The battle for Africa

Datelin: 25 July 2007

It is a little over 200 years since Malthus predicted that the world was on the point of running out of food. Population grows geometrically, he pointed out, but food production just arithmetically. Starvation and poverty were around the corner.

When Malthus developed his theories the world was home to just under one billion people. Today it is more than six billion, and they are better fed, better clothed and better housed than ever before. Malthus was more comprehensively wrong than almost anyone else in history, and yet he still has his admirers today.

After more than 20 years of work for the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He had taken farming techniques from his native Iowa, enhanced them with further research, and applied them in developing countries. He started with Mexico, then other parts of Latin America, then on to Asia.

Environmentalists, of course, dismissed his work as both damaging and fruitless. But they were wrong. Doomster Paul Ehrlich wrote in 1968 that it was a fantasy to suppose that India would ever feed itself. Thanks to Borlaug’s work India was self-sufficient in cereals by 1974.

In the years since Borlaug’s Nobel Prize the population of the world has doubled. But food production capacity has continued to shoot well ahead of population. We have done this through more intensive agriculture: better pesticides, better fertilizers, better crops. More land has been brought into production, but this has been a rather smaller factor. If we stopped improving our agricultural technologies we would only be able to expand food production by bringing more land over to food. Environmentalists need to face the uncomfortable fact: you cannot feed the world, oppose GM food, and save the Amazon rain forests. That extra land would have to come from somewhere.

There is, however, one part of the world which has only started to benefit from Borlaug’s work: Africa. Famines there have had a multiplicity of causes: war was the main factor in Ethiopia. The eventual overthrow of the particularly nasty communist dictatorship did more than any Irish rock stars to ease the situation. But the continuing reluctance of western governments to sponsor the import of high yield crops to Africa is a disgrace. Borlaug’s work continues to be backed by private sources. Even as a Nobel Prize winner he cannot secure the support of the World Bank. And even his former sponsors – the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations – have been persuaded by environmentalists to steer clear of him.

The European Union – with its refusal to give aid or market access to any country with accepts GM crops – is the worst offender. Since US aid is usually in the form of GM crops, countries are forced to choose between the two largest trading blocks in the world.

The US is far from spotless – the Bush administration has increased subsidies to American farmers. But the American record is superior to Europe’s. Bob Geldof was right to call this President the most positive in his record on Africa since, at least, JFK. But forcing this battle of wills between Europe and America onto Africa has to stop. People are dying, and the technology to save them already exists. Let’s use it.

Quentin Langley is editor of an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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