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U.N. moves to lift up African farmers

The U.N.'s World Food Program will spend $1 billion buying food for the hungry this year, up $230 million from 2007. The organization wants to stimulate farmers to produce more.
Foods Future Food Aid
The U.N.'s World Food Program is buying local crops to feed the world's hungry. The agency hopes to encourage farmers such as these in Bomet, Kenya, to produce more.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Her eight kids huddle together for warmth at night on the dirt floor of Julianna Maritim's hut. The little the family earns from crops puts meat on the table just once a month. But the aid workers driving up to their small plot one recent day weren't handing out food — they were buying it.

Maritim is one of 350,000 small farmers set to benefit from fast-changing attitudes toward food aid, spurred by spiraling food and fuel costs. It's big business: The U.N.'s World Food Program will spend $1 billion buying food for the hungry this year, up $230 million from 2007.

Now the organization is trying to reach beyond simply handing out sacks of Western grain to help feed emaciated children. It wants to stimulate farmers like Maritim to produce more — and replace those shipments from U.S. and other agribusinesses — by providing a reliable market for their local crops.

The WFP is mounting this new effort in 21 countries, mostly in Africa, against the backdrop of a global food crisis with many causes, among them Africa's long-running failure to feed itself. But experts say still more will be needed for a turnaround in African agriculture.

A WFP grain buyer, Arben Caslli, explained some problems Kenya's small farmers face: They're not organized in groups that can wield bargaining power; they don't have warehouses to store crops; they don't have the cash to transport them to the market.

Beneath soft hills in central Kenya, veined with rutted red tracks, Caslli rustled through the tawny cornfields, inspecting crops for Purchase for Progress, the WFP initiative begun in September.

The spectacular landscape itself keeps farmers like Maritim from the markets. Without a vehicle to get to town, she and husband William have been selling their crop for slightly more than half its value to the first middleman who comes by.

No money left to enrich land
After buying a son's school shoes and cough medicine for the baby, a wheezing bundle swaddled in her older sibling's clothes, there's no money left to enrich her land.

"Prices for fertilizer have gone up faster even than this child," said Maritim, 36, patting her 2-year-old daughter on the head.

They stood in an unplanted field that should have been filled with cabbage. This season she couldn't afford seedlings or fertilizer, which has quadrupled in price since January.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world where food production per person has declined. Problems created by decades of underinvestment in agriculture and in roads and other infrastructure have been compounded by environmental degradation and rapidly growing populations. Of 34 nations the U.N. says are currently facing food emergencies, 21 are in Africa.

Western trade and aid practices also remove farmers' incentives to produce.

Few object to emergency food relief after a war, drought or floods, but the sourcing of that food is stirring debate. The Europeans accuse the United States of sidestepping international rules discouraging agricultural subsidies by requiring that almost all U.S. food aid be produced by American farmers and transported on American ships or planes.

The U.S. funds are thereby recycled back into the American economy, and high fuel and shipping costs mean less food for each aid dollar. Some charities, meanwhile, sell donated American food locally in order to finance development programs — to help expectant mothers and their babies, for example.

Undercutting local producers
But this can undercut local producers in the marketplace with cheaper, subsidized U.S. grain. Almost one-quarter of 2.1 million metric tons of donated U.S. food was "monetized" in this way last year.

The European bloc provides all its food aid in cash so aid agencies can buy locally, supporting developing economies. Canada allows half its food aid to be bought from non-Canadians. Critics call for a similar overhaul of U.S. farm legislation.

The U.S.-based international aid group CARE last year turned down $46 million in U.S. food aid, saying selling it would hurt poor farmers more than they would be helped by projects paid for by the proceeds.

No other major agency has followed CARE's lead. They share CARE's concerns, they say, but worry about jeopardizing programs supported by selling the donated grain. They can't get cash instead.

The WFP initiative, funded in part by the U.S.-based Bill and Melinda Gates and Howard G. Buffett foundations, tries to combine emergency aid with developing local economies. Farmers will be organized into cooperatives, bring their crops to nearby collection points, and be able to rely on predictable long-term purchase contracts.

Among the mud-and-cement huts here, Caslli was buying corn to be shipped to refugee camps in neighboring Somalia. Farmers were paid the current market price — almost double what the middleman would pay. Caslli encouraged them to invest some earnings in better seeds and fertilizer, and to contribute to the building of a warehouse.

But experts say WFP's efforts must come in tandem with important reforms that governments and donors have been reluctant to tackle, including a lowering of U.S. and European price supports for homegrown crops, a move that would make African exports more competitive in northern markets.

'Ongoing poor policy'
Raj Patel, author of "Stuffed and Starved," a book charting trends in the global food industry, described the WFP initiative as "a Band-Aid to long-term development policies that show no sign of being changed."

"The U.S. food aid program assigns $2 billion every year to food aid, which dwarfs the $76 million in this project," he said. "It's a sorry time when philanthropists have to come in to prevent something caused by ongoing poor policy that can and should be fixed not by charity but by politics."

Some worry the initiative could have unintended consequences.

"Who owns the 'better' seeds that farmers will be encouraged to plant?" asked Kenyan economist James Shikwati. "Will Africans be encouraged to develop their indigenous seeds or will those vanish?"

Selected seed strains can greatly increase a farmer's crop. Yet some say patented, modified seeds from northern agribusinesses are designed to flourish only with a specific type of fertilizer or pesticide that small farmers cannot afford. Some seeds do not reproduce themselves, forcing planters to pay for more expensive patented seeds each season.

The problems of trade and aid policies are exacerbated by the international banking meltdown, said Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

Investors drive up prices
As the credit crisis unfolded in recent years, jittery investors switched money from banking and real estate to such commodities as grain and fertilizer, driving up prices.

"The whole damn house of cards is so fragile, all you need is one jolt ... the whole thing starts toppling," Garrett said. "There are no instruments to solve these problems on a global scale. International institutions are not up to the job and (are) preoccupied with the banking crisis."

Perhaps the first change, Shikwati suggests, should not be in an air-conditioned boardroom but in the attitudes of Africans on the streets, who often see farmers as uneducated peasants, not businessmen.

"We have to start valuing agriculture, paying attention to it, educating people about it, investing in it to make money instead of just to survive," he said.

Both Maritim, who did a secretarial course, and her husband, who studied mechanics, would rather have steady jobs than work as farmers.

"Being in the office is better than in the hot sun," she said. But if the WFP project provides enough to feed and clothe her children, she says. "That is the best of all."