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The new harvest, agricultural innovation in Africa

Friday, December 10, 2010

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On August 1, 2009, my article that appeared in the Daily Dunklin democrat was entitled, ?Africa could feed the world.? This was based on two reports. The first report was compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The second was issued jointly by the FAO and the World Bank. This report concluded that 988 million acres straddling 25 African countries are suitable for farming.

Models for producing new crop land already exist in Thailand, where land originally deemed agriculturally unpromising, due to irrigation problems and infertile soil, has been transformed into a cornucopia by smallholder farmers. As in Thailand, future success will come by using agriculture to lift Africa's smallholder farmers out of poverty, aided by strong government measures to guarantee their rights to land, say both reports.

A new study suggests that within a generation, Africa can go from a hungry importer to being self-sufficient in food production. This study was reported in Science Daily on December 3, 2010 and can be found on-line at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/201.... The approach is outlined in an independent study, "The New Harvest, Agricultural Innovation in Africa," led by Harvard University professor Calestous Juma. This preliminary study was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Africa does have many advantages over other Continents including abundant arable land and labor. Whereas Brazil has an infrastructure that favors larger farms, Africa would adopt a strategy that would utilize the smaller producers.

In order for this to happen, there would need to be a number of changes that would need to happen for success. Africa would need to use modern science and technology plus get plenty of investment from the wealthy nations. There would need to be an expansion of the basic infrastructure such as telecommunications, transportation, energy and irrigation. Education for people working in the agricultural sector would need improved science and technical education. There would need to the creation of agricultural enterprises such as seed production, farm mechanization, food storage and processing. There is a strong need to increase trading that extends the regional markets.

The most important factor that will determine success or failure is the cooperation between government, industry, and academia leadership.

Looking at the global agricultural economy over the past 40 years, you will see that the food production per capita growth has been 17 percent. The total production has increased by 145 percent. However, in Africa, the opposite has happened. Production of some export items has increased, but food production has decreased by 10 percent since 1960 because of the low investment in the food production sector.

Currently, there are numerous problems that impact production that must be addressed if Africa is to thrive agriculturally.

Only four per cent of the continent's cropland is irrigated. Fertilizers, pesticides and high-quality seeds are expensive and in short supply. Only a small minority of farmers uses machinery that's commonplace in Europe and North America. Deforestation is spreading as farmers seek to replace exhausted fields.

Water and energy supplies are often inadequate. Poor roads make it difficult to bring supplies and expertise to farms and get their produce to markets. Government policies, lack of investment, bloody conflicts, the HIV-AIDS epidemic and the global financial crisis all add to the problems.

Professor Juma notes that only Africa has readily available arable land to expand agriculture. He estimates that Southern Sudan alone could feed all of Africa if it was properly developed. While 40 percent of African?s live in semi-arid conditions, lakes and rivers could be used for irrigation.

One component needed for irrigation is energy which could be developed by constructing dams which could be used to generate electricity. However, a power grid would need to be developed to get energy where it is needed.

Scientific advances such as biotechnology and nanotechnology, could be used to quickly and effectively detect and treat crop diseases, and for water purification -- a critical issue given that 300 million Africans lack access to a clean supply.

Prof. Juma notes the use of improved seeds through biotechnology could dramatically increase farm yields. South Africa, for example, had 2.1 million hectares of biotechnology-improved corn in production in 2009, up 18 per cent over the previous year. From 2008 to 2009, Burkina Faso's cotton producers recorded the world's fastest adoption rate of a genetically improved crop.

This information was shared by farmers last November 8-13, 2009 during a "Seeing-is-believing tour" organized by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter for journalists, policy makers, regulators, farmers and technicians of the cotton sectors from Kenya, Mali and Burkina Faso.

There will be challenges to Africa?s agricultural growth, but if the political situation is stable, then the technology and science can make a difference.

University of Missouri Extension programs are open to all

Dr. Michael R. Milam is an agronomy

specialist and county program director with University of Missouri Extension in

Dunklin County.

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