate vice-president for research and development with U.S.-based agrifood giant Cargill, said agricultural production must be increased to meet a growing population’s needs, but not just in the U.S. or other parts of the developed world.

Among the speakers at the three-day event, he likely raised peoples’ eyebrows the most.

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Mallett, who previously worked for Unilever and New Zealand dairy multinational Fonterra, and has been with Cargill since 2005, pointed specifically to developing nations, particularly in Africa, and the need to help subsistence farmers, or "smallholders," as they acquire the technology and the knowledge to improve production on their small parcels of land.

His sentiments echoed many of the points made by Paul Polak in his 2008 book, Out of Poverty: that what these small-acre farmers require is not special funding from world governments, not handouts from prosperous nations, but the ability to be successful on their own terms.

Thus, they need access to agronomic expertise, crop inputs, sources of credit and better technology. If they’re helped through these means, and taught to increase production on their own terms, they are more likely to gain in proficiency and prosperity.

That is the simplest and quickest route to feeding a world population that is expected to top nine billion by 2050, he said.

Mallett also criticized those who maintain that the road to food security for an increasing global population includes organic production or some sort of drive to be self-sufficient as a jurisdiction.

Self-sufficiency is a quaint idea, but Mallett suggested there is a reason why farmers in Minnesota aren’t trying to grow oranges. Instead, there is a recognition of the comparative advantages of allowing one region’s growers to do what they do best, creating the opportunity for geographic specialization while reducing variability. But with that also comes the need for freer trade.

On the organic side, Mallett emphasized that such production is not sustainable, mostly because it requires more land in order to increase production. And as was demonstrated during summit presentations earlier in the day, there is less farmland, at least on a North American and European level.

Mallett also stressed the need for clear property rights to be established, and he admonished those governments that enact mandates and subsidies under the guise of helping their own farmers. What often occur instead are the creation of market volatility and protectionism in one country’s prime sector.

As an example of that problem, he cited Russia’s banning of all wheat imports following its drought in 2009; on the surface, the ban represented only 7/10ths of a per cent of the world wheat supply, yet the volatility that resulted pushed the commodity out of the pricing range of those in the poorest nations.

If world governments want to really help those in need the most, said Mallett, they will opt to re-invest that money in infrastructure instead of subsidy programs.

BASFs Chicago summit, geared to addressing the issues of sustainability and innovation, ran from Monday to Wednesday and included presentations for members of the farm media from corporate executives, growers, researchers and other industry stakeholders.

— Ralph Pearce is a field editor for Country Guide at St. Marys, Ont.

Related story:
Media summit focuses on ag sustainability, innovation, June 8, 2012

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