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Africa Must Wake Up to the Reality That Hunger is Now a National Security Issue

| August 14, 2012

The world food outlook for 2013 looks grim as a result of the worst drought in the United States in 50 years. The prospects of a repeat of the 2007/08 food price spike that fuelled violent protests in countries such as Egypt, Cameroon and Haiti are real.

The political consequences of the drought are likely to be worsened by the global economic downturn.

The US drought and the impending political ramifications is a reminder of the urgent need for African countries to define continuous agricultural innovation as a matter of national security.

There is ample evidence around the world to support such a move. India is one vivid example. It was concern over the political ramifications of another major famine that prompted the country to adopt the Green Revolution in the 1960s. Without it India's agriculture would have stalled, sparking political instability.

At the time, the Green Revolution was a new idea fraught with risks. But the country took a calculated risk, balancing between the dangers of political unrest and the possible negative impacts of the revolution. But political courage prevailed and India chose to manage the unknown risks of the new technology rather than the known risks of political chaos.

Today's world is more complex. The tools available to India in the 1960s are not sufficient to address the challenges that African agriculture now faces. These include a rapidly-growing population, productivity loss due to ecological disruption, environmental decay, droughts, climate change, and conflict.

Biotechnology offers additional tools that can help Africa address some of these challenges. It is another moment that calls for the kind of political courage that led to the adoption of the Green Revolution. Like the 1960s, Africa is grappling with how to integrate biotechnology into its farming systems.

The Indian Green Revolution focused on raising the yields of rice and wheat. Biotechnology is already being used, not only to improve food production, but also to revive industrial crops such as cotton. This increases income and helps to enhance food security.

Furthermore, cotton has a long value chain, with benefits going to agriculture, industry, and services.

Unlike India, which adopted the Green Revolution with little prior evidence, there is considerable experience around the world on which Africa can base its decisions. Agricultural biotechnology is already being adopted by farmers worldwide at an unprecedented rate.

The experiences are not limited to direct food production. In India, for example, biotechnology cotton has helped the country to transform itself from a cotton importer to the world’s second largest producer of the vital fibre.

The current US drought and the global economic downturn present compelling opportunities for African countries to focus on agricultural innovation. But unlike India, which had only major technology at its disposal, Africa has a much wider range of technological options to choose from. Biotechnology itself is more versatile than the Green Revolution was in the 1960s.

The case for biotechnology needs to be made in the context of broadening the agricultural tool box. This includes the use of other approaches such as organic farming, where it is appropriate. It also means stepping back from partisan debates to more pragmatic strategies that focus on practical outcomes rather than rhetorical victories.

Biotechnology and other complementary information technologies will raise social and political concerns. This is not new. What is important is to have a more realistic assessment of the risks of doing nothing, which include national security concerns.

The choices open to African leaders are clear. Doing nothing, especially in an age of expanding democratic enlightenment, is no longer an option. What cannot be done in an orderly way in Cabinet meetings will be done in a chaotic way in the streets.

The good news is that the sources of urgency are clear, there are lessons to learn from, and technological opportunities are within reach. India showed the power of political courage in the 1960s. Africa needs to do the same now.

Prof Juma teaches at Harvard Kennedy School and is author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous.“Africa Must Wake Up to the Reality That Hunger is Now a National Security Issue.” The Daily Nation, August 14, 2012.

The Author

Calestous Juma