|Seb's maize. Photo Richard Mulonga|
The maize is towering over a sea of vigorous weeds. In some cases the greenery has pulled down the stalks and it is almost hard to believe there will be any harvest out of that field. Seb Scott, however, assures me that his maize will yield some 7 tons per hectare. The weeds are actually intentionally planted Lablab beans (Dolichos lablab). Seb is growing maize without machinery; i.e. he and his partner hand-hoe the fields, or just sow by hand in the mulch with an ingenious piece of tube. They also grow organically; instead of using government subsidized fertilizers he use green manure crops to supply nitrogen to his plants.
|Some of the Mkandawire children eating their breakfast|
Seb is not the only farmer I visit this day in Zambia in the end of April 2012. My first visit went to Fred and Susan Mkandawire. They grow maize on a hectare of land and they harvest a ton, just enough to keep the family alive. Maize is what they eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They don’t starve, but their margins are very small. It seems that they can sell a surplus of 250 kg, worth around 50 dollars this year, which is far from enough for the school fees for the five children. The Mkanadawires are using chemical fertilizers and work totally manually on their farm.
|Godfrey Boma and his sunflower, Photo: Richard Mulonga|
When he stands next to his great organic sunflowers, it is hard to believe that Godfrey Boma is 81 year old. After all, life expectancy in Zambia is below 40 years. Godfrey is a former miner and small business man who became a farmer at an age where the normal Swede stops working altogether. His and his wife Katherine’s farm is 9 hectares of which 4 hectares are farm land. He uses own oxen for plowing. A better – and more timely - land preparation, better weeding and higher use of chemical fertilizers are all contributing to that he harvest around 5 tons per hectare of maize - more than double the national average. That is five times as much as Fred and Susan, but still less than Seb.
Godfrey also has a plot of organic production, Instead of the monoculture of maize which is typical for conventional maize production (such as Mkandawire’s and his own) the organic plot has ten different crops in smaller plots or grown together (so called companion cropping). When I asked how organic and non-organic compares, he says: ”It is 50-50. Organic is nice, there are no problems with disease, I don’t use any chemicals and have less cost. But it is more work”.
The visits show that it is possible to increase yields a lot. It is possible to do it with conventional methods and it is possible to do it with organic methods. It is possible to do it in a small scale farm or in a large scale farm. It also shows that poverty, in the sense of limited resources, as for the Mkandawires, is most likely a cause of low productivity in farming, rather than low productivity being the cause of poverty.
Zambia has been used as an example of successful agriculture policy, a proof that with more fertilizers one can produce ”more food”. Perhaps there is limited success on that count, even if the Ministry of agriculture’s own research shows that most of last years high yields crops can be explained by good rains.
Zambia’s agriculture budget is to a very large extent orientated to subsidies of chemical fertilizer and government procurement of maize, to a price considerably above world market prices. And clearly it works in the sense that it results in increased maize production. Anything else would be highly surprising. Higher prices will lead to higher production, as it pays to use more resources for the same piece of land. As we can see above productivity per hectare can increase with different production methods. Fertilizer probably plays a marginal role for the increase of maize production in Zambia. In 2010/11 Zambia had a bumper crop of maize, and the result is that Zambia has a stock pile of more than 1 million ton, when the new season starts. The minister of agriculture, Emannuel Chenda tells the Post (May 1) that the huge surplus is a challenge, but continues by saying ”I am aware of that potential markets exist beyond our region in places such as the Horn of Africa. He doesn’t seem to understand that there is no shortage of food in the world; the people of the Horn of Africa simply can’t buy it, as little as the poor in Zambia. The Zambian Farmer reports in their April issue that a very big proportion of the maize stock pile is simply rottening. Approximately a third of the maize in stock has gone to waste in bad storages. The authorities are now burning the rotten maize to make space for the new crop!
Many are critical to the fertilzer support:
”A ‘one size fit all’ approach to fertilizer and seed regardless of differences in agro-ecological zones and soil types has been responsible for poor yields per hectare experienced each year. All farmers are made to plant the same variety or range of seeds (short maturing or medium maturing or long maturing) using same type of fertilizers (D-compound and Urea) despite agriculturists knowing that differences in soil fertility require adjustments in input applications. This has resulted in significant drop in yield against yield potentials to as low as 10 bags per hectare against the potential 50-70 bags.”
says Action Aid in a report.
Daniel Kalala from the Kasisi Agriculture Training Center says that ”fertilizer subsidies is the number 1 election campaign strategy”. Others point to the rampant corruption involved in the program. The Farmer Input Support program costs Zambia 700bn Kwacha per year (some 133 million dollars). This is enough to buy more than 500,000 ton maize – enough to feed some 2-3 million Zambians. By only supporting maize production with fertilizers and seeds, the government induces bad management practices (mono-culture) as well as bad nutrition of rural families, as they will grow more maize and less of other crops.
All those issues aside, the story of food and who gets it and who doesn’t has very little to do with agronomic issues or with the use of more GMOs, or more fertilizers. The farms I visited show that it is access to resources (including know how) as well as markets that is most important for the productivity of the land and not if the farm is organic or not. How we farm is still a very important issue for how we maintain and enhance our social and natural capital, When it comes to food, distribution is a much bigger challenge. And distribution, in turn, has a lot to do with markets. And markets don’t distribute food to those that have no money to buy for.