Could Africa feed the world?

Paul Raven @ 29-07-2011

Those of you of a similar age to myself will almost certainly remember a song about feeding the world; part of the world that needed feeding at the time was sub-Saharan Africa, and sadly that is still the case in some locations (as well as in places on other continents). But is it possible that Africa could feed not only itself but the rest of the world as well? Kanayo Nwanze, the president of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development, seems to think it can:

Nwanze drew a sharp contrast between Gansu province, in northwest China, and parts of Africa that cannot feed itself. He said like many parts of the world, Gansu suffers from frequent drought, limited water for irrigation and severe soil erosion. Yet despite the weather and the harsh environment, the farmers in the Gansu programme area are feeding themselves and increasing their incomes.

“I met one farmer whose income had risen from only $2 (£1.20) a day in 2006 to $35 a day last year,” he exclaimed.

So when asked why this could be done in China but not Africa, Nwanze said the vital difference was government policy.

“What I saw in Gansu was the result of government policy to invest in rural areas and to reduce the gap between the rural and the urban and stem migration,” he said in a telephone interview. “It has a very harsh environment, it has only 300 millimetres of rain annually, compared to parts of the Sahel which gets 400-600 millimetres, but the government has invested in roads and electricity. We found a community willing to transform their lives by harvesting rainwater, using biogas, terracing mountain slopes. There are crops for livestock, they are growing vegetables, wheat and maize, and generating income that allows them to build resilience.”

While Somalia is a worst-case scenario, Nwanze continues, in Ethiopia and Djibouti there has been a lack of long-term investment that makes them vulnerable to climate change. “It is not enough to wait for crisis to turn to disaster to act. The rains will fail again, but governments have not invested in the ability of populations to resist drought.”

Nwanze argues that Africa is facing the fallout of decades of neglecting agriculture, a fault that lies with African governments and aid donors.

Mismanagement and climate change to blame, rather than some fundamental property of the continent itself? A Chinese province used as an exemplar of rural land development? Unthinkable! These are backward nations, desperately in need of the guiding hand of corporate capitalism and parliamentary democracy! </sarcasm>

I rather like imagining a future where Africa becomes an arable breadbasket with an economic boom based on mobile and wireless technologies. After all, it’s not looking any less likely than the so-called First World pulling its collective finger out of the arse of the investment banking sector, now is it?

Meatspace Farmville

Paul Raven @ 04-05-2011

The socnetting/gamification of everything seems to be picking up pace. How’d you fancy playing Farmville with a real working farm?

The MyFarm experiment hands over power at the National Trust’s 2,500-acre Wimpole Estate farm in Cambridgeshire, UK. Up to 10,000 farming novices will choose which bull to buy, which crop to plant and whether to spilt fields to resurrect lost hedgerows.

“I will put in here whatever the online farmers want to grow,” said Richard Morris, Wimpole’s manager, standing on the edge of Pond Field, currently green with grass and clover rippling in the wind. “Farming is always a compromise – there is never a right or a wrong answer. If I choose one thing, my neighbour will be leaning over the fence shaking his head.”

Wisely (or perhaps disappointingly, depending on how you view the necessity of learning from stupid mistakes), it’s not a completely open system:

“The online farmers will not be able to choose to grow cannabis or bananas, but undoubtedly there will be some strange decisions, some decisions I would not have made.”


Morris says all major decisions will be put to the MyFarm users.

There will be one big vote each month, but these could trigger more frequent votes. In Pond Field, for example, if wheat is chosen, should it be bread-making wheat or biscuit wheat? “I am making decisions every day,” he says. “The first thing I do after getting up is look at the weather out of the window, and that sets the day going.”

Right now, with 300 new lambs delivered and scampering in the fields, Morris is bringing in grass to make silage for next winter’s feed. But the dry weather has left the fields short of grass, so the young cattle are being left in the barns for a while, to make sure the sheep have enough.

In the future, Morris says, there will be a smartphone app which will allow him to get near instant decisions from the online farmers. “For example, if I have wheat in the field, ripe and ready, but rain in the morning means it is damp, do we risk waiting and losing some of the crop, or combining [harvesting] it now and incurring some extra drying costs?”

I remember how SimCity and Railroad Tycoon got me interested in economic systems (although, as our very own Jonathan McCalmont has pointed out, the systems they portray don’t reflect reality in an entirely accurate way), so there’s little doubt that gamification can educate and fascinate… but I suspect the slow pay-off aspect of real agriculture will provide insufficient rewards for the sort of folk who get a kick from Farmville. Even so, I’m encouraged by the possibilities for engagement with reality that these sorts of initiatives are moving toward; regular readers will know that I believe we need to become more actively involved with the systems that support our existence, and while MyFarm is a very basic implementation of that idea, it’s a step in the right direction.

Green fields by the Red Sea

Paul Raven @ 24-01-2011

Via BigThink, Discovery reports on an ambitious plan to bring life to the arid deserts of Jordan by using seawater and solar greenhouses:

A structure, called a seawater greenhouse, will capitalize on the abundance of sun in Jordan and use it to evaporate seawater and condense it into fresh water. While this happens, a naturally cool and humid environment will be created — perfect for growing crops.

Energy to run the facility will come from a concentrated solar power plant, which will use mirrors to focus sunlight onto pipes of fluid. The super-heated fluid boils and the steam is captured to drive a turbine generator, which produces electricity.

Though arid coastal locations are ideal, a forest project could still be used further inland. Several arid areas in the Sarhara are below sea level, making it relatively inexpensive to deliver water to the facility without costly pumping fees. The Qattara Depression in Egypt, for example, is about 435 feet below sea level — a drop that could be exploited for hydro-electric power, too.

