U.S., European trade policies contribute to African hunger, authors say

BySunanda Holmes, Special For Usa Today
September 28, 2009, 6:15 PM

— -- More food-growing capacity has failed to reduce hunger in the world. In fact, every 5 seconds, starvation takes another life, many of them in Africa.

This is the disheartening message of Enough: Why the Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty (PublicAffairs, $27.95, 416 pages) by Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, veteran Wall Street Journal reporters.

Thurow, a well-traveled foreign correspondent, and Kilman, who covers agriculture, teamed to tell a tale of African futility, a story of tragic contrast to progress being made in other struggling developing countries.

To the authors, what helped give low-income regions in Latin America and Asia a chance to expand production was the embrace of the green revolution, which was championed by the late Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning agronomist.

The authors single out Borlaug, who died Sept. 12 at 95, for his tireless efforts to bring new techniques to poor regions and win the acceptance of locals.

It was Borlaug who urged the use of fertilizer, high-yield seeds and small-scale irrigation projects that help poor countries increase food productivity, which allows governments to shift resources to other pressing needs.

But the green revolution never reached Africa, the authors say, a continent cursed by famine, war and disease. Enough explains how Africa, "the womb of our species," slipped so far behind.

The authors place a share of the blame on the farm and trade policies of the United States and European countries. In both regions, legislators often grapple with powerful farm lobbies, which push hard for price supports and tariff barriers.

Price supports have the effect of expanding the supply of a commodity beyond the demand of domestic consumers. The resulting surplus ends up in other nations, often in Africa, as food aid. In some cases, the foreign-grown food is cheaper than the local variety, putting African farmers at a competitive disadvantage.

Enough reveals that the 30 members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development gave $52 billion in development aid to Africa in 2007, a sizable portion in food aid. At the same time, they subsidized their own farmers with price supports worth $311 billion.

While the intent of food aid may be noble, the consequences can be anything but.

Undercut in the home markets and blocked by tariffs from foreign markets, some African farmers are unable to generate enough income to afford supplies for the next year's planting season.

When too many farmers stop growing crops, governments are forced to seek foreign handouts to prevent the country from descending a slippery slope into disease, famine and starvation.

No amount of anti-retrovirals for AIDS, say the authors, will save people if they aren't getting proper nutrition to accompany their medication. "Take with food" on a prescription bottle is pointless if there's no food with which to take it.

Enough begins with Borlaug's role in leading the green revolution and ends with efforts of Bill Gates, Bono, former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan and others, along with scientists, economists and some local farmers to bring an African-grown green revolution to the continent. If African leaders hope to emulate the success of other developing countries and ascend the development ladder, they must push this approach, the authors insist.

Providing financing for farmers will make a difference only if they are encouraged by their governments to use high-yield seeds, better manage water supplies and replenish soil nutrients.

International lenders such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, who for years cut African agricultural budgets, now see the need to reinvest in the sector as a strategy to ease the continent's lingering poverty.

To the chorus of recommendations, Enough pitches in with a few of its own. For example, the authors see the need for infrastructure investment and a global fund for small farmers to help them compete with their counterparts in the developed world.

The authors quote Feike Sijbesma, chairman of DSM, the world's largest producer of vitamins, in underscoring the importance of green solutions.

As every capitalist knows, "You can't be successful in a society that fails," Sijbesma says.

For sensitive souls, the book's vivid descriptions of the ugliness of African poverty can make for difficult reading. But the knowledge is worth the unpleasantness. Thurow and Kilman lead the reader on a journey across continents, explaining the complexities of economic dysfunction and reminding us that there is a symbiosis of wealth and poverty that explains why starvation endures in an age of plenty.

Sunanda Holmes is a lawyer and expert on international health and development issues

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