Case study 8: famine prevention

Image credit: Creative Commons

Case study 8: famine prevention

In 2009, the development organization World Renew asked me to do a six-nation study of agricultural work in Africa. So, one day in September, 2009, I found myself sitting next to the village chief and his elders in Koboko village, Malawi. In front of us, 30 women and their children were gathering under a huge shade tree, the traditional site for village meetings. Having been told that a strange white man wanted to ask them some questions, they were gradually squeezing together on an assortment of hand-woven mats and tiny rough-hewn chairs.

I began my little interrogation with the one question I ask more often than any other: “What is the most important single problem that prevents you from having enough food to feed your children?” Without even waiting for one of the village’s male authorities to answer, one of the taller women spoke up: “Our soil is tired out. And it is getting worse every year.” 

Before she had even finished, four or five other women chimed in, “Yes, what she said is true!” 

“Last year I harvested 35 bags of maize.  But this year I only harvested 27, even though it rained well.” 

“We no longer have any way to keep our fields fertile.” 

“Our soil has become so hard that even when it rains, the water just runs off.” 

When things had quieted down again, the village chief, calmly and authoritatively put his stamp of approval on the obvious consensus by voicing his heart-felt agreement.

Frankly, I was totally taken aback. Just five years earlier, Malawi had suffered one of Africa’s worst droughts ever. People became so hungry they were cooking up and eating the bark off of trees. Many died, and millions more would have if food aid hadn’t been distributed throughout the country. Yet in this village, everyone concurred that soil fertility was a worse problem than droughts. They explained that, sure, the drought had been horrible, but droughts only occurred once every five or ten years. Soil fertility was threatening to destroy their food supply permanently—forever.

The women were absolutely unanimous. They were adamant. And they were obviously scared. Even though they were desperately poor, they had never before faced such a long-term and apparently insoluble threat to their very survival. 

Everywhere I went in lowland, drought-prone Africa during this study, the answer was the same. Harvests were decreasing from 10 to 20% every year. But why were they facing such a crisis, and why for the first time?

The fact was that they were all being hit by a perfect storm of unprecedented problems. First, unlike in Cameroon, they no longer had enough land to even fallow it for one year, much less four. The traditional 10- to 15-year fallows had been the technology African farmers had used for 3,000 years to maintain their soil fertility. But population growth had meant their family farms now averaged less than 2 ha in size. A family can’t fallow ¾ of a 2-hectare farm and still grow enough food to survive. So fallowing across sub-Saharan Africa was in its death throes. 

The resulting reduction in soil organic matter meant that over the last 30 years, their soils had lost the vast majority of their organic matter, robbing them of their natural fertility, as well as their ability to absorb rainwater. A scientific study in Malawi has shown that the soil’s rainwater infiltration rate has dropped from 60% to below 20% over the last 30 years. I have gone out into numerous fields in Africa right after a three to four-hour tropical downpour. When I dig down into the soil, it is only moist down about 5 cm. That is too little moisture for crops to thrive on for any length of time. Furthermore, its being so close to the surface will cause most of it to evaporate in two or three days. Three days after a good rain, the drought will start again.

In Mozambique, where there traditionally have been higher population rates along the coast of Africa, this process of reducing fallows started in about the 1960s, 20 years before it did in most of the rest of Africa. As a result, people in most of Mozambique cannot grow maize, sorghum or millet any more, but rather are now eating mainly cassava roots, which have very little nutritional value. The result is that the child stunting rate in rural Mozambique is now well above 70%, which places it among the three or four most malnourished nations in the world. Basically, most of a whole generation of Mozambique’s children will grow up having less mental and physical capacity than they would have had they been eating anywhere near properly.

And that is the direction in which the rest of the drought-prone half of Africa is headed.

Lastly, using fertilizer to maintain their soil’s productivity was also out of the question because wealthier countries had used up most of the world’s cheap energy, and the manufacture of nitrogenous fertilizer requires a tremendous amount of natural gas. Synthetic fertilizer was now therefore too expensive to be profitable for growing basic grain crops on their depleted soils. Lastly, global warming was making rains more and more irregular, once again reducing their farms’ productivity.

