Africa Confronts Food, Fertilizer and Climate Crises

ANN GARRISON: Can you give us a picture of the alternatives to synthetic fertilizers? I think you’ve said that Mali has been particularly successful in developing local, sustainable agriculture.

TIMOTHY A. WISE: Yes, Mali and other parts of West Africa are particularly interesting because several governments there have made commitments to developing agroecology, farming with nature, and reducing dependence on inputs like commercial seeds and nitrogen fertilizer.

Mali has done some very interesting things in response to the fertilizer crisis. One of the leaders of one of the farm organizations there said that it’s actually helping, not hurting their food production.

The majority of the nitrogen fertilizer used in Mali is for cotton. But the fertilizer shortage has meant that cotton farmers can’t afford it, so they’re taking their land out of cotton and planting sorghum or millet, which doesn’t need fertilizer, and is relatively drought tolerant, resilient and nutritious. So Mali gets a net increase in food production from the fertilizer crisis.

In addition, the government of Mali has made a commitment to creating alternatives to nitrogen fertilizers. They are encouraging the use of organic, biofertilizers that can be produced using local resources, not natural gas. They’ve started to scale up production facilities for biofertilizers and provided subsidies to farmers to use them instead of nitrogen fertilizers. That’s the kind of transition we need.

ANN GARRISON: And this encourages more small scale farming for local and regional markets?

TIMOTHY A. WISE: It does. And one of Mali’s advantages is that they weren’t drawn into the global industrial farming model to the extent that other African nations were. They’re not as dependent on imports of food or synthetic inputs. And they tend to have a diverse crop mix, unlike Rwanda. Rwanda went all in on corn, leaving the people without enough food to eat. In Mali, corn is just one of the staples they grow. Traditional crops like millet and sorghum are more important in Mali, even though the Green Revolution for Africa has tried to change that.

ANN GARRISON: African nations, like any others, need export products to generate foreign exchange. Can agroecology be applied on a scale that allows farming for export?

TIMOTHY A. WISE: That remains to be seen. Export dependence for commodities such as cotton is a legacy of colonialism and it is very difficult for developing countries to find export markets that allow them to earn that foreign exchange. But remember: They are now spending a huge amount of foreign exchange to import fertilizers. Cutting that dependence has direct economic benefits, particularly if there are low-cost ways to fertilize the soil and get better results than the Green Revolution for Africa has produced.

ANN GARRISON: So in response to the current food and fertilizer shortages, you would recommend food aid where it’s desperately needed, with food purchased from African farmers where possible, combined with steps to transition to local and regional agroecology.

TIMOTHY A. WISE: That’s right. And there’s certainly a place for getting fertilizer this year to farmers who are dependent on it, but Mali’s showing a different path to African food sovereignty and sustainability by developing biofertilizers, crop diversity, local and regional markets, and short supply chains that aren’t as vulnerable to global shocks.

(Read the full interview on Black Agenda Report, or listen to my interview with Pacifica Radio’s Ann Garrison.)

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