Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow of Development and Environmental Studies at the University of Waterloo
10 Dec 2021
A woman and two of her children farm their crops in Nakasongola, Uganda [Corbis via Getty Images]
At last month’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, US officials touted a new strategy to counter malnutrition in Africa – a problem that will only become worse in the face of climate change.
“We know that no one entity alone can tackle the threats to food security posed by climate change,” Samantha Power, head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), said at the conference (USAID leads the United States’ Feed the Future initiative to modernise agriculture and improve nutrition around the world, especially in Africa). “That is why we are partnering with developing countries, with smallholder farmers and businesses, with universities and researchers at home and abroad, with Congress and with our counterparts in the US government – we must build a broad coalition to develop climate-smart solutions to end malnutrition and hunger.”
But while officials like Power have emphasised their commitment to working with various local and international partners in their effort to end malnutrition and hunger in Africa, they have yet to acknowledge how the US is increasingly failing the group best placed to address Africa’s malnutrition and food security problem: smallholder farmers.
Since Feed the Future began in 2010, agencies like USAID have espoused a central role for smallholder farmers in their programmes, and for good reason: rates of malnutrition and many of the resulting maladies, like childhood stunting, are higher in Africa than on any other continent, and, since they make up a majority of the world’s poorest people, smallholder farmers and their families tend to disproportionately suffer. At the same time, smallholders make up 80 percent of the world’s farms and grow more than half of food calories in the Global South – much of it from diverse and nutritious foods.
But despite paying lip service to smallholders in Africa, the US never truly supported them. Over the past decade, its programmes elevated the interests of commercial farmers while pushing smallholder farmers to produce nutrient-poor commodity crops or leave farming altogether. And today, as climate change adds further urgency to the cause of agricultural transformation, organisations like USAID seem to be shifting their focus further away from supporting Africa’s most vulnerable – and most important – farmers.
Ahead of COP26 and just weeks after the UN’s Food Systems Summit in October – an event widely excoriated for giving food corporations a place of privilege – the US government released a new strategy document that framed nutrition as a technical problem for agro-processors to solve. In a list of “strategic pivots,” the US government said it would deprioritise its support for those growing a major share of Africa’s diverse foods – the small and medium-sized farmers – and focus instead on the factory-scale agribusinesses that can process commodity crops and manufacture nutrition in the form of added vitamins and minerals.
“While work at the household level remains important, particularly for rural populations,” it said “focusing on households alone without addressing food systems is insufficient to make meaningful progress against widespread malnutrition.”
Instead of “focusing on households” by helping small farmers grow more nutritious food, the US will devote more resources to “large-scale fortification” – a technical term for funnelling low-nutrition crops to factories which can blend them with vitamins and minerals, often for sale as packaged foods.
Far from expanding the US’s food security effort to help farmers grow food that is inherently secure because it is nutrient-rich, biologically diverse, culturally appropriate and environmentally sustainable, the new plan will be as reliant on commodity crops like maize and rice as before. In the way the US’s agriculture plans to date have encouraged farmers to rely on factory-synthesised chemicals to add nutrients to African land, its new nutrition plan promotes a reliance on factory-synthesised vitamins and minerals to add nutrients to African food.
US officials apparently believe the mistake was not encouraging smallholder farmers to grow the wrong crops in the wrong way, but putting farmers at the centre of a nutrition plan in the first place. Thus, the new focal point for assistance will be the factory, not the farm.
But what can be gained from marginalising smallholders in a plan to reduce malnutrition? Smallholders have long been growing nutritious food in Africa. In West Africa, for example, farmers have been growing biologically diverse, nutrient-rich, indigenous crops like cowpea and fonio for generations. These crops are well suited to household nutritional needs, as well as the biodiversity of the local environments.
The idea that smallholders should remain central to efforts to improve nutrition is also well supported by research. Studies from around the world show smallholders can not only improve their own health, but the health of agricultural land by growing more diverse and nutritious food. A recent review of hundreds of studies on the subject from around the world led by Cornell University’s Dr Rachel Bezner Kerr found that using indigenous seeds to grow a variety of culturally appropriate foods, in combination with livestock and agroforestry, can improve people’s diets, particularly for small to medium-sized farming families who eat the foods they grow themselves. Other field-level changes like botanical pesticides and organic fertiliser can increase yields and stabilise production over the long term, reducing costs and increasing profitability for farmers while freeing up cash for other foods and allowing for more varied diets. Agroecological farming models have also been shown to improve childhood growth in some places – a widely accepted measure of nutritional health.
The advantages of agroecological farming have never meaningfully factored in US agricultural plans in Africa. From its inception, Feed the Future’s Africa programmes played to the advantages of well-off commercial farmers over smallholders, exacerbating conditions which have led smallholders to leave farming. By prioritising support for costly technologies like hybrid seeds, chemical fertilisers and herbicides, and tractors for commodity crops that can compromise the soil, Feed the Future made it harder for smallholders to survive on their native lands, while creating investment opportunities for local businessmen.
