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Top economist calls for massive increase in aid for agriculture in Africa
NAIROBI, Kenya, 8 May 2008 - Africa's food production could double in a matter of years and help stabilize spiraling food prices if wealthy nations help small farmers with simple agricultural reforms, a top U.S. economist said Thursday.
Jeffrey D. Sachs, the head of Columbia University's Earth Institute, said wealthy nations had neglected aid for agriculture for decades in the mistaken belief that market forces would stimulate farmers to invest in good practices. But he said increased production requires money for fertilizer, water management and high-yield seeds — things many poor farmers do not have and the international community has not been willing to provide.
"While the ideological barriers (to giving aid to agriculture) are being broken, the financial ones are not," he told journalists in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. "There's still no money really to get this done."
Sachs said about US$10 billion should be made available to small farmers through a global fund, and cited the example of Malawi in 2005 to show that simple interventions can increase crop yields dramatically. Despite strenuous objections from international donors, Malawi's government made vouchers available to farmers to buy fertilizer — and the subsidy, combined with good rains, doubled the country's yield, he said.
Rising food prices are giving governments an added impetus to invest in agriculture. The price of rice and other staples has risen more than 40 percent since mid-2007. Last week's deadly cyclone in Myanmar — a large rice exporter — helped push them even higher.
Soaring fuel prices, the diversion of land to biofuels, poor weather and growing demand from the burgeoning middle classes of India and China have contributed to the jump in prices. And the price increase have sparked riots and protests in the African nations of Egypt, Cameroon, Somalia, Senegal and Burkina Faso as well as in Asia and the Caribbean.
"We're absolutely just bouncing from one crisis to another in an overwhelmed system which has at the core a more fundamental systemic problem, which is that we are pushing up against real limits" in supply, said Sachs. Biofuels, once touted by the green lobby as an environmentally friendly alternative to coal and oil, were a particularly bad idea since they gobbled up land needed to grow food, he said.
Scientists also say producing them creates more carbon than using fossil fuels, and Sachs said investment in them was "a waste of money and it's a bad idea."
The United States has budgeted about US$6 billion on subsidies for biofuels annually.
In addition to stopping biofuel subsidies, food prices can also be eased by "scaling up proven technologies which are beyond the reach of the poorest of the poor" — like simple irrigation techniques and drought-resistant seeds. Currently 96 percent of farms in Africa rely solely on rain. Despite leaps in technology, the continent has not seen an increase in grain production for some 50 years.
Sachs estimated it would cost every person in the developed world $10 to double Africa's food production but said rich countries had "basically left the poorest of the poor to their misery." Investment was urgently needed, he warned, and the poor countries who were suffering most from rising prices were unable to fund necessary reforms on their own.
"You can't start when you have nothing," he explained.