The push for climate-smart agriculture continues under opposition from civil society as we usher in 2015, the International Year of Soils as declared by the UN.
Civil society cites the collapse of the “green revolution” in Malawi in its argument that the world stands a better chance of feeding itself more sustainably by embracing a farming system that naturally replenishes soil fertility.
Set to be implemented by the Food and Agricultural Organisation in collaboration with governments and the secretariat of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, the declaration of 2015 as the year of soils is meant to raise awareness of the importance of soil for food security and for maintaining essential ecosystem functions.
For FAO, healthy soils are the foundation for food, fuel, fibre and even medicine. The UN body is expected to implement more than 120 soil-related projects around the world.
The challenges related to declines in soil fertility and the effects of climate change could lead to a reduction in farm productivity at a time when the world has many more mouths to feed. “Unfortunately, 33 per cent of global soils are degraded and human pressures on soils are reaching critical limits,” said José Graziano da Silva, the FAO director general.
The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that food insecurity could increase by 15-40 per cent by 2050. This threat is more imminent in sub-Saharan Africa where a study conducted by the United Nations University Institute for Natural Resources in Africa in seven countries — Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana and Tanzania — showed that the impact of climate change had led to reduced food production.
The study concluded that this is the aftermath of declines in soil fertility, water scarcity and effects of inappropriate farming practices.
Further, the World Bank estimates that because of climate change, irrigated lands may already be, on average, 7 per cent below their potential productivity, while rain-fed crops and range lands are about 14 per cent and 45 per cent below potential, respectively.
Soil scientists say that most soils in East Africa and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa are low on chemicals such as magnesium, sulphur, zinc and phosphorus and have a dearth of organic matter content.
All these inadequacies have raised the vulnerability of millions of smallholder farmers as the effects of soil damage and climate change magnify food insecurity on the continent.
To a group of organisations led by FAO, governments and multinational corporations, East Africa stands a better chance of addressing the challenges of climate change and soil damage by embracing climate-smart agriculture.
First proposed in 2009, climate-smart agriculture is meant to raise productivity and the ability of farmers and developing countries to adapt to changes in climate and to reduce emission of greenhouse gases while meeting household and national food security goals.
The concept has been embraced by more than 20 governments, 30 organisations and corporations including companies such as the US-based McDonald’s and Kellogg, which are now members of the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture.
The Alliance joins the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) and the World Committee on Food Security (CFS), which have been grappling with the same challenges.
However, there are those who say that the Alliance will end up undermining the work and achievements made by such international bodies.
“UNFCC and CFS are the appropriate and legitimate fora for tackling the challenges of food insecurity and climate change while prompting political action to keep global temperature increases below two degrees Celsius” reads a critique of climate-smart agriculture prepared by CIDSE (Climate Smart Agriculture: The Emperor’s New Clothes). CIDSE is an alliance of 17 development agencies of the Catholic Church that campaigns against injustice and poverty.
Not in public domain
What has not been made public by its proponents is the fact that by its very nature, climate–smart agriculture (which calls for zero tillage) must involve the use of massive amounts of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides to raise production and control weeds.
This means more business for multinationals such as Yara and Monsanto, which are global leaders in fertiliser and herbicide production, respectively.
Those opposed to the initiative say that it is not a surprise that these companies are rooting for it. However, there is evidence that widespread use of fertilisers and other chemicals does not necessarily guarantee increased productivity, particularly in the long term, neither does it ensure that smallholder farmers benefit.
Activists cite the case of Malawi to advance the argument that smallholder farmers in East Africa are better served by traditional soil fertility restoration practices and the use of organic fertilisers than the “false promise” emanating from proponents of chemical-cum-industrial farming — the hallmarks of climate-smart agriculture.
Maize is life
Malawi — where it is said that “maize is life” (chimanga ndi moyo) — has an interesting food security record. The country has moved from high food insecurity to glut and back to food insecurity and its accompanying problems within a period of just over 10 years.
Seven years before he succumbed to cardiac arrest, Malawian president, Bingu wa Mutharika, initaited an impressive agricultural subsidy scheme in 2005 that was praised the world over. Termed Farm Input Subsidy Programme, the initiative was aimed improve food security and raise the productivity of smallholder farmers.
