In a post this past January I posed the question of the viability of genetic engineering as a solution to hunger in Africa as does the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof. I have significant doubts as to the wisdom of using GMOs in any country and the subject continues to generate more heat than light.
It just could be that the solution to Africa’s hunger problem is less scientific. The answer may come from a simple string.
Roger Thurow is Senior Fellow for Global Agriculture & Food Policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in international reporting. He was struck recently by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s assertion that the rest of the world is jealous of American agriculture’s use of extension services. Thurow agrees and having just returned from a visit to African farmers he knows how much they cherish those services.
He says, “Extension agents were essential in spreading the agricultural revolutions in every part of the world: America, Europe, Asia, Australia, Latin America. Everywhere except Africa. Government budgets didn’t have enough money to fund them, nor political will to insist that they do; international development agencies, in their negligence of agriculture, thought Africa, alone among the continents of the world, could do without them. As a result, the continent’s extension services fell into a woeful state during the past three decades of neglect of agriculture development. In many countries, if there were any extension agents, they did little extending; very few even had bicycles to go from farm to farm.”
Thurow goes on to tell of Vilsack’s wish to use extension services around the world. Vilsack says, “It’s not just biotechnology. It’s also conservation tillage. It’s drip irrigation. It’s multiple cropping practices.”
Very simple practices common to all gardeners in our country is what needs to be taught to Kenyan farmers. Correct spacing of seeds, simple understanding of sun and nutrient requirements are all news to those that don’t know them.
Thurow tells of Kennedy Wafula, a field manager for the One Acre Fund who shows farmers in Kenya and Rwanda a string with a knot tied every 25 centimeters. He tells them, “Twenty-five. This is the distance between plants.” He explains to them that they should only use one seed every 25 centimeters so there is no competition for sun, nutrition and water. There is no need to broadcast precious seeds only to have most of them die.
Kennedy says that One Acre farmers are able to double and triple their yields as a result of telling farmers about these practices that he calls the “Obama method.” The President’s father grew up on a Kenyan farm.
So, it seems that the knowledge of simple procedures can go much farther than expensive, questionable – even destructive technology to do a better job of providing food to a growing population.
Thurow says the Kenyan farmers often tell him “Knowledge is power.” It is food as well.