Harvesting hypocrisy: The global food fight and Africa's forgotten farmers

Hosea Kiplagat

Hosea Kiplagat and his wife Rose on their organic farm in Kabarnet, Baringo County.

Photo credit: Stanley Kimuge | Nation Media Group

Recently, renowned environmental and human rights advocate George Monbiot shared his perspectives on global food systems. Monbiot, once an advocate for small-scale African food producers, now seems to align more with corporate narratives: that they alone can address the world's hunger problems.

Context matters

While the ongoing debate between British authors over the future of global food production is captivating, it is critical to acknowledge that agricultural strategies must be informed by the specific contexts they serve. Africa's diverse geographical, socio-economic, and cultural landscapes require a varied approach to agriculture, distinct from a field in Kansas or a laboratory in Essex. Agricultural techniques must be as diverse as the land they cultivate, recognising that a one-size-fits-all strategy is impractical.

History's lessons

Historically, colonial agronomists, promoting the interest of corporations, imposed a European agricultural model upon Africa, favouring concentrated crop systems designed for European climates and economies.

While these methods well suited European regions with predictable rainfall, easy access to finance and solid infrastructure, they were not fit for Africa's increasingly unpredictable climatic conditions, nor its socio-economic realities. The fallout? A model that prioritised crops for export over diverse, resilient, and nutritious food systems for local communities.

Critical analysis of contemporary views

Despite acknowledging the role of small-scale farming, the current discourse suggesting a production-focused approach to solving hunger overlooks the core issue—hunger is more a matter of distribution, poverty, and exclusion than sheer production.

There's a lack of nuanced understanding of the African context, where agrarian life remains prevalent: upwards of 60 per cent of African households depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. The fast-growing urban population needs affordable (but nutritious) food.

Yet higher farm gate prices actually make a lot of sense to African small-scale farmers, livestock keepers and fishers, who produce and sell food and whose output contributes hugely to African economies. Global (super)market dynamics often exploit these critical actors in the food web.

The discourse on 'subsistence farming' often paints it as a step backwards, potentially leading to disastrous outcomes. But the reality is that there are virtually no African farmers who do not sell at least some of their produce.

And the better they farm, the more they sell. How else do they buy their soap, cooking oil, and school uniforms? Indigenous pastoralists raise livestock without feedlots or hormones on arid rangeland that cannot support crop farming, checking their text messages for the latest city market prices.

Local systems versus long supply chains

The advocacy for extended food supply chains is at odds with the recent lessons from global crises, which exposed the vulnerability of Africa's dependence on imports of food and farm inputs. Lengthy supply chains are historically linked to subsidised US grain dumping, undercutting local producers and disrupting local markets. Shorter, more localised supply chains, as we advocate, promote resilience and bolster local economies.

Agroecology: A Path Forward for the Global South

Agroecology is not about going backwards. It is not about going back to traditional farming. Agroecology represents a forward-thinking fusion of scientific innovation, practical application, and social movement. It is not a regression to traditional methods but an advancement promising better yields, especially in the Global South.

A study revealed organic methods in these regions can surpass conventional farming by a significant margin. Along with productivity gains, diverse agroecological systems provide better environmental, socio-economic and nutritional outcomes than industrial farming. They are more resource-efficient, handle shocks better, provide healthy diverse diets, and keep carbon in the ground.

Celebrating Africa's agrarian innovation

Africa's agricultural strength is its ingenuity and adaptive capacity. The continent is home to a myriad of agroecological practices, from Agroforestry to Zai pits, all evidencing the innovative spirit of its farmers. These practices should be recognized and respected rather than overshadowed by generic models unsuitable for the African context.

Embracing regional specificity for sustainable futures

While global insights may contribute to the larger conversation on food systems, recognising Africa's distinct challenges and strengths is paramount. Africa's challenges are unique, and its solutions will be too.

The continent requires tailored solutions that its millions of food producers, many already practising sustainable agroecological methods, can harness. It is time to listen to the millions of African food producers feeding their communities through sustainable agroecological approaches, working with nature, nourishing the soil and protecting biodiversity.

Agroecology is the foundation for a transformed agri-food system, fostering resilience and empowering local farmers, pastoralists, and fishers to face the multifaceted challenges ahead.

Million Belay, (PhD) is the General Coordinator, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa.