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Newsletter 23rd November 2007

African agriculture

African agriculture

This week saw the launch by the Royal Society of Chemistry of the Pan African Chemistry Network, initially setting up a hub at the university of Nairobi with a grant from Syngenta. The intention is to help the continent – particularly sub-Saharan Africa – meet the Millennium Development Goals. This first centre will focus in particular on sustainable agriculture and food security.

This prompts a set of questions: Can such an initiative really make a difference in a continent where the lives of the majority seem to have got worse in an otherwise increasingly prosperous world? Why support chemistry when we seem to be moving into the age of biology? And how does all this fit with current views of sustainable agriculture and the role of organic farming?

From a point in the middle of the last century where Africa was on a par with much of Asia and the rest of the developing world, most countries in the continent have been far outstripped in terms of growth by states both large and small in Asia and Latin America. The region has had its fair share of natural disasters, being prone to periodic drought and also suffering from floods on a Biblical scale (in Mozambique, for example). But a large part of the problem seems to be down purely to bad governance: many regimes have been at best incompetent, at worst corrupt kleptocracies.

International aid has spectacularly failed to improve the situation, for a variety of reasons. Partly its use has been poorly planned and executed, partly it has been dissipated by corruption at all levels. So why should a rather small initiative such as the Pan African Chemistry Network make any difference? The answer to this is simple: the network aims to connect people and give them access to information and tools which they can then use as they see fit. In particular, it will help with science education, to give future generations the in-built knowledge to become properly self-sufficient. Top-down planning is replaced by empowerment. As a species, we are uniquely adaptable and flexible, living and prospering across a wide range of climatic regimes. Give people the knowledge, the tools and a period of peace and they have a fighting chance to make their own lives better. Governments need to set a framework of rules to facilitate this, but further than that decisions seem to be more realistic and easily implemented if made at the lowest possible level.

To help people improve their lives, there is no better place to start than with farming. Many tropical and sub-tropical soils are poor quality and prone to erosion. Improving their productivity underpins everything else in the development sphere. Providing food security is a good in itself. Although tremendous strides have been made in food production during a time of rapid global population growth, the fact that 800 million people remain chronically undernourished is not something which means we can be complacent. Beyond simply having enough to eat, producing surpluses can provide additional income and help families on the path from poverty to prosperity.

Increased agricultural productivity has broader implications for society, of course. Moving away from purely subsistence farming accelerates the trend towards urbanisation, which can create temporary dislocations and its own problems. Nevertheless, it is neither sensible nor possible to try to reverse this trend and attempt to sustain some utopian ideal of a non-developing agrarian subsistence economy. Society has to adapt to the changes and, ultimately, will be the better and richer for it.

But why chemistry? In the industrialised world, our lives are increasingly dependent on the biological sciences and electronics. Indeed, Africans are also benefiting, beginning to have access to genetically modified seeds adapted specifically for their needs, by-passing fixed-line telephony and installing invaluable mobile phone networks, and soon perhaps having access to the "$100 laptop" designed specifically for developing countries. But this doesn't mean that they can and should simply by-pass chemical technology.

Chemistry, because it is a mature science, has much to offer in terms of proven, efficient, low-cost processing. In the agricultural sector for example, there are two key areas: crop nutrition and protection. Poor soils, enriched only with a meagre supply of animal manure, give intrinsically low yields. The simplest way to increase these – and one of the primary reasons why the Earth can now support a population of 6.5 billion and growing – is to fix nitrogen to produce synthetic fertiliser, using the Fischer-Tropsch process.

But increasing soil productivity is of little use if crops are depleted by pests and disease. Having access to a wide range of proven, safety-tested pesticides can help farmers produce higher, consistent yields and protect their crops from loss on storage. This can transform the lives of poor families. Not only that, but the reduced need for manual labour such as weeding can free children from work in the fields and allow them to go to school. Rich Westerners may agonise over child labour in clothes factories, but forget the large number of children denied an education because their families need them to tend their subsistence crops.

Which leads us back to the question of organic agriculture. Proponents claim that this can be the answer to the African food security nightmare, but we should not forget that the vast majority of farmers on the continent already practice organic agriculture because they simply cannot afford any other inputs. This is not to say, of course, that there are not some important lessons to be learnt about making low-input farming more productive. But there will always be an upper limit based on the level of fixed nitrogen available. For the organic movement, this can only come from manure, which is in limited supply, or from leguminous plants which fix nitrogen and can be ploughed in to increase fertility. Subsistence farmers simply do not have the luxury of using their land to grow such green manure crops: they rely on harvesting food crops every season.

Doctrinaire adherence to a single set of prescriptive rules will not help feed the hungry. Relatively small initiatives which give Africans access to the technology we take for granted will allow them to make their own choices and determine their own future. If some countries choose to remain agrarian subsistence economies, so be it, but Europeans have no right to impose this on them.