7 January 2014

Africa: Our Agricultural System Is Destroying the Earth and Our Health

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In South America increasingly vast swathes of the Amazon, along with the dry but ecologically sensitive and important Brazilian Cerrado and the pampas of Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina have been covered by an endless monoculture of chemical resistant, genetically modified soya beans. This almost contiguous soya monoculture is disparagingly called "la republica de la soya", "the soya republic."

These beans are ground into protein cake for chicken, pig and cattle feed while the oil is processed for food, and increasingly for 'biofuel." Diesel made from Brazilian soya oil has a highest carbon footprint of any "biofuel", even more than conventional petrol or diesel, with nearly a 300% greater environmental impact.

Worse, livestock fed on soy and maize, rather than natural pastures, emits more greenhouse gases than naturally raised animals. They are also more prone to disease and less healthy for the people who consume them.

Along with these trends there is an increasing shift toward leasing or selling communal or "state" land to replace areas damaged by short-term, intensive industrial-style farming or lost to expanding urbanisation. This involves contracts between commercial entities and developing nations, particularly in Africa, to a lesser degree on the old Soviet granaries of the Russian steppe.

These land grabs are primarily driven by middle-eastern, Chinese and western commercial interests. Some countries like South Africa, which continues its pursuit of unsustainable industrial agriculture policy and practice, both participates in land grabs elsewhere in Africa, while also being targeted for internal corporate-led land acquisition.

Land grabs have already caused political instability and social disruption. Serious protests have arisen in Kenya, while political oppression has deepened in countries like Ethiopia, where land appropriated from traditional owners is leased for the benefit of foreign owners, exacerbating risks of hunger and inequality within marginalised tribes. Because leaseholders have little long-term commitment, the likelihood of negative ecological consequences are increased.

How do we counter this litany of woes facing our global food system? Are there alternative ways to feed growing populations?

Interestingly the largest international agricultural study yet undertaken, sponsored by major institutions like the World Bank and the United Nations, came to a conclusion that is almost diametrically opposite to the dominant corporate agriculture model.

This study, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, suggested that food production should hark back to its roots and use resources more smartly and equitably.

Trade distorting subsidies must end. Local ownership and stewardship require encouragement. Practices that preserve and restore ecological resources need to be pursued. Relevant science and technology can be adopted while constantly bearing in mind the multifunctional role of agriculture.

There certainly are practical models, capable of correcting the wrongs we have wrought on our ecosystems, to produce sufficient food for all.

The real (political) trick is to shift control of these resources back to where they are most needed - as Amartya Sen said - to those who trapped in poverty, without access to good, affordable food.

Simultaneously, those able to make informed choices should leverage their purchasing power to encourage a shift away from unhealthy and unsustainable eating choices.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at www.ekogaia.org.

Read more articles by Glenn Ashton.

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