West Africa, a region equal in area to the United States and containing roughly half the population of Africa, is no longer able to feed itself. Yet 20 years ago the newly independent West African countries were net exporters of food, with a favorable agricultural base and relatively low population density. They accounted for all of Africa's net exports of staple foods. In the early 1960s, the area averaged 1.2 million metric tons of exports a year.
But by the mid 1970s, the situation had reversed. Food production lagged 2 percent a year behind population growth, and West Africa's imports of staple foods equaled its exports.
''If West Africa cannot feed its 170 million people today amid surplus land and record levels of foreign aid, who will feed an extra 100 million by the year 2000?'' Prof. Carl Eicher asked at a December conference of West African agricultural economists in Abidjan. Dr. Eicher, a professor at Michigan State University who is currently a visiting professor at the University of Zimbabwe, has been analyzing West Africa's food crisis.
With the notable exceptions of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast and former President Ahmadou Ahidjo of the Cameroon, West African leaders have neglected agriculture in favor of highly visible roads, schools, and hospital infrastructure projects.
Ghana's former President Kwame Nkrumah saw agriculture as a ''code word for bondage'' and its most prosperous crop, cocoa, as ''contaminated by capitalism, the very monoculture Ghana needed to escape.'' Nkrumah and other African leaders felt that industry, not agriculture - which supports 60 to 80 percent of their populations - was the main vehicle of economic development.
The newly independent West African states maintained the colonial agricultural system based on the export of cash crops. They continued to neglect food crops for their own population, with disastrous consequences.
Even the Ivory Coast, which has one of the region's most successful agricultural sectors, imported nearly $200 million worth of food in 1981.
Gilles Laubhouet, who heads the Ivorian Ministry of Rural Development and is specially charged with achieving food self-sufficiency, criticized the overemphasis on cash crops such as cocoa and coffee. This policy has encouraged a sharp increase in imports of cereals and rice and a change in eating habits, as well as a drain on the country's foreign exchange, he argued.
The Ivory Coast is one of the few countries where there is a political consensus that the production of a regular food surplus is essential for sustained economic development.
Professor Eicher urged that a long-term (i.e., 15-year) strategy be adopted which would emphasize improving local farming techniques. For example, yields from imported Asian rice strains had been disappointing, he said, and more effort needed to be put into developing local varieties adapted to local soils and climates.
He said investment funds should be reallocated from direct action into long-term research programs on irrigation management, animal health, tsetse-fly control, and farmer settlement. Funds are not a problem, he said. Aid to Africa doubled in real terms between 1975 and 1981, and ''it is common knowledge that it is not being absorbed with efficiency and integrity in many countries.''
In his controversial World Bank report ''Accelerated development: an agenda for action,'' Prof. Elliot Berg argued that internal factors such as poor pricing policies and inefficient government-controlled farming organizations were the main reasons for the agrarian crisis.
Reappraising the report two years after publication, Professor Berg said the prolonged economic recession now gave greater weight to external factors. But he maintained that bad policies such as overvalued currencies, which allow cheap food imports and discourage local production, are still the main problem.