Africa, the food crisis and food aid

The article below discusses the food crisis in Africa, and in relation to this, the role of food aid, the impact of neo-liberal policies and agrofuels. The author calls for the strengthening of diversified and people-controlled local agricultural systems as a key to long-term reduction of hunger.

The article was published in Third World Resurgence, Issue No. 212, April 2008.

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Third World Network
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A tsunami that was never silent: Africa, the food crisis and food aid

Commenting on the unfolding of the food crisis in Africa, Nnimmo Bassey says that the characterisation of the crisis as a 'silent tsunami' is misleading. The causes of this 'tsunami' were known and the people's suffering had been visible.

THE escalation of protests over food prices in places like Haiti, Bangladesh and Cote d'Ivoire has made news headlines around the world, and for the first time in this decade the existence of a 'global food crisis' is loudly recognised.  Josette Sheeran of the World Food Programme (WFP) has called the wave of food riots a 'silent tsunami' and The Economist sees the solution to the crisis in the WFP, as the first step to mend the holes in the world's safety net. In their words, 'The WFP is the world's largest distributor of food aid and its most important barrier between hungry people and starvation.'1

This food crisis underlines a problem that ought not to take the world by surprise. The world has been moving on a path that was bound to lead to a series of crises. Indeed, when the current crisis is surmounted, we can be sure that others of possibly more deadly variants will emerge, if we continue to pursue the current development models and, in particular, the current model of agricultural production and food consumption. Moreover, this food crisis is not an African phenomenon. For the first time in a long while, hunger has been democratised, or generated, in such a manner that it is not a monopoly of the African continent. It could have been 'generated' because there are analysts reading the phenomenon as an outcome of commodity speculation.

The Economist proposed in its editorial (19-25 April edition) that food aid through the World Food Programme is the solution to the crisis. But is food aid really the answer to this crisis? Do Africans need food aid from the World Food Programme and other organisations to tackle the increase in food prices?

WFP policies and the manner of food aid delivery cannot solve any of the fundamental problems that lie behind the current sharp rise in food prices. The root of the challenge is deeper than what the WFP or any other humanitarian body can solve.

We can accept the crisis being likened to a tsunami, but to say that it was silent could be a misreading of the reality. This tsunami was never silent. The fires that have just erupted have been smouldering over many years and only now erupted on a global scale.  Africa has lived with man-made and natural food tsunamis for too long a time.

Wrong-headed policies 

It is a generally accepted fact that hunger is not necessarily a result of lack of food but of the lack of access to food. The same factors that make available food inaccessible to vast numbers of people can also be tracked in the matrix that affects agricultural production and delivery of products. Top on the list is the well-orchestrated neoliberal policies that drive our virtually unipolar world. These policies preach free markets while market forces are only allowed to operate selectively. Africa has experienced wholesale alteration of beneficial agricultural policies because of wrong-headed stipulations of international financial institutions such as the World Bank through its so-called structural adjustment programmes (SAPs).2

The bulk of the food produced in Africa comes from small family farms that are primarily cultivated for family needs. Although these can also be found in urban areas, most of them are located in rural areas. Before the economic adjustment programmes came into being, governments were concerned with programmes that assisted farmers in local food production to meet national needs. Agricultural inputs including the availability of extension officers were ensured by governments and the results were positive.

Whereas colonial governments mainly concentrated on production of cash crops, post-colonial regimes continued with that but additionally provided some support to the small-scale farmers. Thus large-scale monoculture plantations for export continued alongside family farming. The cash crops were sources of national revenue and were pursued with great dedication, while family farms kept the people fed.

Whereas some sort of balance had been maintained in a way that cash cropping did not cripple local food production, this balance was disrupted by the SAPs, which had the effect of destroying local food production and creating hunger and other situations of dependency. In other words, the SAPs were disruptive neo-colonial tools. The destruction of local food production systems by denial of farming inputs and supports as well as unfair competition with imported items gradually turned the continent into a land characterised as hungry and dependent on food aid.

