Foreign companies with funding from the likes of China, the United Arab Emirates and India have been acquiring land across sub-Saharan Africa. Ethiopia alone has reportedly approved more than 800 foreign-funded agro-projects since 2007.
Africa is viewed as a particularly attractive food basket by water-challenged Middle Eastern nations and China, struggling with soil depletion. These countries aim to create stable supply channels for food and agro-fuels that bypass agro-commodity markets in a climate of rising prices.
Somewhat ironically, the food self-sufficiency of many of the African countries targeted for investment has been eroding.
Last week, the UN Conference on Trade and Development said the continent had lost 20 percent of its capacity to provide food over the past four decades owing to underinvestment. Some pin the blame on the structural adjustment programmes of the World Bank, which required the phasing out of government controls and support mechanisms.
The UN’s various bodies convened a team of experts last year to create a plan of action for dealing with the growing global food crisis. Their proposed solutions hinge on increased productivity, investment in inputs and technology, and lower tariff barriers.
The South African government made it clear it doesn’t think much of some aspects of this proposal when Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson said during her budget vote last week that there was room for raising tariffs on agricultural imports.
She also put a figure on the “substantial scope” that still exists under the World Trade Organisation for additional South African government support to farmers: R11 billion in price and production-distorting support, and more than R500 million for export subsidies.
Achieving a consensus view on how to end world hunger is likely to be elusive for as long as tensions exist around the developed world’s support for its agricultural output, let alone the role of industrial agriculture versus small farming.
In the meantime, Africa’s farmers continue to face a credit shortfall, and it is unclear where the bulk of $40bn (R312bn) that the World Bank tells us is needed to restore global food security is going to come from. Developed countries have coughed up just