Subsidies and Sustainable Agriculture in Africa

Reading #1 for Lecture 21
Dugger, C. W. Dec. 2, 2007. "Ending famine, simply by ignoring the experts." New York Times.

In her December 2, 2007 New York Times article, Celia Dugger dissects the complications associated with agriculture production, aid and subsidies in Malawi. As a former Peace Corps Volunteer that lived and worked in sustainable agriculture in a rural agrarian Senegalese village for two years, I found her article to be very accurate.

The deeper underlying issue is that outside entities attempt to "fix" the hunger problem in Africa by forcing African nations to become more dependent on outside sourcing. In his personal memoir, "Confessions of an Economic Hitman," John Perkins conveys, in reference to the larger context of globalization, this ugly reality.

Instead richer outside entities should create solutions to help African nations become more independent in order to promote agrarian sustainability within their own countries - so as to defeat the hunger problem.

Dugger's case focuses specifically on Malawi: The World Bank in the 1980s and 1990s encouraged Malawi to lift fertilizer subsidies (necessary to grow corn - Malawi's staple food crop) entirely and focus on growing and exporting cash crops in order to use that money to import food. Along the same lines, the United States shipped $147 million worth of American food to Malawi as emergency relief from 2002-2007 but only sent $53 million to help Malawi sustain its own agrarian system. Such actions perpetuate dependence.

Malawi's president at the time, Bingu wa Mutharika, was resilient to pressures from richer outside entities and nations to lift fertilizer subsidies. He knew that the future of his agrarian country depended on its ability to feed the soil in order to grow the food its people needed to live.

Fertilizer subsidies enabled Malawian farmers to afford an otherwise unaffordable key element necessary to grow corn on their soil. Dugger mentioned that, although the subsidies were necessary, they were also well timed with the good rains in 2007. This point cannot be overlooked: affordable fertilizer does not connote good rains (upon which that fertilizer is dependent). Too little rain will make parched a well fed crop, and too much rain will wash the fertilizer away.

Government subsidies are extremely effective, but, as Dugger mentions, there are still not enough coupons to go around - to meet everyone's needs. Due to the unpredictability of the essential rains, are agrarian African countries indeed reliant on outside entities to be a security blanket and mitigate the hunger problem? Instead, could these native African peoples - who are so ingrained (no pun intended) in their culture of a corn-based diet - learn to grow non-fertilizer-intensive, drought resistant crops (such as millet or sorghum)? Changing one person's behavior is hard enough, let alone a whole culture's.

One thing is for sure: independence can not come from perpetual dependence.

For more insight on agrarian farming in Africa, read the wiki link called "Nitrogen and Peanuts!!"

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