But under the new nutrition strategy, smallholder farmers barely have any place at all, except as the producers of cheap, raw materials for processors to turn into manufactured foods.
As USAID put it in a recent document, large-scale food fortification can enhance African nutrition when the food is “industrially processed” and “widely and regularly consumed by the target population”. This means, instead of growing nutritious and diverse foods, farmers should keep growing commodities best suited for food manufacturing. Agro-processors, meanwhile, can turn those crops into nutrient-rich products to sell to urban consumers in Africa’s cities and capture the added economic value for themselves.
Large-scale food fortification is only the latest on a long list of high-tech changes USAID and other organisations have promoted in the name of improving African nutrition. In 2009, a group of scientists, backed by USAID, Global Affairs Canada, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others, cross-bred a “bio-fortified” sweet potato to have a higher than usual dose of vitamin A – an important micronutrient – and distributed it to farmers in 17 African countries. Supporters said the new sweet potato could reduce infections and even child morbidity and mortality.
But while studies found that the bio-fortified sweet potato enhanced vitamin A intake and absorption in some communities, one vitamin is not a determinant of nutritional health. As critics of the program pointed out, malnutrition is not a simple problem with a single fix. Its causes are related to politics, family and gender relations, land use, and other social and economic factors, from poverty and ecology, to clean water access and sanitation. In her study of smallholders in Tanzania, Dr Sheila Rao found that growing bio-fortified sweet potatoes likely only increased farmers’ incomes and improved their nutrition in the short term, and likely only for the men growing it.
The sweet potato prescription, like many other “silver bullet” fixes to malnutrition, laid bare some of the deeper social and economic problems which cause malnutrition in the first place. Food security and good nutrition require the kinds of food which only come through well-managed soils, clean water and robust local ecosystems. But instead of taking farmers’ role in that ecology of food production seriously, US officials are repeating the same mistakes as before, reducing the complexities of nutrition and dietary health to a process of growing and harvesting crops and adding in vitamins.
So who stands to benefit from the new strategy? The experience of one company offers a model for the vision in action and shows what African food systems could look like in the future. For most of its history, the Netherlands’ Royal DSM was strictly a chemical company. But since buying the vitamin division of Swiss healthcare conglomerate Roche in 2003, the company has made nutrition a central component of its business model, especially in the developing world. In 2007, DSM became a partner of the World Food Programme, supplying the United Nations’ food assistance provider with micronutrient powder. More recently, as Africa’s city dwellers have become more affluent, the company has made its own strategic shift, from supporting Africa’s poorest through food aid, to supplying its rising middle class with consumer products. In Rwanda, the company jointly maintains a processing facility with the Rwandan government where it sources soy from more than 130,000 smallholders across the region to make a vitamin-fortified porridge for breastfeeding mothers and children. It now has plans for a similar facility in Kenya.
“What is important is that we tie agriculture and food into one system,” Fokko Wientjes, vice president of nutrition in emerging markets and strategic partnerships at DSM, told a gathering of Indian nutritionists last December. This way, he said, “you get stability for farmers because they know they can supply into a food industry”.
Tying agriculture and food processing into a single system is part of what Wientjes calls restructuring agricultural economies under a “fork to farm” model. It means giving consumers the power to dictate the food they want to farmers, via processors, without farmers having a say in what they can or should grow.
If all this sounds positive, even desirable, consider the fact that one of the biggest emerging health crises in the Global South is directly linked to a rise in processed foods. Developing countries around the world, including many in Africa, are seeing a spike in obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease as people shift from having too little food of any kind to eating too much highly processed food. Worldwide, diet-related diseases, overwhelmingly linked to an over consumption of highly processed foods, account for more than a fifth of adult deaths. Processed foods with vitamins may be more healthy than processed foods without, but they are no substitute for the fresh foods that smallholder farmers have provided for generations.
In many ways, the US’s new nutrition plan is only a continuation of a much larger programme of African agricultural development, what supporters and detractors alike often call the “green revolution for Africa”. While US officials and philanthropists loudly announce their intent to help the most vulnerable on the African continent, more quietly, they speak of building a highly mechanised, capital-intensive, agro-industrial economy which makes little room for the smallholder farmers who have been the foundation of Africa’s food systems to date.
Not surprisingly, the US government plan for improving African agriculture, food security and nutrition is what it always has been: supporting smallholders only to the extent that they can service agribusiness. Activists and scholars need to continue to hold USAID and others accountable for their promises to support smallholder farmers – the poorest, most malnourished and most vulnerable to a changing climate.
Efforts to end malnutrition in Africa should be centred around the smallholders who are already well suited to produce the most biologically and environmentally diverse and culturally appropriate food, not processors looking to profit from manufacturing nutrition on their behalf.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.