How African farmers can help feed billions

Wednesday November 16 2011

By GILBERT ARAP BOR

The world now has seven billion people in it but the population growth doesn’t stop there.

In Kenya, the Nation highlighted a Kenyan mother and her newborn, born on the last day of October at Kenyatta National Hospital.

That same hospital delivered another five babies the same day, making it six new children added to the world’s population in just one hospital.

The simple fact is that the world population will continue to grow. By the 2020s, it will pass eight billion. By the 2040s, it will top nine billion.

The great challenge will be to figure out how we’re going to feed all these mouths. Over the next four decades, farmers everywhere will have to boost their production by 70 per cent.

Here in Kenya, we understand the dilemma firsthand. We’re adding a million new people each year — and almost everywhere you go, you see the effects of a population surge. In cities and towns, the streets are so crowded it’s getting hard to walk.

Thankfully, Kenya is beginning to take positive steps. Last year, our government approved the commercial planting of genetically modified (GM) crops, becoming the fourth African country to do so.

This will give farmers access to one of the world’s most important hunger-fighting tools.

We have far to go, but at least we’re on the right path. On visits to the US, I’ve witnessed many of the technologies and practices that could represent a bright future: GM seeds, minimum tillage, conservation agriculture, irrigation, and post-harvest storage.

These are some of the practices that contribute to sustainable farming and food security.

Other possibilities include better market access, improving the business environment, reforming government policies, promoting high-value crops, and linking local producers to the global trade.

In each of these areas, Africa lags behind. Many farmers remain wedded to age-old forms of agriculture that were hardly adequate in the 20th century, to say nothing of the 21st.

We have no choice. Our governments follow the misguided example of European countries that refuse to accept biotechnology.

They’re held hostage by scientific illiterates who go to well-paid jobs that require them to raise money by frightening people about biotechnology.

Truth about Trade & Technology, a US-based not-for-profit group, recently calculated that farmers around the world have planted more than three billion acres of GM crops, mostly in North and South America but also in Australia, India, the Philippines, South Africa and elsewhere.

This is a remarkable achievement. Until more of Africa transforms its agricultural systems by applying science and technology to support a “green revolution”, however, it’s an incomplete one.

At a recent conference in Britain, Dr Felix M’mobyi of the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum put the matter bluntly:

“The affluent West has the luxury of choice in the type of technology they use to grow food crops, yet their influence and sensitivities are denying many in the developing world access to such technologies which could lead to a more plentiful food supply,” he said.

“This kind of hypocrisy and arrogance comes with the luxury of a full stomach.”

Mr Bor, a lecturer at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (Eldoret Campus), is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.