Subsistence Agriculture Key to Sustainability


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The following article is reproduced from Third World Network Features. It was originally published in Resurgence
(No. 254 May/June 2009) in the UK.  


With best wishes,

 Third World Network
131 Jalan Macalister,



                                                                                                                  May 2009


While the world plunges into crises, subsistence farming in Africa holds the key to sustainable agriculture production, not only for the region but also other parts of the world.



By Tewolde B. G. Egziabher

            I am from Africa, and you also came from Africa, albeit genera­tions before me. I bring you all masses of love from your original mother, Africa.

            It is usual for the young, especially in Europe, to look at the old, includ­ing their parents, as if they are past it; as if they are ready to be buried and forgotten. Therefore, it is not surpris­ing to me that other continents think of Mother Africa as hopeless and view Africans as permanently hungry.

           Yes, there are hungry people in Af­rica. But there are also hungry people in Europe, and in every other conti­nent, for that matter. And, yes, the pro­portion of hungry people is probably the greatest in Africa, but I want to tell you why. 

            Africa is where all humans came from. Therefore, Africa is the conti­nent that has fed humanity the longest. Our lore regarding food and feeding is massive in Africa. Nevertheless, thanks to the centuries of colonial and neoco­lonial plunder of resources and people, Africa is the least populated of conti­nents. So Africa, of all continents, has the greatest potential to feed her resi­dent people. Why, then, does the image of hunger in Africa persist? 

            To answer this question, I want to take you back to the 1950s when the industrialisation of agriculture started in the violently dominant countries of Europe and then America. The in­dustrialisation of agriculture requires, among other things, a high popula­tion density. This is because of its need for both a large market and a well developed transportation and market­ing infrastructure. 

            The low population density of Africa meant that, because of its less well-developed transportation and marketing infrastructure, small quan­tities of subsidised food “dumped” on Africa by Europe and America easily disabled its internal small food mar­kets. Africa‘s non-mechanised agricul­ture thus remained at a subsistence level and never developed intensive agricultural production. 

            Now, the industrial agriculture of Europe and America, and recently that of Asia, is increasingly in crisis. It is polluting the land, the water and the air such that agricultural land is de­grading fast, water is becoming un­safe for humans and for most of other forms of life, and polluted air is trap­ping the sun’s radiation to the extent that the whole biosphere is warming up. Global food production risks fail­ing to adapt to the changing climate. 

            This risk is growing in spite of the lure of “quick fixes” for all agricultural problems claimed by genetic engi­neers. Fossil fuels, on which the indus­trial culture, including industrial agriculture, depends, are running out. The rich banks of Europe and America are collapsing and gov­ernments have had to buy up some of their assets. The agreements of the World Trade Organization, which encouraged the dumping of subsidised foods in Africa‘s ur­ban centres, now, hold little au­thority. Indeed, negotiations on these agreements have been stuck since the Ministerial Conference in Seattle failed in 1999. I would not be surprised if the World Trade Organization were now to simply fade away. 

            But we must, all the time, have food to subsist on, and the subsist­ence farming of Africa is now the most intact of all agricultural sys­tems precisely because industrial agriculture has bypassed it. So, the more-or-less intact African subsist­ence agriculture can become a ref­erence point from which to base sustainable global food produc­tion, whilst ensuring it is compat­ible with the health of the entire biosphere. 

            For a start, subsidised food dump­ing in Africa must cease. The depend­ence it creates by destabilising Indig­enous agriculture is the main reason why the proportion of hungry people in Africa is now so high. But it will take only a few growing seasons for the ru­rally intact subsistence food production systems in Africa to fill in the gap cre­ated by the cessation of food dumping. 

            A new form of sustainable agricul­tural intensification is already taking place in Africa. This started in four lo­cal communities in the badly degraded north-eastern highlands of Ethiopia. Members of each local community met and analysed their environmental and agricultural problems. They then developed their byelaws to determine what each community would do, and elected their own leadership to oversee the implementation. They built terrac­es and bunds to prevent soil erosion; they restricted their animals to specific areas and fed them crop residues so as to allow grass, shrubs and trees to maximise growth in the rainy season, and vegetation cover improved dra­matically in just one rainy season. They could then harvest the grass and add hay to the crop residues to feed their animals sufficiently. 

            The increased availability of animal dung and biomass waste made it possible for them to make and apply compost on their respective fields. Soil fertility improved and so did crop harvests. Rainwater percolated through he improved soil structure and began recharging the water table more fully. Springs and streams began to flow again and strengthen, allowing irrigation in the dry season, which increased food production further. Trees that had disappeared owing to land degradation began returning in subsequent rainy seasons. Farmers enriched the resurgent tree cover with the species of their choice, usually fruit trees and leguminous trees for both fodder and soil enrichment. 

            Starting from just these four communities, the practice is now expandi­ng throughout Ethiopia. In November 2008, the African Union organised a conference in Addis Ababa, preceded by field visits, to extend these innova­tive and sustainable practices to the rest of Eastern and Southern Africa. 

            Of course, I am not implying that the corporations that have plunged the world into unsustainability will simply give up. They will not, but Africa‘s subsistence agriculture could be the basis for the much needed intensification of sustainable food production, not only in Africa, but throughout the world. 

            The time has come to learn from the wisdom and practical knowledge of the people whose continent gave birth to humanity. We will then be able to incorpo­rate the globally resynthesised industrial culture of its most im­petuous species, Homo sapiens, into a more healthy form of develop­ment that will sustain life robustly to the end of time. Third World Network Features 


 About the writer: Tewolde B. G. Egziabher is the Director Gen­eral of the Environmental Protection Au­thority of Ethiopia, and co-founder of the Institute for Sustainable Development.

The above article is reproduced from Resurgence, No. 254 May/June 2009. It is based on a speech given at the opening ceremony of Terra Madre, Turin, Italy, October 2008.

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