How Corporate Control is Potentially Undermining Small-Scale Farming in Africa

How Corporate Control is Potentially Undermining Small-Scale Farming in Africa

In an interview in Acres U.S.A. magazine, Timothy A. Wise, a Senior Researcher and Director of the Land and Food Rights Program at the Small Planet Institute, talks about some of the topics he mentions in his book, Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food.

In a previous blog post, we summarise some of Wise’s key arguments about how small-scale farming could have the potential to feed the world’s growing population, and how he believes corporate agribusiness and policymaking is intervening and undermining these efforts. In this article, we look a little deeper into how industrial agriculture and corporate agribusiness could be doing more harm than good when applied to small-scale farming operations. 

A “Green Revolution” for Africa?

Wise found that well-meaning and exceptionally generous subsidies from the likes of the Gates Foundation, as part of agricultural development programs in Africa, encouraged local farmers to buy commercial seeds and fertilisers. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) offered large chunks of money to African governments, promising to double productivity and incomes for 30 million small-scale farmer households in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

It was an ambitious promise. So, did it work? Wise says: “When we looked at the data, there may be anecdotal evidence of individual communities or crops where they’ve had this kind of impact, but overall there’s very little sign that any kind of a green revolution is coming to Africa on the terms they state.”

Money for monoculture

In fact, these subsidies can even have a negative impact; for example, encouraging farmers to divert land into monocultures of subsidised crops, like corn. This leads to a decline in the cultivation of crops such as sorghum and millet, even though these crops are better for the soil, more drought-tolerant and healthier to eat. Devoting all the land to subsidised corn flies in the face of regenerative farming philosophies, leaves farmers vulnerable to climate change, undermines the diversity of the nation’s diets and destroys the fertility of the soil. 

The semantics of seed

Subsidies and investments often come with new policies, which aren’t always applicable or useful in their application. An example Wise gives is of a bright orange maize farmed in Malawi. Nutritionists found that this particular type of maize was extremely high in vitamin A. Farmers would save the seeds of this strain and distribute it to other communities via the Malawi Farmer-to-Farmer Agroecology Project, a low-cost way to make such types of local seeds readily available. 

But, this project came under threat due to the government debating a new seed policy brought about by the pressure from external donors for the modernisation of Africa’s seed laws to favour plant breeders over “seed savers” (generally small-scale farmers). These “seed savers” make up 80-90% of Africa’s food production, saving seeds from each harvest to replant. 

Yet under the language of Malawi’s proposed new seed policy, the productive and nutritious orange kernels of corn could not be called seed; farmers could only call them grain (meaning that is it worthy of eating, but not planting). 

As it turns out, Wise relates that he was personally informed that a former Monsanto Company official was one of the authors of the policy. Since Monsanto controls half the commercial corn seed market in Malawi, his belief is that the company would stand to benefit from the policy as it could significantly expand its market. 

Corporate control 

In these examples, you can see how Wise observes that small-scale farmers in developing countries (and the populations they feed) are not necessarily benefitting from agribusiness and philanthropic ‘benefactors’. It’s the seed and fertiliser producers and other stakeholders who end up with the lion’s share of agricultural ‘development’. 

Wise argues that small-scale farmers have the potential to harness their own knowledge, skills and resources: “Everywhere I went, small farmers are doing a lot that works and that with very minimal support could be scaled up to be really productive. That could be a real engine for food production, for employment, for all kinds of things that are being squandered right now.”

Sustainability inspired by the small-scale 

By incorporating small-scale farming methods such as organic fertilising, crop diversity, natural grazing and a focus on soil health as the foundation of healthy crops, large-scale farming operations are securing their places as ‘farms of the future’ – without falling victim to agribusiness policies and products. 

Get in touch to find out more about our products and services that promote soil health and long-term sustainability:

Interested in reading the full interview? 

Visit Acres USA to purchase the August 2019 issue and read the original article along with other interesting content. 

You can follow Timothy on Twitter/Instagram @TimothyAWise.

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