They Will Feed Us: A Counter Narrative to Africa’s Corporate-Led Food Systems
29 Nov 2023
Imagine a continent blessed with plentiful natural resources and fertile land that could on the whole ensure its food security. Imagine that those indigenous to this continent were endowed with generations of knowledge and traditions in the ecologically sustainable cultivation of the land. And yet, this continent – Africa – faces the triple burden of malnutrition: hunger, micronutrient deficiency, and obesity/non-communicable diseases.
At independence in the early 1960s most African countries strongly advocated for food self-sufficiency through the promotion of domestic agricultural production. With the introduction of the structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) during the early 1980s, this policy was abandoned for food security approaches based on the international liberalization of commodity markets.
In Africa, liberalization implied the political disengagement of the state and the privatization of agricultural services. At an economic level, it involved land grabbing, the privatization of genetic resources including seeds and other biodiversity resources, bio-piracy, the imposed use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and reliance on agrochemicals. Recent years have witnessed the emergence of biofuels and other related commercial products.
African countries spend $65 billion a year on imported food. For decades, African governments have been persuaded by the dominant post-colonialist culture to adopt policies focused on industrialized agriculture for export, in an attempt to increase the sector’s contribution to GDP and offset the balance of payments. Most of these policies, driven by foreign direct investment, support large-scale industrial production that focuses on raw materials for export. Many new hybrid seeds, produced in the Netherlands, Spain, South Africa, are sold to the few African farmers who can afford to manage monocultures.
These policies have criminalized subsistence production and demoralized many small family farms, pushing them out of the market, endangering the food security of local communities.
In a few words, the food systems of this continent – instead of being shaped by its own inhabitants – are instead being shaped and swayed by external players; its food policies are designed to prioritize corporate interests and neo-colonial economic agendas instead of focusing on sustaining the environment and supporting its people nourish themselves.
The recently launched report “They will feed us! A people’s route to African food sovereignty” by the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSIPM) for relations with the United Nations Committee on World Food Security paints a disturbing picture of the current situation on the African continent. Instead of an African-led food sovereignty vision, we are still bearing witness to a scenario orchestrated by powerful global actors steering Africa towards a corporate-led, industrial food system transformation and a new more destructive version of the already failed Green Revolution.
Before building on this, it is worth revisiting the events of recent years.
The UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), held in New York in September 2021, was hailed as a hallmark event, which was hoped to revolutionize food systems across the globe. It pursued to kickstart a global process towards “food system transformation” and urged countries to develop their own “national pathways” for achieving this goal. Close on its heels came the Dakar 2 – ‘Feed Africa Summit’ in January 2023, sponsored by the African Development Bank, which also enjoined countries to present “national compacts”, emphasizing private sector investment. The UNFSS and Dakar 2 Summit sought to initiate a global process of food system transformation, but their approaches have been strongly criticized as undemocratic, opaque and illegitimate by the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSIPM).
African governments are calling now for an end to dependence on food imports. However, instead of supporting peasant agroecology and territorial markets, they often favor a “modernisation” approach, focusing on investment in specialized crops and zones, privileging privatized seeds and so-called modern technologies, relying heavily on foreign direct private investment and promoting export-oriented highly industrialised, climate threatening value chains. The national pathways designed by African governments within the framework of the UNFSS, like the national compacts presented at the Dakar 2 Summit, could further reinforce this trend.
I wrote (DA VERIFICARE) about the lessons we should learn from UNFSS+2 in the lead up to the summit, reiterating that the solution to our broken food system lies in agroecology. This alternative way of living and interacting with nature serves not only as a viable response to the food production dilemma, but also as a way of life and social organization, rooted in ancestral knowledge. Agroecology is based on the conservation and management of agricultural resources through participation and adaptation to local conditions. It represents the only way we can overturn the injustice of a food system based on the plundering of natural resources. This set of agricultural practices is also a vision, a science that focuses on the conservation of biodiversity, ecosystems, and the needs of communities. This is our model to ensure long-term food security for everyone on this planet while protecting its integrity.