Examples of how these policies have played out on African agriculture can be seen in Ghana and Cameroon. Rice imports doubled in Ghana when the nation reduced its rice tariffs from 100% to 20% as a result of the structural adjustment policies enforced by the World Bank. Lowering tariff protection to 25% in Cameroon saw poultry imports increase about six-fold. Additionally, in Senegal, 70% of the poultry industry has been wiped out in recent years because of the European Union (EU)'s domestic poultry policy in support of their local poultry farmers.3

Ghana has been affected dramatically on two fronts. Domestic rice accounted for 43% of the domestic market in 2000 but only managed to capture 29% of the domestic market in 2003. Rice imports increased from 250,000 tonnes in 1998 to 415,150 tonnes in 2003. It is also reported that 66% of rice producers recorded negative returns, leading to loss of employment. With regard to tomato paste,  imports from the EU increased by 650% from 3,300 tons in 1998 to 24,740 tons in 2003, with farmers losing 40% of the share of the domestic market besides lowered local prices.

Furthermore, in Cote d'Ivoire, when poultry imports increased by 650% between 2001 and 2003, domestic production fell by 23%, prices dropped and thousands of jobs were lost. Vegetable oil imports in Mozambique had a fivefold increase between 2000 and 2004 and as a result, local production dropped from 21,000 tonnes in 1981 to 3,500 in 2002.4

The possibility of Africa being hurt by the current food crisis is high for a number of reasons. The continent is vulnerable to the climatic chaos that is engulfing the world as well as related issues of drought and desertification. Other challenges facing the continent include violent conflicts that are attributable to wars and, at an insidious level, to mindless natural resource extractive activities. Both variants of violence lead to displacement of populations, reduction of manpower and disruption of agriculture as well as severe scarification of the environment. For a continent with a serious shortage of arable land, these conflicts exact heavy tolls on local agriculture.

The soaring cost of food has been characterised as violence against the poor. The average African citizen is strongly impacted by the rising costs.  Even in post-conflict societies where the end of war has brought peace and hope for the population, the citizens are apprehensive and anxiety is thick in the air because of the negative impacts the food crisis is having on their daily lives.  The situation is best captured by Spence Page, a taxi driver in Liberia: 'The guns are no longer firing in Liberia, but economic hardship is killing the citizens.'5

Agrofuels and marginalised lands

Another factor that places severe stress on African economies is the rising costs of oil. The heavy burden created by the sudden price bursts has made agrofuels appear as a viable solution to the energy situation. The allure of agrofuels led the president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, to spearhead the creation of what he tellingly termed a 'green' OPEC in 2006, the Pan-African Non-Petroleum Producers Association (PANPP). This body aspires to 'become leaders in the field of biofuels and alternative energy strategies, following in Brazil's footsteps.' In an article by Wade titled 'Africa Over the Barrel'6, the point was made that although oil prices were then coming down, they were still twice as much as they cost three years earlier and would yet climb higher. He should see the charts now.

The notion of a green OPEC suggests a propensity for commodity cartelisation as well as a fixation on a model of civilisation based on fossil fuels. In fact this PANPP initiative on agrofuels is anything but green, as it will perpetuate the dependence over oil consumption using an unsustainable mode of production that will bring no benefits to African people. The ambitious PANPP dream will worsen the food crisis and increase land conflicts.

Some other writers have seen in agrofuels a potential for Africa to make major strides. The question that needs to be answered is: where would the major strides lead to? 'Africa's vast arable lands have the potential to rival top agricultural nations like the United States in supplying biofuels to a world seeking cleaner energy sources,' says Gershwin Wanneburg in an article on the subject. The writer went on to sound a note of caution that 'using land reserved for food production to supply biofuel demand could squeeze food supplies in a region vulnerable to shortages. It could also hurt poor consumers if the biofuel boom continues to push food prices higher.'7 The claim that Africa has a vast expanse of arable land may not be exactly correct because available figures put that at 6% of the continent's land mass.8 The mythical claim of vast arable land is probably linked to the huge size of the continent which takes up 20% of the earth's land area.

The fodder for the rise of agrofuels in the continent was further provided by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in its assessment of the world food security situation in 2006.9 It made the assertion that 'The countries facing food emergencies are mainly from the sub-Saharan African region. Therefore, urgent attention and action is required to tackle the root causes of food insecurity in those countries over the long term. Although detailed analysis is still required to confirm feasibility, the emerging opportunities for biofuel production in the region could potentially be an avenue for mitigating chronic food insecurity in Africa. Development assistance, focused on socially and ecologically sustainable biofuel production, could be warranted to meet increasing global alternative fuel demands.' We argue that this would engender food insecurity because of known reasons of land uptake, displacements, etc.

