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Hunger and food security: Is Africa selling the farm?

Foreign investors see Africa as a breadbasket. Done well, investment could help with African hunger but create food security for the rest of the world.

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But the continent continues to import the bulk of its staple food items, including corn, wheat, and rice from richer countries. On paper, foreign investment in African agriculture should correct that trade imbalance and help Africa become food self-sufficient. With global food prices skyrocketing (see story, page 8), the demand for biofuels increasing, and the amount of arable land static, Africa is well situated to capitalize on global demand. And with its vast rural populations living on less than $1 a day, it would seem hungry for such deals.

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So the continent's discontent with these deals takes many development experts by surprise. Almost any investment in a poor country generates jobs, tax revenues, and better skills for the future. But in today's Africa, investment in agriculture – even a $6 billion long-term deal like Daewoo's – is increasingly portrayed by the media and rights groups as "land-grabbing," neocolonialism, and even a threat to a country's ability to feed itself. And when many African countries are still unable to feed themselves, foreign investment can become the spark for revolution.

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Madagascar looks quite unlike the lush tropical paradise portrayed in the Disney movie of the same name. In the dry season, viewed from a plane at 36,000 feet, the island off the southeast coast of the African mainland looks like a giant plate of potatoes au gratin. Every square inch of the island – an area roughly the size of Texas – is chopped up into small, overlapping, often parched, dust-colored terraced plots.

Farmed for centuries by traditional slash-and-burn techniques, Madagascar's soil is depleted, and the pressure of a growing population – now 19 million – means that farmers must struggle to feed more people with less fertile land.

How large well-funded corporate commercial farms can make a go of land that small subsistence farmers have given up on is a story of 20th-century farming technology and 21st-century venture capital funds. Like the green revolution, which favored those with access to modern tractors and irrigation, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and specialized seeds, today's corporate farming groups like Daewoo have the technology and financial backing to make unused land bloom.

Without much of that kind of investment, Madagascar is a net food importer, with 40 to 50 percent of the population, by UNICEF estimates, suffering chronic malnutrition, even during good harvests.

"In some areas, people go without their main food staple, rice, for four to six months," says Patrice Charpentier, project manager for food security at Land O'Lakes, an aid group. "Production is erratic. People don't want to overproduce if they're not sure they can sell it on the market. So they produce just enough to survive."

In an average year, people are able to make do with the rice they have saved up and fruit they find in the wild. But the boom-and-bust period of 2007-08 was no average year. Driven by the pell-mell growth of China and India, which demanded increasing fuel and raw materials, crude oil prices surged upward.

The price spike was a temptation for large agricultural companies to divert corn intended for food staples like cornmeal into more profitable biofuels like ethanol instead. It was classic supply-and-demand economics, and it sparked a land rush to buy up farmland across Africa.


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