Given that approximately 30% of the EU’s human-induced greenhouse gas emissions originate from the food system, that agriculture is the most important driver of land use change and biodiversity loss, and that both water quantity and quality are under severe pressure from agricultural activities, even in water-rich countries, a transformation of the food system is a key priority.
Globally, as the climate crisis worsens, the agroecological movement gains more traction winning support with its offer of resilience and respect for food heritage and sovereignty. As author Raj Patel wrote in Scientific America, “more than eight million farmer groups around the world are experimenting and finding that compared with conventional agriculture, agroecology is able to sequester more carbon in the soil, use water more frugally, reduce dependence on external inputs by recycling nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and promote, rather than ravage, biodiversity in the soil and on farms. And on every continent, research shows that farmers who adopt agroecology have greater food security, higher incomes, better health and lower levels of indebtedness”.
But as readers in the Global South will be keenly aware—and as the report “They will feed us! reveals—challenging the narrative of corporate-led industrial agriculture is no easy feat, and our emphasis that small-scale family farmers form the backbone of Africa’s food supply too often falls on deaf ears. Corporate hegemony paints African food systems and food producers through the prism of deficiency and in need of western technology, productivity and competitive enhancement.
The autonomous assessment conducted in this report, which represents African peasant and civil society voices, starkly highlights the incongruence of the global summits. Despite their grand proclamations to the contrary, the UNFSS and Dakar 2 Summit have been flagged by the African regional popular consultation space, for their undemocratic and non-transparent workings.
The report’s findings are telling, and echo what we have been saying for years. It reveals policy chaos and an overbearing external influence, in which major entities, such as AGRA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, seem to carry undue weight in shaping Africa’s food policies and operate outside a robust framework of accountability; and, while seeking to do good, are driving African communities further away from their goal of attaining food security and sovereignty.
Although the majority of the governments make reference to agroecology and sometimes food sovereignty, they have drafted documents which are rooted in a technology-oriented Green Revolution model of production with no reference to a rights-based approach (e.g., Morocco, Kenya) and with the corporate private sector presented as a key actor in food system transformation. This is only a recipe for more food insecurity. In most cases (Zambia, Morocco, RoC, Kenya), the content of the national pathways/programmes are disconnected from the social movements’ agenda.
Kenya for instance remains one of Africa’s leading recipients and implementers of agricultural research for development in sub-Saharan Africa, ranking third in spending on agricultural research. But the majority of funding is directed toward projects favoring industrial agriculture, often supported by philanthropic foundations. Kenya is also host to AGRA’s headquarters. There is a growing pro-business policy shift taking place within the Kenyan government, mirroring trends in other African nations. In other words, Kenya has chosen to be a testing ground for such neocolonialists and unjust corporate control of local food systems.
Within the African Union, there are concerning shifts in legislation aimed at promoting fertilizer subsidy programs, which predominantly benefit multinational corporations and elevate them as primary beneficiaries in the agricultural sector. One of the report’s most interesting findings was how the damage wrought by externally-initiated food policy initiatives was mostly contained in countries like Mali where there is a well-organized peasant movement with a strong tradition of interaction with government.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel, and the report illuminates it clearly. Sustainable ecology, economics and social equity are the building blocks of a better food system, and the report finds that all three are needed to undo the damage wrought.
- States must commit to resolutely supporting people-centered, inclusive and participatory land tenure reform as well as access to seeds and other resources that provide security for communities and are based on customs and traditions.
- States must reform their policy processes by building on inclusive spaces that exist in some countries and strengthening the involvement of and accountability to people’s movements for more inclusive food systems promoting food and nutritional sovereignty. Transparent, inclusive, self-organized participation by people’s organizations and civil society at all levels—particularly those sectors most affected—is essential to ensure the legitimacy and effectiveness of national policies.
- Corporate economic interests should have no place at the policy decision-making table.
To navigate the future food challenges, Africa must look within, embrace its Indigenous knowledge, and prioritize its people over corporate interests. Because, as history has shown, when Africa leads, the world follows.
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