One of the arguments that make agrofuels so appealing to policy makers is that some of the crops would not be food crops and would not compete with agricultural land. One crop that is held up in this argument is jatropha, which proponents say would be grown on marginal lands and thus add value to otherwise 'worthless' lands. The notion of marginal land is perceived by many to be another ploy for land grabbing that would deepen the marginalisation of already marginalised peoples. The UN estimates that Africa has at least 500 million hectares of marginal, unused and underused land and that the Democratic Republic of Congo alone is believed to have around 150m hectares.10 But is this land really underused? Who decides which lands are marginal or unused and which are not? 

In Ghana, farmers have expressed fears over a change of focus from food cropping to agrofuel production. They argue that the cultivation of energy crops such as jatropha would deprive them the use of arable land for the cultivation of food crops. They also fear that since the oil from jatropha is inedible, they will be restricted to supplying their produce only to refineries, which could manipulate them by dictating the price of the produce. Some farmers have also argued that where refineries do not promptly pay for their produce, their livelihoods would be severely compromised.11

Food aid and control

The current world food crisis  must have jolted scenario planners who see Africa as a huge market for food aid business. Admittedly, food aid has its place in meeting deficits and emergencies and will continue to do so. The fact that needs to be acknowledged, however, is that food aid is scarcely an act of charity. It has to a large extent become big business and a for-profit enterprise. This came up clearly at a charity dinner in the USA when Charles Worledge, who works for Sealift, a major shipper of US food to the hungry, reportedly offered an insight essential to understanding the politics of food aid: 'I thought this was a charity...It's not. It's a business.'12 And Africa is a great market for this business. All players in the aid business profit. The cost of shipping food aid over huge distances could sometimes be sufficient to meet financial requirements needed to source for food regionally where deficits occur.

The current food crisis is seen by some as an opportunity to pump genetically modified crops into the market and environment. The idea is that when people are shocked by calamitous events, they are less able to defend themselves and are open to allowing obnoxious policies and actions. This position can be seen in the telling heading of a recent report in the New York Times, 'In Lean Times, Biotech Grains Are Less Taboo.'13  Food aid channels have been used to sneak genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into unsuspecting countries. Consequently, it is reasonable for us to look at food aid in the context of contaminations and as a tool for political manipulation.

One of the first major cases of GMO contamination in food aid was found in Ecuador in 2001. Contaminated soya was found in food aid to Colombia. One year after the Ecuadorian scandal other contaminations were found in Nicaragua and Bolivia.14 India equally denounced and rejected GMOs in food aid at about the same time.

The African situation caught global attention when a food crisis affected many countries in Southern Africa, namely Angola, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland, in 2002. The politics of hunger reached a high level in 2002 when Zambia rejected GMOs in food aid shipped to them. While some countries were willing to accept milled GMO food aid, Zambia rejected them both as whole grains and in milled form. Expectedly, the Zambian government was under intense pressure to accept GMO food aid. The government responded by saying that the food shortage, which was mainly in the southern part of the country, could be offset with tubers from the northern region. This way the food would not only be non-GMO, it would also have the added advantage of boosting national production and local incomes. Zambia eventually overcame that crisis and still has a policy of not accepting GMOs in food aid.

In 2004 the heat was turned on Angola and Sudan in very instructive ways. The two countries had special difficulties because of the conflict situations there. Yet both refused GMO grains except if they were milled. As part of the struggle to keep food aid free of contamination in Africa, Friends of the Earth (FoE) Nigeria and FoE affiliates, Earthlife in South Africa, cooperated with many African groups such as the African Centre for Biosafety to stop the push by the World Food Programme and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to force Angola and Sudan to accept GM food aid against their will.15 The positive outcome of these struggles for dignity in food aid is that USAID and other GMO purveyors have not openly pressured sovereign nations to accept food aid in forms that they find objectionable.

Nonetheless, the string of contamination is ongoing. In 2006, unapproved Liberty Link Rice 601 (genetically engineered by Bayer CropScience to withstand application of the herbicide glufosinate) was found in food aid sent to Sierra Leone through USAID. This contamination was uncovered through a monitoring and testing programme conducted by Friends of the Earth Africa groups.16 The contamination was also found in commercial imports in Ghana.

