RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – It is an increasingly well-known fact that the gap between rich and poor is widening in the world – widening quickly. Wealth and resources are flowing out of poor areas, into rich areas, slanting the playing field ever more so that the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid is made to remain there. What is less well-understood are the geographic reflections of this trend. One of the most disturbing manifestations of the poverty gap is the agricultural gap – whereby extremely wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia, unable to sustain the population that lives within its borders, outsources production of food to places like Ethiopia, which, despite the necessary resources, suffers famine-like rates of hunger.
This trend has become so prevalent that some experts believe we are witnessing a land grab on the final agricultural frontier; Africa has 60% of the world’s uncultivated, arable land, and the world has used up 90% of all that is available. The corporations and foreign governments that are rushing to seize land in Africa say what they are doing benefits Africans and foreigners alike. By producing food at a large scale, they are able to feed more of the world’s population at lower prices; simultaneously, these industrial farms will require local workers, that will then earn wages on land that they merely owned before. And with those wages, they can buy food from the very company or government they are producing it for.
The above narrative is fraught with half-truths and misinformation, however. To begin with, ‘uncultivated’ land is not necessarily unused land. Often, rural peasants intentionally leave parts of their land untouched for grazing, hunting, foraging and firewood, or fields may be underutilized because they must lie fallow and rejuvenate before being planted again. This tactic is the one that has allowed humans to thrive for thousands of years, and leaves a far smaller mark on the environment than the industrial farms, which are popping up across Africa. Planting the same field season after season means that chemical fertilizers are necessary, which means paying foreign agro-chem companies, which means that less of the profits of the land can actually be returned to the workers.
Additionally, there is no evidence to suggest that large-scale farming is more efficient than small-scale farming. Information gathered by several development groups, as well as bio-technologists, suggests that small-scale farmers are more efficient than industrial farms because they are able to intercrop – grow plants that encourage one another’s health – and utilize the land and their knowledge of it to maximum effect. Industrial farms run by foreign corporations are not without advantage – sizable R&D budgets mean that the best technology and science can be applied to growing the best food in the best way – but the implementation of those advantages is not always perfect. Furthermore, much of the information is available for those who seek it out. But in rural Africa, the Internet is not something easily accessed, and language barriers mean that farmers do not always have access to information about simple advances which can massively increase their productivity and sustainability.
Instead of pursuing a course of private investment and industrialization, foreign governments should be encouraging in Africa the exact same policies that would benefit their domestic agendas: spreading knowledge and access to communication technologies to perpetuate sustainable, informed life-styles.
– Alex Pusateri