Samuel Fromartz’s Zambia research was generously supported by Worldwatch’s Nourishing the Planet.
When people discuss the food crises in Africa, the focus is usually on production: “Grow more and the food problem will be solved!” But this argument grossly oversimplifies the forces that lead to global food shortages—and the solutions that could ultimately put food back on the table.
Take Zambia, some 2,500 miles south of where a famine is ravaging East Africa. A country the size of France, Zambia has managed to grow more food than it needs, lifting production 48 percent in 2010 to its highest level in two decades. Aided by rains and generous government fertilizer subsidies, Zambia achieved this feat while maintaining a ban on the genetically modified crops that the “grow more” camp often advocates as the foremost solution to hunger.
Yet this hasn’t proven to be the windfall for Zambians that one would expect. Nearly one in five households is chronically short of food; more than half of all rural children suffer from stunting, a symptom of malnutrition. In short, surplus production has not provided food for those who need it most.
The same problem exists on a global scale. We produce more than enough food to feed the world’s population, yet nearly a billion people are going hungry. One oft-cited study found that of the 4,600 kilocalories of food produced for each person globally, only 2,000 were consumed. Food waste alone, in the vast chain from field to plate, consumes almost 40 percent of what is produced. Yet technocrats and agribusiness promoters point to new seeds and herbicides as necessary to bolster production, while ignoring how much is often lost after a harvest.
The “grow more” mantra has led the way since the outset of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, which sought to address global hunger. Aside from boosting production, it helped create vital new markets for agro-industrial firms, which sell the seeds, fertilizers and pesticides that underlie crop intensification. But it has also come with environmental and social costs, whether measured as massive water use, oceanic “dead zones” from nitrogenous pollution, pesticide poisonings or farmer indebtedness. Seed breeding and technology should be viewed as one set of tools, along with considerations like prices, support networks, trading arrangements, transportation and food waste. A laserlike focus on increasing production fails to take into account the larger agricultural context: where and how farmers get seed and fertilizers and how much they pay; whether farmers know the best growing method; whether there are viable markets in which to sell the crop; whether prices are fair and transparent; and whether farmers make enough money to eat, send their kids to school and, perhaps, lift themselves out of poverty. Addressing those issues—and not food production alone—brings food to hungry people.
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Looking out the window during the final leg of the flight to Zambia—a trip that takes roughly twenty hours from the United States—the country appears lush, endowed with rivers, forests and farmland. But the view from the air can be deceptive.
During the early part of the harvest in 2010, speculation was mounting about a crash in corn prices, especially during the dry months from June to August. “A tidal wave of maize will be hitting the market,” Rob Munro, a senior market development adviser for USAID, told me in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city. The government was fretting about what to do with all this food. Zambia already had a 600,000-ton surplus from the 2009 harvest, a portion of which was still sitting in warehouses. The surplus for 2010 was projected to be 1.1 million tons. Since the government doesn’t have enough money to mop up all the excess, the grain that isn’t purchased is subject to rock-bottom market prices. The result: the farmers growing this food can end up penniless and hungry.