The open question is always going to be cost, but the ambitiously-named Sahara Forest Project apparently already has approval from Jordan’s government, and reckon they could be operating at commercial levels by 2015. That’d be a sight to see, no?

Eat meat, kill planet

Paul Raven @ 18-10-2010

I’ve always struggled with ethical arguments for vegetarianism*, but bio-economic arguments have a pragmatism that I find myself responding to. In a repeat of a riff that I’ve heard a few times in years previous, Ars Technica has an article discussing a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which suggests that livestock farming is very close to the point of being ecologically sustainable.

Given the source, some of you will no doubt dismiss the concern out of hand… but it’s interesting to note that, yet again, the blame is laid at the feet of the Western world in general, and the US in particular. A liberal-left conspiracy to take The Empire down a peg or two? Or perhaps just an inconvenient truth: there’s only so much planet to go round, after all, and whatever justifications you choose to use, there’s no denying that the West consumes a disproportionate amount of the resources available.

As of the year 2000, the livestock sector—meat, egg, and milk production—is estimated to have contributed 18 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and 63 percent of reactive nitrogen mobilization, and to have consumed 58 percent of net primary productivity. We are already coming dangerously close to the safe operating space in all three areas. If we continue eating animals at the same rate we do now, this model predicts that these figures will rise by 39, 21, and 36 percent, respectively, until the livestock sector uses most of, or exceeds, our safe operating spaces.

So, what to do?

Based on their results, the authors suggest that “reining in growth of this sector should be a policy priority.” They suggest a number of ways to accomplish this. One is to make livestock production more resource-efficient, which is feasible at the level of feed crop production and more cycling of animal manure in lieu of synthetic fertilizers. Another is to encourage people to eat more poultry and fish rather than beef to meet their dietary protein requirements.

Unfortunately, consumption of meat is currently at twice USDA-recommended levels. Americans have not yet cut down, even thought we know it’s better for our bodies and better for our wallets; it seems doubtful that we would therefore cut down just because it is better for the Earth.

AT points out that the grim storm-cloud on the horizon here is the prospect of increased demand for meat protein in developing nations… which echoes some of the more popular justifications for refusing to limit carbon emissions (“well, they’re not going to slow down, so why should we?”). I’m increasingly convinced that, thanks to the politicising of environmental issues, the only thing that’s going to force a behavioural change on a large scale is economics: we’ll all start eating less meat (and driving more efficient vehicles) when we can no longer afford – as individuals, and as communities – to maintain our current habits.

Whether those economic factors will kick in early enough to prevent the nasty side-effects of running up against resource limits (we’ve had oil wars already, food wars are starting to show, and water wars are a not-too-distant inevitability) remains to be seen. It’s an ugly gamble to have to make as a species, but I rather suspect we’ve left ourselves little other choice.

[ * And there’s my own selfishness, lest anyone think I’m putting myself on some pedestal of righteousness here; the underlying problem with working against the prospect of ecological catastrophe is that we’re all complicit in it, which leads to the inevitable fusillade of finger-pointing as we all try to find someone more at fault than ourselves. Here’s hoping for Doug Coupland’s promise of a species-wide sense of culpability; sooner we get it into our heads that we’re all in the same boat, the sooner we can start solving problems. ]

Brazilian farming methods could feed a hungry planet

Paul Raven @ 27-08-2010

There’s few things I enjoy more during my daily feed-reader trawl than a headline with two potential meanings… and here’s a classic case from The Big Think: “Brazilian Model Could Feed The World“. Wow – has he/she started a gene-mod crops business with his/her superstar income? Or perhaps he/she is just very very large, and thus could be sliced up and distributed to the world’s most needy?

As you’ve probably guessed from my own headline, it’s nothing at all to do with a monstrous fifty-foot Brazilian catwalk star (which is slightly disappointing for the B-movie fans in the audience, I guess). As the target article at The Economist explains, the model in question is Brazil’s agricultural policies:

Even more striking than the fact of its success has been the manner of it. Brazil has followed more or less the opposite of the agro-pessimists’ prescription. For them, sustainability is the greatest virtue and is best achieved by encouraging small farms and organic practices. They frown on monocultures and chemical fertilisers. They like agricultural research but loathe genetically modified (GM) plants. They think it is more important for food to be sold on local than on international markets. Brazil’s farms are sustainable, too, thanks to abundant land and water. But they are many times the size even of American ones. Farmers buy inputs and sell crops on a scale that makes sense only if there are world markets for them. And they depend critically on new technology. As the briefing explains, Brazil’s progress has been underpinned by the state agricultural-research company and pushed forward by GM crops. Brazil represents a clear alternative to the growing belief that, in farming, small and organic are beautiful.

That alternative commands respect for three reasons. First, it is magnificently productive. It is not too much to talk about a miracle, and one that has been achieved without the huge state subsidies that prop up farmers in Europe and America. Second, the Brazilian way of farming is more likely to do good in the poorest countries of Africa and Asia. Brazil’s climate is tropical, like theirs. Its success was built partly on improving grasses from Africa and cattle from India. Of course there are myriad reasons why its way of farming will not translate easily, notably that its success was achieved at a time when the climate was relatively stable whereas now uncertainty looms. Still, the basic ingredients of Brazil’s success—agricultural research, capital-intensive large farms, openness to trade and to new farming techniques—should work elsewhere.

Nothing new about people giving the big-ups to sustainable farming, of course… but to see it lauded in a venue like The Economist (alongside an admission that there’s a food crisis on the way, and that the Demographic Formerly Known As The First World is in the firing line too) is a new one, at least to me. Are we seeing a shift in attitude in business and government – a recognition that the long game is the only one in town, if you want there to still be a town when the game is over?

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