by Marion Nestle
Mar 27 2008

Are cultural elites responsible for famine in Africa?

According to a report in Food Chemical News, Robert Paarlberg, a professor of political science at Wellesley who has written extensively about agricultural policy, says “environmental populists” in the United States and the European Union have imposed on Africa, their [our?] favoring of “small, traditional farms that grow organic crops and heirloom varieties…[equating] agricultural science with large farms, mistreatment of animals, enrichment of agribusiness corporations, and unpalatable and unhealthy food.” The resulting “hostility to science-based farming” has been devastating to Africa and other impoverished regions. How? “No African country allows cultivation of biotech crops except South Africa.” Is biotechnology the solution to Africa’s agricultural problems? As I read it, the technology is still in its infancy and still has a long way to go (see the March 20 Nature article on development of drought-resistant crops). But then, I still think Africa’s agricultural problems would be easier to solve with social, not necessarily technological, changes. But I guess that makes me an environmental populist. How about you?

  • Good question. It seems that the solutions experts in the US are always proclaiming for problems in the developing world always end up creating profit for corporations. If we really want to solve Africa’s agricultural problems, how about convincing the IMF and World Bank to cancel African countries’ debt so that they can begin to invest in their own infrastructures? Or allowing countries to make money from their own natural resources, instead of allowing companies like Shell to displace and kill the inhabitants? It seems a lot more practical than blaming “anti-science” organic food movements (which I seriously doubt are influential enough to devastate a continent).

  • What a bizarre stance–let me see if I understand it correctly. Apparently, the only future for Africa lies in science-based, monocropped exports that we (the Western world) would buy, thereby supplying money for Africans to then, what? Buy food? This is so strange. How about what Sarah proposes–cancel Africa’s debt, and then follow Frances and Anna Lappe’s lead by helping Africans re-learn self-reliance and farming to feed themselves, rather than how to feed us over here. And, just to balance the scales, we’ll work hard on learning how to feed ourselves over here, too, and for the few items which we do need to trade, we will do it in a fair and equal fashion that benefits us both.

    Sheesh, why is this so hard? Er… then again, I guess it does come from “Food Chemical News”.

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  • Bix

    Shucks. I can’t read it. “This story is available only to Food Chemical News subscribers.”

    I was curious about the “imposed on Africa” part. I wonder how it came to be that African nations shun, say, drought-resistant crops?

  • “…[equating] agricultural science with large farms, mistreatment of animals, enrichment of agribusiness corporations, and unpalatable and unhealthy food …”

    Well, if the agricultural scientists would actually do some real work on things like organics and sustainable agriculture, instead of futzing around with NPK ratios, test tubes, cloning, and genetic engineering, maybe there would be less hostility to agricultural science.

    Let me turn the question back on this fellow – why should we export our toxic lifestyle around the world?

  • Hmm. I’m skeptical. The stance sounds like his stance is a stretch and like it’s coming from someone in favor of biotech agriculture to begin with. Besides, I think those of us in the U.S. favoring small farms and heirloom varieties are in the minority. Industry and agribusiness are still quite dominant.

    Food Is Love

  • I think you’re wrong. Why don’t you offer the same advice to American farmers? Africa, just like any other part of the world, requires modern technologies to solve its food problems. I would like to encourage you to visit my blog (

  • Bix

    (So … if anyone has a copy of the article 😉

    In lieu of that, I think James answered my question. And I have to agree with this particular point of his … “Violence has no place in science.”

  • Fentry

    A lot of Africa grows “cash crops”: coffee, cacoa (chocolate), and cotton. None of these are food staples.

    Why are they “cash crops” ? Because the U.S. and the European Union subsidize primary food crops, thus depressing the price.

    Africa used to grow its own food; it would grow food again if it were profitable.

    Congressional Pork starves Africa, not a lack of U.S. Agribusiness GMOs.

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