The scheme performed spectacularly well making the country attain self-sufficiency in maize within a few years. By 2010, the scheme was benefitting 1.6 million farmers who received vouchers to buy heavily-subsidised fertiliser and maize seed worth $152.3 million.
In its heyday, the subsidy scheme left Malawi with much more maize than they could eat; on average, the country was consistently producing some 500,000 tonnes of maize more than it required. Malawians even sold about 40,000 metric tonnes of maize to Zimbabwe and went ahead to donate some 5,000 metric tonnes each to Lesotho and Swaziland. This earned Lilongwe the reputation of being a sterling food production country.
But Lilongwe relied too much, not just on Western donors —who funded up to 40 per cent of the subsidies — but also on artificial fertilisers. As it did so, it also continued with kind of bad behaviour often associated with African governments — human rights abuses, poor governance, mismanagement of the economy and corruption. Soon Malawi fell out of favour with the World Bank, DfID, the US-based Millennium Challenge Corporation and the European Union who cut the flow of aid.
Mr Mutharika’s government was then forced to cut the subsidies, with the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security initially reducing the number of farmers benefiting from the scheme by over 200,000. Things went from bad to worse and today, media reports show that maize prices have climbed by more than 60 per cent over the past four months.
The unofficial story is that Malawian farmers have been suffering since they started adopting farming practices advocated by those now promoting climate-smart agriculture.
This is a story that emerges from a reportpublished in the South Africa-based Africa Centre for Biosafety (ACB) titled “Running to Stand Still: Small-scale Farmers and the Green Revolution in Malawi” in September.
“Malawi has been hailed as a Green Revolution success story. But a closer look reveals farmers trapped in a cycle of debt and dependency on costly external inputs, and an eroding natural resource base,” says the ACB report.
The other side
ACB’s research demonstrates that rather than gain from adopting hybrid seed, fertilisers and other green revolution techniques championed and financed by Agra and other bodies, Malawian farmers have been generating super profits for agribusinesses at their own expense.
To prove this, the organisation established that on average, farmers growing hybrid maize harvested 519 kilos more than harvests of local maize yields. This translated into $74.14 at the prevailing market price of $0.14. However, the same farmers incurred an average input cost of $13.8 for hybrid maize seed and $193.54 for the NPK fertiliser and urea, which are used primarily on maize.
“When increased input costs are taken into account, farmers adopting GR technologies realise a potential income deficit of $133.22.” To finance this, farmers have been forced to borrow, with most landing in unprecedented debt.
The report says that small-scale farmers there have been using “shockingly high levels of synthetic fertiliser” at great financial cost to themselves and the government. Consequently, their farms now face rising soil infertility while their adoption of hybrid seeds has led to loss of diversity and the resilience of local varieties, necessitating the use of larger quantities of artificial fertilisers.
ACB went on to contract Chitedze Research Station to conduct independent soil testing. The researchers established that rather than raise fertility, the use of copious amounts of fertilisers had led to soil degradation, limited nutrient content, inability to hold nutrients and relatively high acidity.
However, for the Malawian farmers interviewed, doing away with fertiliser was almost impossible; “There was an almost universal consensus among respondents that farming is impossible without fertiliser.”
Unfortunately, the Malawian experience could be shared by millions of farmers in other African countries who continue to implement the African Union’s resolutions calling for an increase in average synthetic fertiliser use across Africa to 50 kg/ha by 2015 as per the Abuja Declaration.
According to ACB’s research, the biggest beneficiaries of the entire production system and Malawi’s subsidy programme are big-time agribusiness companies following an expanded demand for their inputs. These include major seed companies such as SeedCo, Pannar, Monsanto and Demeter Seed as well as fertiliser producers such as Farmers World, Yara, TransGlobe, Omnia and Rab Processors.
“One does not need to be a rocket scientist to understand why the same companies are now pushing for the adoption of similar practices under the auspices of the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture,” Dr Daniel Maingi said.
Dr Maingi, a scientist who is involved with the Kenya Food Rights Alliance said that Malawi provides a lesson in what he terms “false” promise. “Massive use of synthetic fertilisers leads to a short-term rise in productivity, but this eventually leads to incremental impairment of the ability of farms to continue with the same level of production,” he said.
He cautions East African governments and farmers against the blind adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices, saying that this will lead to indebtedness among farmers and vulnerability to shocks induced by changing weather patterns.