Another round of testing conducted in 2007 found the same kind of contaminations in commercially imported rice in Ghana and Nigeria.17 

For the strengthening of local agricultural systems

At a recent pro-GMOs workshop held in a private farm owned by a former military president of Nigeria, the Minister of Science announced that Nigeria was set to introduce a roadmap for the introduction of GMOs into the country before the end of the year. In a fitting rebuttal, a national newspaper called to question the lack of participation as well as absence of a regulatory framework in the country and questioned why the minister would make such a pronouncement without an enabling environment. The paper also stated the popular rejection of those varieties of crops because of the risks and other clouds of uncertainties surrounding them. The paper warned that 'the issue of global food insecurity and spate of food riots in some countries cannot be used to stampede the nation into taking a hasty decision it might come to regret, "...before the end of the year."'18

The point is that there is a risk of the biotech agencies as well as food aid donors utilising the rising tide of food shortages as the platform for the introduction of unwholesome foods and food products into the African environment. As noted in the Nigerian situation, due to intra-government incoherence, gaps may be created for unregulated entry of such crops as well as products into the country. Such an opening up of the continent will have dire consequences for local capacity to produce food that is wholesome and supports local knowledge, culture and practices and livelihoods. This risk lies in the fact that GMOs erode biodiversity, come with patents on seeds, require costly inputs and snuff out the sovereign control of the people over their agriculture and foods. Besides, GMOs thrive on large-scale monoculture farming and would thus pose a serious threat to family farming on which the people depend.

The way forward towards overcoming food crises now and in the future is in promoting food sovereignty. This concept encompasses practices that promote local, diverse and generally people-controlled systems. At the end of the day, diversified small-scale production holds the key to long-term reduction of hunger in the world. Large-scale monoculture farms are more vulnerable than small holdings, as is evidenced in the drought in Australia and its ripple effects on global rice supply. Small-scale farms have inbuilt resilience and can withstand shocks whereas large-scale farmers depend on intensive agricultural systems, huge financial outlays, huge quantities of chemical inputs and are not ecologically compatible. 

A restoration of direct interventionist policies by African governments in the provision of extension services and tools as well as market openings will greatly revive an agricultural system that has been knocked down by neoliberalism, conflicts and reinforced dependence on food aid. Where there are food shortages, such deficits should be met locally or regionally. To ensure that this is possible and in recognition of the fact that the majority of African farmers live and work in rural areas, the improvement of rural infrastructure is vital.

The current crisis was never silent, although it may be a tsunami. The crisis grew noisily over the years and only required seeing eyes and hearing ears. Is the world ready to see and to hear accurately today?

Nnimmo Bassey is the executive director and founding member of Environmental Rights Action, the foremost environmental human rights advocacy group in Nigeria. He campaigns on GMO and food/hunger issues as well as on community impacts of extractive industries. He is also a poet who uses poetry as a cultural tool for change.


1     The Economist. The silent tsunami. 19-25 April 2008.

2     For further details see Khor, Martin (2008). The Impact of Trade Liberalisation on Agriculture in Developing Countries - The Experience of Ghana, TWN:Penang

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5     UN IRIN (April 2008) Liberia: Govt Links Rising Food Prices to Conflict Risk.

6     Washington Post, 28 October 2006. The article was also published in Business Day, Lagos, on 8 November 2006.

7     Wanneburg, Gershwin (April 2007): Biofuels in Africa: Investment boon or food threat?


9     2006. Assessment of the World Food Security Situation. FAO Committee on World Food Security. Rome, 30 October-4 November 2006.

10    Dynes, Michael (May 2008): Growing Up.

11    Private e-mail communication with Friends of the Earth Ghana.   17 October 2007

12    Dugger, Celia W. (April 2007):  U.S. rethinks foreign food aid.. According to the report, in the US, Public Law 480 and the Food for Peace programme, adopted in 1954, provided a way to dispose of surplus grain, which was costly to store, and at the same time feed the world's hungry people. The law mandated that food for the programme be grown domestically. Moreover the amount of food shipped falls as the cost of shipping rises.

13    In Lean Times, Biotech Grains Are Less Taboo.

14    Friends of the Earth International (2003): Playing With Hunger.