Farming reforms 'backfire' as hunger crisis worsens
Farming reforms in Africa 'backfire' as hunger crisis worsens
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By Darren Estwick.
Tuesday, 16, Feb 2010 12:20
By Richard James.
Millions of people in Africa are facing increased poverty as a result of market reforms initiated in the 1980s which pushed for the privatisation of government functions and an insistence on "free trade".
A new report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claims the reforms have actually backfired in some of the poorest nations around the world.
Laurence Becker from Oregon State University states that while the schemes were designed to make countries more efficient and a solution to failing infrastructure in some cases they have eliminated critical support systems to those farming the land.
"These people were then asked to compete with some of the most efficient agricultural systems in the world, and they simply couldn't do it," he said.
"With tariff barriers removed, less expensive imported food flooded into countries, some of which at one point were nearly self-sufficient in agriculture. Many people quit farming and abandoned systems that had worked in their cultures for centuries."
The researchers of the report claim the reforms have undercut food production for 25 years and the problems came to a head in early 2008 when the price of rice doubled in one year for consumers who spent much of their income solely on food, resulting in mass food riots, plus political and economic disruption.
Conceding there were no obvious solutions to the ongoing crisis, Mr Becker said institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund needed to realise that approaches which can be effective in more advanced economies don't readily translate to less developed nations.
"We don't suggest that all local producers, such as small farmers, live in some false economy that's cut off from the rest of the world," he said.
"But at the same time, we have to understand these are often people with little formal education, no extension systems or bank accounts, often no cars or roads.
"They can farm land and provide both food and jobs in their countries, but sometimes they need a little help, in forms that will work for them. Some good seeds, good advice, a little fertiliser, a local market for their products."
Mr Becker noted many people in the African nations farmed local land communally and might not be prepared to compete with multinational corporations or sophisticated trade systems.
"The loss of local agricultural production puts them at the mercy of sudden spikes in food costs around the world. And some of the farmers they compete with in the US, East Asia and other nations receive crop supports or subsidies of various types, while they are told they must embrace completely free trade with no assistance," the report states.
"A truly free market does not exist in this world," Mr Becker said. "We don't have one, but we tell hungry people in Africa that they are supposed to."
Researchers note historically corrupt governments continue to be a problem with the public perception thinking of the authorities as "looters, not helpers or protectors of rights".
An emphasis that began in the 1980s on wider responsibilities for the private sector, the report said, worked to an extent so long as prices for food imports, especially rice, remained cheap.
However it steadily caused higher unemployment and an erosion in local food production, which in 2007-08 exploded in a global food crisis.