By Norman E. Borlaug
This op-ed was published in the July 11, 2003, late edition - final of the New York Times.
Copyright (c) 2003, The New York Times Company. Reproduced with permission of copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.
The key to economic development in Africa is agriculture. As President Bush concludes his trip to the continent, and Americans ponder ways to help it emerge from decades of poverty and turmoil, we would do well to remember that crucial point. Fortunately, we have the economic and technological means to bring about an agricultural revolution.
Using proven agricultural techniques, Africa could easily double or triple the yields of most of its crops. It has the potential not only to feed itself but even to become a dynamic agricultural exporter within a few decades.
African farmers face three main problems: depleted soil, a scarcity of water and distorted economics caused in large part by primitive transportation systems. None of these problems is beyond our capacity to solve.
Low soil fertility is one of the greatest biological obstacles to increasing food production and improving land productivity. (Because of overfarming and insufficient crop rotation, Africa's soil is actually less rich than it was 30 years ago.) Yet there is a man-made solution to the sub-Saharan soil's lack of nutrients -- namely, fertilizer, either chemical or organic. Unfortunately, economic forces keep fertilizer out of many African farmers' hands.
Because of transportation costs, fertilizer costs two to three times more in rural sub-Saharan Africa than it does in rural Asia. As a result, fertilizer consumption in Africa is about 10 percent what it is in Asia. That's a market failure, and it could be remedied by a mix of public and private programs. Aid organizations might buy fertilizer at its point of entry into Africa and distribute it at reduced cost to wholesalers. Alternatively, poor farmers might be given fertilizer vouchers.
Chronic water shortages are another challenge. Nearly half of Africa's farmland suffers from periodic and often catastrophic drought. But here, too, the problem isn't beyond our control. About 4 percent of farmland south of the Sahara is irrigated, compared with 17 percent of farmland worldwide.
Large-scale irrigation projects are prohibitively expensive and can ruin villages and ecosystems. But clever, small-scale technologies -- including subterranean pools for capturing rainfall, pumps on river banks, and cisterns under drain spouts -- can make parched land bloom.
Because of the dismal state of roads in Africa, farmers there face the highest marketing costs in the world. A study by the World Bank, completed in the late 1990's, found that it cost roughly $50 to ship a metric ton of corn from Iowa to Mombasa, Kenya, more than 8,500 miles away. In contrast, it cost $100 or so to move the same amount of corn from Mombasa inland to Kampala, Uganda -- about 550 miles. And not much has changed in recent years.
The challenge is that African produce is conveyed to buyers via a vast network of footpaths, tracks and dirt roads, where the most common mode of transport is walking. American- and European-financed road projects would connect farmers with consumers while improving life in countless other ways.
As agriculture takes off, agricultural-improvement and food-aid programs should dovetail. School lunch programs, for example, can provide a significant stimulus to the expansion of commercial food markets if the produce involved is locally grown.
Biotechnology absolutely should be part of African agricultural reform; African leaders will be making a grievous error if they turn their backs on it. (Zambia's president notoriously barred shipments of food aid from America last year that included genetically modified corn.) Genetic technology can help produce plants with greater tolerance of insects and diseases, improve the nutritional quality of food staples and help farmers to expand the areas they cultivate. Rather than looking to European leaders, who have demonized biotechnology, African leaders ought to work to manage and regulate this technology for the benefit of their farmers and citizens.
Africa's warm temperatures, abundant sunlight and wide open spaces and diverse climates make it a place where agriculture can thrive. Countries with tropical climates, like Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone, should be exporting, not importing, rice. Drier places -- including Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad -- have the potential to be major producers of sorghum and millet. But you can't eat potential.
Nothing will happen without an infusion of money and technical help from the industrialized world. President Bush is right to emphasize a new emphasis on standards of evaluation. Sub-Saharan countries that make significant progress in producing food and diminishing poverty should be rewarded with additional financial support.
Lest we forget, helping African agriculture to prosper is not merely a humanitarian issue -- it's a matter of enlightened self-interest. Smallholder African farmers, after all, are stewards of one of the earth's major land masses. And as the Kenyan paleontologist Richard Leakey once said, "You have to have at least one square meal a day to be a conservationist." Aiding African farmers will not only save lives, it will also, in a uniquely literal sense, help to save the earth.
Norman E. Borlaug is a professor of international agriculture at Texas A&M University and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.