Every one of these problems was new, and was hitting them for the first time in history. And the crisis was as life-threatening as it was unprecedented.

As a result of my study, I wrote a chapter for the book State of the World 2011. In that chapter, called “Africa’s Soil Fertility Crisis and the Coming Famine,” I predicted that “tens of millions of people” would likely face, “within the next four or five imminent tragedy: a Great African Famine.”

That tragedy is now upon us. Three years ago, in early 2017, the United Nations officially declared that a famine was stalking Africa. Thirty million people, from West Africa, East Africa, and southern Africa, were in extreme danger because of a major drought. The United Nations called it “the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II.” 

I had predicted not only its starting date by within a few months, but also accurately predicted that it would be most severe in Africa’s sub-humid and semi-arid lowlands. Luckily, and something I had failed to foresee, massive disaster relief efforts sprang into action, so that few deaths have occurred so far. But food aid organizations assume that famines caused by drought are self-terminating. When the rains fall again, the drought ends. Thus, they figured that the droughts would soon end and they could use their now heavily-depleted food supply in the next inevitable disaster somewhere else. 

Three years later, however, well over 45 million people in Africa are facing the possibility of starvation. The droughts will go on and on, and with short remissions, continue to get worse until the continent’s farmers change their agricultural practices. And that is not going to happen this year or the next. Within a few years, the food aid agencies will find themselves with nowhere near enough food to cover this disaster along with the usual array of others.

Seeing all this coming, and realizing that gm/ccs were by far the easiest, cheapest, and most widely appropriate technology on the shelf for ending the famine, I moved to Africa in 2011. I knew I couldn’t single-handedly prevent the Great African Famine, but perhaps I could get a head start on the process. My goal was to get a good gm/cc system either identified or started in each of ten of the lowland, drought-prone countries where I had predicted the famine would hit. In each case, I hoped to identify or create a system that was widely appropriate, and carry the process along far enough that the gm/cc system had proven itself through its spontaneous spread by village farmers. 

With the generous support of four large international non-governmental organizations--the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB), Oxfam, CARE and most of all, Catholic Relief Services (CRS)—we had succeeded, by the middle of 2018, in surpassing my goal. We now have functioning, spontaneously spreading gm/cc systems in twelve countries. 

Two of these gm/cc systems already existed, but were unknown elsewhere. They are the Lojy Be cowpea system in Madagascar and the tephrosia fallow in Cameroon, both described above. In three countries, there already existed large areas of the widely known FMNR system, described below. Systems I helped develop or spread include: a dispersed shade system in Mali, pictured below, a system in which edible lablab beans are intercropped with maize in Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda, a system (already developed by Sebastian Scott) using ratooned pigeon peas intercropped with maize in Zambia and Malawi, and in Mozambique a system using 60-day cowpeas that can be intercropped early in the rainy season with almost any other crops because they will have been harvested before the other crops ever need the space. 

My plan was that when the development community realizes that soil conditions, rather than rainfall, are the true villain of the tale, they will have a proven example of what they can do to solve the problem, right in the same country in which they are working, or in a neighboring country. 

In the last eight months, I have realized that the vast majority of the development community has still neither realized the real causes of Africa’s increasingly frequent droughts (they are now occurring every second or third year in many areas), nor reacted by doing something about it. In response to this sad fact, I have started working with a group of friends to spread gm/cc’s across several African nations over the next five years. Our long-term goal is that eventually this organization, called Better Soils, Better Lives, will be able to sustainably double the productivity of about 70% of all of sub-Saharan Africa’s lowland farmers within some 25 years—thereby ending hunger in most of Africa. 

Time will tell. And right now (in April 2020), the coronavirus is unfortunately bringing much of this work to a temporary standstill, while at the same time making the famine worse.

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