400 Million Acres in Africa and Other Recent Discoveries

Three news stories on global food production caught our eye this past week.

First, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggested a new source for jobs and foreign exchange in Africa: a vast stretch of the African savannah that is "ripe for commercial farming." An area of some 400 million hectares is ideal for commodity production--large-scale wheat, maize, soy, and other monoculture cropping--but only a fraction of it is currently being farmed. The report compared this area, in the Guinea Savannah zone stretching from Senegal to South Africa, to northeast Thailand and the Cerrado of Brazil, two agricultural frontiers that came under the plow in recent decades.

The report suggested that Thailand, which encouraged smallholder-led production, offers a better model for Africa than the wealthy large-farm pattern in Brazil. "Large-scale mechanized production does not offer any obvious cost advantages," the report said, "except under certain very specific circumstances and is far more likely to lead to social conflict." It's also more likely to lead to environmental damage from overuse and misuse of pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals and lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions than smaller and medium-sized production systems.

And the FAO also found out something that feels like a no-brainer: that "agricultural transformations" led by smallholders--the billions of people who depend on farming as their only source of income--are more likely to benefit those same farmers and related agricultural businesses than wealthy large producers and corporations. A related joint report from FAO and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) noted that the agriculture sector has been more resilient to the economic downturn than most other industries, partly because "food is a basic necessity."

In other words, people still need to eat. Declines in agricultural prices and consumption of farm products have been more moderate than drops in demand for automobiles, clothing, housing and other goods--a pattern demonstrated during the Asian economic downturn in the 1990s, when urbanites who had lost their jobs throughout Southeast Asia moved back to the countryside where they could manage at a lower cost of living and where farms and rural industries still needed workers.

The second report that came across our screens was from Deutsche Bank, not a group we usually watch for reports on ag policies. The Bank found that even if we pour millions of dollars (or pesos, rupees, rands, or francs) into fertilizers, irrigation, and farm machinery and increase farmland into pasture lands or into degraded or abandoned areas, food and energy supplies would still fall way short of demand. Their recommendations were surprising, partly because they acknowledged that business-as-usual farming wasn't going to solve problems that it hadn't solved in the past. In addition to the conventional trumpet call for exploring biotechnology and GMOs, the report suggests something relatively novel: drastic changes in land use--including more small-scale organic agriculture, better use and conservation of water resources, and more energy efficient agricultural practices that sequester carbon in the soil.

Are these reports a reminder that some of the best ways of going forward and increasing food security may be by going back to more sustainable agriculture practices? Maybe the best way of increasing food security is by worrying about the long term health of agroecosystems first, rather than just thinking simply about how to increase food production.