Africana Plus

No44 March 2001.2

Food shortages
Family Cultivation or Industrial Africulture ?


We are in the age of globalisation. World-wide cultural and commercial exchanges are leading to unprecedented developments and consequences which could hardly have been imagined as recently as ten years ago. Goods coming from the four corners of the earth are available for our use. We make use of them in another sense also, for our prosperity is often the cause of misery for the people in less privileged countries. We may consider how this comes about.

Take the case of agriculture in the world at large. The liberalisation of currency exchanges is a deadly menace for half the peasants of the world, that is to say, for one thousand million cultivators and agricultural workers. Yet these peasants, in themselves, have the capacity both to survive and to contribute to the eradication of hunger and to the protection of the environment.

Five hundred million peasants are caught in the trap of globalisation. In the 1950's, an African cultivator produced one thousand kilos of grain, of which he kept eight hundred to feed his family and sold the rest at forty dollars per hundred kilos. He thus had an income of eighty dollars to meet his basic needs. Today a hundred kilos brings in less than twenty dollars, so he must sell four hundred kilos to maintain his income and cover his essential expenses. As a result, he can no longer feed his family and is even less able than before to obtain the equipment needed to increase his production. His chances of living off his land, or even of survival, diminish by the day.

More that half of the peasant cultivators of the South suffer from chronic malnutrition. Of the eight hundred million undernourished people in the world, more than three-quarters are poor peasants. Moreover the small quantity of the produce which they manage to sell has lost half its value over the last thirty years.

They have therefore no surplus income with which to buy tools, fertiliser or improved seeds and they can hardly survive. In addition they have to face a further danger arising from the opening of frontiers, which puts the small cultivator in direct competition with the industrial agriculture of the North whose productivity per unit may be one thousand times higher. This large-scale agriculture is killing the family cultivation which has dominated Western social life since the agrarian reform, which we may call the first green revolution, which resulted from the dismantling of the mediaeval feudal estates. Industrial agriculture is built on an increasingly more developed technical base of mechanisation, chemical knowledge, seed selection and continual investment. In this situation, one man can cultivate three hundred hectares. Productivity has increased to such an extent that agricultural prices are continually falling, so that consumers are spending a smaller proportion of their income on food.


At the same time there are clearly limits to this spiral of development. The scare of "mad cow disease" was only one example of the damage which can result from an exclusive concern for maximising productivity. The environment is being ravaged, the water tables are dropping, the soil is becoming exhausted and various species of living things are disappearing. This intensive agriculture furthermore absorbs 70% of mankind's drinking water. Eventually however it reaches its ceiling and can no longer increase its profitability. This is why the programme for genetically modified organisms has become crucial if industrial agriculture is to continue to advance.

For the peasants of the poor South however this programme is a false solution to a false problem. The problem is not any shortfall in production. In its latest report on the shortage of food in the world, the FAO emphasized that "after fifty years of modernisation, world agricultural production is today more than sufficient to provide adequate food for six thousand million human beings." The problem is one of access. Too many people cannot obtain the food they need. Four out of five hungry people live in food-exporting countries. North America and Europe, faced with the problem of over-production, wish to dump their products onto the markets of poor countries. Genetically modified crops will strengthen the power of the multinationals. Four or five firms dominate also the progress in modified seeds. They include Monsanto, DuPont, Novartis and Aventis. These multinationals with unlimited resources work in their laboratories to produce fertiliser-resistant soya and cotton, rice with increased vitamin content, long-life tomatoes. They are able to impose their conditions. It is clear that one may query the validity of a system which increases profits but also causes millions of peasants to sink ever deeper into poverty.

Can this really be called "improved productivity"? Small-scale, diversified farming which produces for the local market is far more productive that the huge single-crop cultivation intended for the towns or for export.

What solution can one envisage? The peasants themselves, as well as a good number of agronomists, believe that it is to be found in family cultivation. Given the opportunity, this type of agriculture beats all records of productivity and allows the peasant to live a decent life. Giving it the opportunity means in the first place destroying the urban prejudice which afflicts most of the governments of the Third World. Because cities are more restless and dangerous places than the countryside, governments seek to conciliate them by providing cheap food. The current liberalisation of exchange rates puts the country farmer at a further disadvantage, since in general the world prices for agricultural products are lower than local prices. Moreover, the priority becomes the export of commercial crops in order to improve the balance of payments, scrutinised so carefully by the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. As Marcel Mazoyer, professor at the national institute of agronomy in Paris, explains: "If peasants in poor countries are to progress, the first essential must be that they are remunerated for their work at a price which will allow them to buy improved means of production. They will never be able to develop without protectionism and commercial barriers."

Giving opportunities to family agriculture is the indispensable condition for putting an end to the scourge of hunger. Peasants who are fighting for their rights are fighting also that everyone may have sufficient and proper food. Furthermore, with the introduction of biological agriculture, agriculture will be more productive for persons and more respectful of the environment because it will be developed by he farmers themselves.

If hunger is a feature of the countryside, it is in the countryside that action must be taken. Peasants must be helped to produce more crops, and better quality crops, for the problem of world hunger is connected above all with the crying need of the world's poorest farmers for better means of production. There are more than 1.3 thousand million peasants in the world. Of these, only 28 million have access to a tractor, 300 million have an ox or a horse, while more than one thousand million work with primitive hoes, spades and sickles. Of this same thousand million, only one half make use of fertilisers and specially selected seeds; the other half, 500,000 million, know nothing of agricultural research and can only use any seeds they can find. Research must therefore be devoted to improve the animal and plant varieties in the regions so that they may really be enabled to launch a "second green revolution". One needs only to think of the need in many areas for developing drought-resistant plants..

Mgr Agostino Marchetto, the Holy See's permanent observer to FAO, said::

"Family agricultural enterprises must be encouraged because, by their very nature, they can more easily provide the necessary guarantees for an agricultural activity which respects different eco-systems and uses a productive process which protects the consumer."

In this connection, one may recall the address which John Paul II gave at the inauguration of the World Food Summit in November 1996. He told the heads of states and governments present at the meeting: "It is desirable that your reflections should also lead to concrete measures to fight against the food insecurity from which too many of our brothers and sisters suffer. On the world level, nothing will change until the leaders of nations translate into practice the commitments written into your plan of action and pursue economic and food policies which are based not simply on profit but also on solidarity and sharing."

Let us never forget that the evolution of the world and of humanity make it indispensable to find new forms of solidarity if we are to live in a real peace, that is, in a peace rooted in justice. Our human community must therefore be a community of values before being a community of interest.

Michel Fortin, M.Afr.


Back to main menu