CHEMRAWN XII kicked off its scientific program today with a dramatic and recent account of how chemistry can ensure food security for some of Africa’s hungriest villagers, courtesy of Pedro Sanchez, an agronomist at the Earth Institute at Columbia University and an architect of the food component of the United Nations’ Millenium Project.
Africa is the only region in the world in which average per capita food production has fallen steadily over the past 40 years, according to the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization. The situation is particularly precarious in sub-Saharan Africa, where poverty, nutrient-depleted soil, and an unruly and unpredictable water supply have left millions of people unable to feed themselves.
Chemical fertilizers and improved seed varieties might help. But even though “you can buy a Coca-Cola just about everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, you simply can’t buy seed and fertilizer,” Sanchez said. Access to and subsidies for seed and fertilizer could lift starving African farmers from hunger, he argued.
As evidence, Sanchez pointed to Malawi’s recent and rapid transformation from food-aid recipient to food-aid donor. Just three years ago, the perennially poor and hungry country was scorched from drought and as many as 5 million of its citizens relied on foreign-supplied food aid to survive. In 2006–07, however, Malawi provided 10,000 tons of food aid to Lesotho and Swaziland.
Malawi’s dramatic food surpluses came about because the Malawi government, tired of begging for aid, decided to buck World Bank strictures and subsidize urea and other fertilizers as well as improved maize seeds for some farmers, Sanchez argued. Better rains helped the cause along but can’t explain the dramatically improved yields of those farmers who got the subsidies, he said. “Better rains are not enough when a nation suffers from critical deficiencies in soil nutrients.”
Malawi’s transformation “came down to chemistry,” noted Piet Steyn of Stellenbosch University, an organic chemist who organized CHEMRAWN XII. He hopes that the chemical research and technologies discussed here this week will have a similarly positive effect on sustaining food supplies throughout Africa in the years ahead.