After World War II, big countries such as India were suffering grave food shortages and had to be supplied with grain by the United States. That was good business for American farmers.
Then came the Green Revolution of the Asian countries fuelled by the extensive use of fertilisers and the irrigation schemes. American farmers lost their markets in Asia. The American government was next engaging into two contradictory policies. On the one hand, subsidised private farms, on the other hand it paid farmers for refraining from cultivating some of their plots.
The world was sailing steadily with enough food at prices that pleased farmers. Then from 2005 newspapers and, magazines of the world started reporting rising costs of food resulting from food shortages. Was this due to bad weather or crop pesticides? No, the amount of food being produced and supplied remained steady, but world demand for cereals had ballooned in the fast growing Asian economies.
As a result of high growth rates in Asia, poor people there were earning higher incomes, but like poor people everywhere they were spending disproportionately more of their earnings on food than on other items. In other words, there was world shortage of food because of high demand in Asia with a population about half that of the world.
What must be done about the situation? Paul Collier, professor of economics and director of the centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University answered this question in a paper title, “ The Politics of Hunger, this was included in a publication titled Developing World 10/11, 2012 Custom Edition.
Professor Collier is the author of the The Bottom Billion; Why the poorest countries are failing what can be done about it. In his book, he depicts Malawi as a country that is incapable of developing because of its geographical position as landlocked.
This is definitely controversial, what he says in The Politics of Hunger possibly has also not received unanimous acceptance. Still, what he says is based on serious historical study and comparison with what is happening in different parts of the world regarding agricultural productivity.
In the second paragraph of his article, he says politicians and policy makers have it in their power to bring food prices down. They do not do so because they resort to beggar-thy-neighbour restriction.
To ensure increased and steady food production, Collier advocates more and not less commercialisation of agriculture. From economic history, he uses the English enclosure system as a model that boosted development in England. Wealthy farmers promoted legislation which deprived small and peasant farmers of their land. The seized land was then consolidated and agriculture was more scientifically carried out resulting in enough harvests for urban industrial population.
In the current world Collier quotes the Brazilian experience where large organisations are responsible for agriculture. This he sees as an example worth emulating.
The social consequences of dispossessing peasant farmers do not seem to concern him much so long there is steady increase in food production.
The methods he is recommending are not new to African economic history.
The economic histories of South Africa, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Kenya is that agriculture was greatly boosted when foreigners came and alienated land from peasants who were cultivating it with primitive implements and using traditional culture.
If we snatch land from the peasants and hand it over to commercial organisations what nature of permanent compensation shall we give the disposed.
Uprooted English farm tenants went to cities where industries were waiting to employ them, others migrated to Australia, New Zealand and British colonies. Where will the poor Malawian go?
All the same, when we reject one policy or suggestion, we must put forward that which will work equally well or even better.
The better policy is that which respects the rights of the peasants to their land and yet introduces measures of agricultural innovation that would lead to more than food self-sufficiency. This is a matter deserving scientific research, politicians and policy makers ought to be backed by scientific discoveries.
Collier laments the ban of genetically modified (GM) crops in Europe. One reason Europeans are said to be opposed to GM is that they think they will be forced to import seeds from American monopolistic producers. Says Professor Collier: “Although, Monsanto, the main innovator in GM seed technology, has undertaken never to market a seed that is incapable of reproducing itself, sceptics propagate a belief that farmers will be trapped into annual purchases of “terminator” seed from a monopoly supplier.”
As I read this statement, I wondered whether Malawian farmers are trapped in buying seeds instead of producing their own.
Three or four years ago, Malawi was boasting of food self-sufficiency? How did we decline and fall?
To engage in perpetual food surplus records, of elements of success when there is a bumper harvest and elements of failure when there is a poor harvest ought to be kept.