Subsistence Farming in Africa

Is Corporate Control Undermining Small-Scale Farming in Africa?

Justin PlattBlog, Small Scale Farmers

In an interview in Acres U.S.A. magazine, Timothy A. Wise, a Senior Researcher and Director of the Land and Food Rights Program at the Small Planet Institute, talks about some of the topics he mentions in his book, Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food. This thought-provoking book focuses on the impact of small- versus large-scale agriculture in the battle to feed the world. Wise draws on fieldwork in Mexico, Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia and India. In this blog post, we offer up his alternative views, summarise some of his key arguments and philosophies, and look a little deeper into how industrial agriculture and corporate agribusiness could be doing more harm than good when applied to small-scale farming operations in Africa

Wise argues that small-scale farming could have the potential to feed the world’s growing population, but he believes corporate agribusiness and policymaking are intervening and undermining these efforts. “Industrial agriculture grows about 25% of the food consumed in the world, using about 70% of the land and resources; small-scale farming feeds about 75% of the world using about 25% of the world’s land and resources.” The world’s population is expected to reach close to 10 billion people by 2050. At a time when climate change is making it increasingly difficult to grow crops successfully, feeding a population of 10 billion is a daunting challenge. In response to this challenge, corporate and philanthropic leaders in developed countries are calling for major investments in industrial agriculture, including genetically modified seed technologies. Wise argues that these agribusiness investments frequently are shoring up corporate interests, rather than contributing to the greater good. 

The food of tomorrow comes from the soil of today

Wise avers: “We are literally eating our tomorrows, devouring the natural resource base on which future food production depends—from soil to water to the climate—and even undermining seed diversity.”

A “Green Revolution” for Africa?

Wise found that well-meaning and exceptionally generous subsidies from the likes of the Gates Foundation, as part of agricultural development programs in Africa, encouraged local farmers to buy commercial seeds and fertilisers. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) offered large chunks of money to African governments, promising to double productivity and incomes for 30 million small-scale subsistence farmer households in Sub-Saharan Africa. It was an ambitious promise. So, did it work? Wise says: “When we looked at the data, there may be anecdotal evidence of individual communities or crops where they’ve had this kind of impact, but overall there’s very little sign that any kind of a green revolution is coming to Africa on the terms they state.”

Money for monoculture

In fact, these subsidies can even have a negative impact; for example, encouraging farmers to divert land into monocultures of subsidised crops, like corn. This leads to a decline in the cultivation of crops such as sorghum and millet, even though these crops are better for the soil, more drought-tolerant and healthier to eat. Devoting all the land to subsidised corn flies in the face of regenerative farming philosophies, leaves farmers vulnerable to climate change, undermines the diversity of the nation’s diets and destroys the fertility of the soil. 

The semantics of seed

Subsidies and investments often come with new policies, which aren’t always applicable or useful in their application. An example Wise gives is of a bright orange maize farmed in Malawi. Nutritionists found that this particular type of maize was extremely high in vitamin A. Farmers would save the seeds of this strain and distribute it to other communities via the Malawi Farmer-to-Farmer Agroecology Project, a low-cost way to make such types of local seeds readily available. 

But, this project came under threat due to the government debating a new seed policy brought about by the pressure from external donors for the modernisation of Africa’s seed laws to favour plant breeders over “seed savers” (generally small-scale farmers). These “seed savers” make up 80-90% of Africa’s food production, saving seeds from each harvest to replant. 

Yet under the language of Malawi’s proposed new seed policy, the productive and nutritious orange kernels of corn could not be called seed; farmers could only call them grain (meaning that is it worthy of eating, but not planting). 

As it turns out, Wise relates that he was personally informed that a former Monsanto Company official was one of the authors of the policy. Since Monsanto controls half the commercial corn seed market in Malawi, his belief is that the company would stand to benefit from the policy as it could significantly expand its market. 

Corporate control 

In these examples, you can see how Wise observes that small-scale farmers in developing countries (and the populations they feed) are not necessarily benefitting from agribusiness and philanthropic ‘benefactors’. It’s the seed and fertiliser producers and other stakeholders who end up with the lion’s share of agricultural ‘development’. Most agribusiness firms promote industrial agriculture in developing communities. However, these approaches are heavily reliant on external inputs like commercial fertilisers and seeds—things that don’t regenerate year after year. Small-scale farmers can’t afford to keep buying chemicals and low-diversity seeds that ultimately degrade the fertility of the soil, the foundation for future food production. 

But who is letting these foreign investors intervene?

Wise refers to “land giveaways”. “In developing countries, national and sometimes local governments, who are desperate for foreign investment or for capital, or are just corrupt, are the ones giving the land to foreign investors.” This foreign investment usually comes not from governments, but from private companies exploiting a nation’s land for their own financial gain; for example, by increasing the sale of their seeds and fertilisers. 

Sustainable solutions from the small-scale

“When it came to food security and climate change, adaptation and getting people out of poverty, I saw policymakers all over the world ignoring the low-cost solutions all around them offered by their very own small-scale farmers.” Yet Wise argues that small-scale farmers have the potential to harness their own knowledge, skills and resources: “Everywhere I went, small farmers are doing a lot that works and that with very minimal support could be scaled up to be really productive. That could be a real engine for food production, for employment, for all kinds of things that are being squandered right now.” Wise produces stats indicating that most of the world is fed by hundreds of millions of small-scale farmers. These are people with simple tools and few resources, but people who are knowledgeable about what to grow and how. He believes that potentially, it’s these farmers who could lead the way as the world warms and population increases.

These small-scale farmers are:

Despite the low-cost solutions to the world’s food crisis offered by many small-scale farmers, they are falling prey to the policies of agribusiness firms. 

Sustainability inspired by small-scale farming in South Africa

Many small-scale farmers have been living off the land for generations; they use minimal inputs and employ sustainable farming methods by default. There’s a lot of wisdom we can learn from them. At Zylem, we believe that sustainability and land regeneration is being, and can be, achieved in large-scale farming operations too, and acknowledge their contribution towards food security. And it all starts with the soil. 

By incorporating small-scale farming methods such as organic fertilising, crop diversity, natural grazing and a focus on soil health as the foundation of healthy crops, large-scale farming operations are securing their places as farms of the future—without falling victim to agribusiness policies and products. 

Interested in reading the full interview? 

Visit Acres USA to purchase the August 2019 issue and read the original article along with other interesting content. 

You can follow Timothy on Twitter/Instagram @TimothyAWise.


Alex bio pic

About the Author: Alex Platt

Alex is Business Development Manager at Zylem. He’s inspired by the potential of regenerative farming and takes a special interest in the technology and products that are moving agriculture in a more sustainable direction.