African food sovereignty must focus on building locally-controlled food systems


THIKA, Kenya — At a time when the mainstream international development actors are promoting technological fixes to food insecurity in Africa, Samuel Nderitu is showing that another path is possible: locally-led innovations that shield farmers from expensive seeds and chemical inputs. Nderitu is the director of the Grow Biointensive Agriculture Center of Kenya (G-BIACK), which has trained over 6,000 Kenyan farmers in organic farming — meaning without any chemicals.

This approach is embedded precisely within the food sovereignty movement. The idea is to ensure local people’s control over their own food systems rather than leave farmers and consumers vulnerable to global food and fuel markets.

“It has become the norm in poor countries to rely on food from outside,” Nderitu, who received an honorable mention award at the 2011 Community Food Security Coalition conference, said. “This has to change.”

The term “food sovereignty,” coined by the international NGO La Via Campesina at the 1996 World Food Summit, has come to define the coalition contesting the fossil-fuel dependent global food system controlled by multinational corporations.

G-BIACK is a huge proponent of indigenous seed varieties, which farmers harvest from their fields and preserve in a community seed bank, shielding them from expensive seed markets. Farmers are encouraged to preserve the seeds from the fast-growing, pest-free plants on their fields. They’re crucial to local nutrition, with the vegetable lablab an integral part of the diet of Kenya’s Kikuyu tribe. Indeed, the seed variety is so crucial because it sets the foundation for the rest of the agricultural system. Indigenous seeds, given their ability to grow without large amounts of fertilizer, enable organic approaches to take hold. By contrast, genetically-engineered and hybrid varieties demand high fertilizer concentrations, generating a fossil fuel-dependent system that leaves farmers susceptible to high energy prices.

G-BIACK’s focus on indigenous seeds is complemented by soil-enriching methods that rely on nutrient recycling, aimed at weaning farmers off chemical fertilizer within 3 years. It encourages farmers to practice intercropping, which involves sowing a nitrogen-producing crop in between the rows of another crop. The two crops cannot be random but must be “companion crops,” Nderitu said. For example, in a maize-bean system, the bean fixes nitrogen for the maize’s benefit, and the maize provides shade for the bean crop. Companion crop can even be used for pest management as an alternative to pesticides: the onion’s scent helps drive a pest away from the kale crop. In addition to intercropping, G-BIACK promotes the incorporation of crop residues into the soil to provide nutrients for subsequent crops.

This sort of knowledge-intensive agriculture requires investments in human capacity in order to disseminate best practices. That's why G-BIACK trains "Community Resource Persons" who take the lead in farmer-to-farmer dissemination. Yet African governments are still suffering from the legacy of cuts to agricultural extension services, imposed by international financial institutions in the 1980s as part of an ideology that deemed the state inefficient. That gap sorely needs to be addressed to facilitate adoption of organic methods throughout sub-Saharan Africa. 

If indigenous seeds and organic soil-enhancing approaches have been proven to benefit poor farmers and offer viable yields, then why are all the major development institutions promoting expensive high-yielding crop varieties? A closely related problem is that the international research establishment tends to focus mostly on improving the productivity of global-traded commodity crops. Yet encouraging farmers to adopt such crops purely for their commercial value would render them reliant on expensive inputs and displace the crops considered important for local nutrition. That’s why it’s crucial to build a substantial evidence base of effective farming systems such as the one promoted by G-BIACK.

G-BIACK is exactly the type of example that needs to be recognized in international policy circles in order to offer viable alternatives to the high external-input model that drove the 1960s Green Revolution—a huge development effort whose deployment of crop technologies served to displace the most vulnerable farmers incapable of affording the inputs. To challenge the Green Revolution’s ideological hegemony over the agricultural development field, we need a movement to mainstream the organic practices that are best-suited for Africa’s small farmers. Paradoxically, Africa’s smallholder farmers are the group most vulnerable to hunger, and so this calls for agricultural systems centered on empowering farmers rather than on simply producing more food.

Indeed, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD) was a major attempt at elevating such alternatives to industrial agriculture on the international agenda. The UN-commissioned report warned that “continuing on the path of high-input industrial agriculture will fail to meet the world’s food security goals in the face of climate change, water scarcity, and human nutrition needs,” IAASTD co-chair Hans Herren writes in a recent Op-Ed. It proposes multi-functionality as a framework for global agriculture, which must not only generate viable yields but ensure rural livelihoods, adequate nutrition, and adaptation to climate change. Yet the IAASTD, with its fundamentally transformed vision for agriculture, had difficulty gaining traction.

“The institutional mechanisms of the corporate food regime are unlikely to provide solutions to its socio-eco- logical contradictions—as evidenced by the business-as- usual approach to productionist agriculture in the World Bank’s 2008 World Development Report, matched by the silence with which the report on the unsustainability of industrial agriculture by the FAO’s 2008 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development was met at the FAO’s Rome food crisis summit in June 2008,” writes Cornell University development sociology professor Philip McMichael.

Thus proponents of agro-ecological agriculture are tasked with building an alternative international network that challenges the sanctity of high-input agriculture. Just as international institutions and donors have used globalization to their advantage — to assert hegemony over the global agriculture agenda—their critics ought to use those same global forces to advocate for their cause, with the ultimate goal of mobilizing civil society and governments around food sovereignty. This is exactly what the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project aimed to do. By documenting examples of local agricultural innovations, the project showed concretely that other pathways for agricultural development are indeed possible.