Developing countries that depend on external inputs are still colonized
Countries whose environment is not ideal for food production but have resources like minerals and oil can afford use those resources in importing food and living a healthy life. Such countries are not as colonized as those that depend on external inputs to produce their own food. There is no better expression of colonization than depending on foreign countries for seed, livestock breeds, fuel, fertilizer, chemicals and even knowledge. That is the situation in most African countries.
Distinguishing African food systems from external food systems
While African countries have embraced industrial food production practices that depend heavily on external inputs, there is still enough room to replace these practices with purely indigenous organic practices that are becoming ideal in combating climate change. African food can easily be defined by non-use of industrial inputs and this can be in line with agroecology principles that many organizations are now promoting. The organic food movement which is part of agroecology values the natural ecosystem which connects with climate change mitigation. Luckily, there is increasing awareness among consumers that when they demand healthy and nutritious organic African food, they are contributing to a healthy natural ecosystem free from chemicals and other external inputs.
A food system that depends on external life support systems is not sustainable. More than 90% of returns from producing food in Africa using external inputs are supporting economies where inputs are sourced. The ironic bit is that while western consumers expect chemical-free food from Africa, these consumers cannot tell their relatives in the West who are responsible for supplying chemicals and other external inputs to African food systems to stop this bad practice. Doing so would be a faster way of guaranteeing a chemical-free global food system. Most companies that supply chemicals to Africa are based in the Global North or the West.
Getting rid of dependence on foreign currency
Meanwhile, there is encouraging realization by influential African institutions such as the African Union that promoting organic production is critical for re-investing within communities, contributing to resilience and getting rid of dependence on foreign currency. African food systems do not need life support from industrial inputs because their natural habitat is an ideal life support system by itself. African academic and research institutions should conduct thorough research on diverse natural inputs including natural grasses and tree leaves. If grasses can be grown to support cattle production, it should be possible to identify grasses that can enhance natural soil fertility. Ultimately, attention can focus on totally changing irrigation schemes towards organic natural production. Several African communities still have intact natural environments that support organic production, for instance some are natural economic zones for small grains and groundnuts with no need for gypsum.
More benefits to marrying organic with ecology
Indigenous organic food can give agroecology a solid African identity. That way, it becomes easy to recognize, support and protect indigenous resources toward support organic products which can project identity, resilience, sustainability and independence. There are more benefits in bringing together ecology and organic because the way rural communities understand agroecology is about organic. Ecology looks at ecosystems – using your ecology to produce your food organically as well as valuing your natural resources. By using industrial products, African communities cannot adequately value their natural resources like soil, water, natural climates. For instance, what is the opportunity cost of using imported industrial products to undermine micro climates?
In the literal sense, agroecology is understood as a combination of agriculture and ecology but the practice is often missing. When properly promoted, organic production becomes a practice in the ecology in which close attention is paid to the cost incurred by natural resources. Critical questions include what is the cost of destroying natural resources and climate? What is the cost to the ecology and ecosystem of producing 10 tons per hectare of maize using industrial inputs compared to producing three tons of maize per hectare using organic inputs? Like any other practice, there are many costs such as depletion of soil fertility, destruction of soil organisms and water pollution.
It is now clear that the health of African food systems has been compromised by heavy use of industrial inputs. The comparative cost of producing using industrial and organic inputs needs to be carefully examined. For instance, the cost of producing a hectare of maize using industrial inputs like fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides against using organic fertilizer like cattle manure and getting three tons. To what extent are decisions to focus on more productivity per hectare influenced by shortage of land when many African countries like Angola, Democratic of Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe have vast land lying idle? If such decisions are not about land, priorities should focus on mechanizing rural agriculture so that more food is produced on large tracts of land rather than pouring heavy industrial inputs on small pieces of land, leading to high costs on the natural ecosystem.
The role of the market in helping communities to navigate uncertainties
When agroecology enables soils to be revived back to what they were 20 years ago, that becomes a huge positive turning point. Markets can then be built to trigger more demand for organic products. In addition, investing in large scale agroecology production will give farmers more economies of scale. In most cases, efficiency comes with volumes as it is uneconomic for farmers to take a few organic tubers of cassava to urban markets. Packaging nutritional and medicinal science with indigenous fruits and tubers like cassava can be a unique selling proposition for indigenous food. Through the market, communities should be able to build investment guides and answer questions like how do you define incomes for farmers? Do you define farming as a business or self-employment?
The market can define farming as a business in terms of producing or manufacturing your product with the market taking the responsibility of selling the product in ways that ensure investments support local consumption patterns. If you use local resources to produce wheat, that decision must be informed by the number of people who buy bread. That will avoid cases where countries use local resources to produce what does not directly benefit local communities. African countries cannot create new employment with coca cola because it comes with embedded knowledge. This is different from indigenous crops like small grains and tubers which can be unbundled into diverse ingredients and unique value chains with enormous entrepreneurship potential.
External innovations and inputs dictate the direction and pace of African development
When countries depend on external inputs, their development pace is dictated by those who sell their innovations and inputs to African countries. By imposing seed varieties and animal breeds, the West dictates the pace of African agriculture development. African countries can take development matters into their own hands through embracing agroecology. For instance, they can ensure indigenous goats are integrated into organic production. These animals can easily survive on grazing bushes in dry regions while producing organic manure which has been proven best for producing some indigenous crops and vegetables. More importantly, goats provide entrepreneurial growth pathways for women and youth who are often marginalized by industrial production systems. Whereas African communities that struggle to get supplementary feed for exotic cattle end up growing grasses which need irrigation, goat feed is locally available and do not need many supplements. Indigenous goats are also resistant to diseases and do not need external chemicals.
Who says size is more important than nutrition and other natural traits?
Cross-breeding indigenous livestock with exotic breeds for purposes of increasing size has become one of the biggest threats to indigenous goats and cattle. It is as if increasing the size of indigenous breeds is more valuable than nutrition and other important natural traits. Cross-breeding makes indigenous goats susceptible to diseases which require industrial remedies. On the other hand, many African communities are comfortable with their own indigenous breeds irrespective of size because that is the natural phenomena of those breeds. If they had their own rights, these communities would aggressively resist cross-breeding because imported breeds cause more harm than good. The uniqueness of what makes local breeds indigenous should be preserved. If makes sense to increase the quantity of small grains not the size, it should make sense to increase the quantities of indigenous goats and chickens instead of size. Foisting industrial solutions like imported seed and breeds on African communities is a clear breach of natural ecosystems as that seed and breed can only survive from an external life support system comprising industrial chemicals and imported feed.
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