June 18, 2008

News Flash!

This just in . . . . fertilizers make plants grow!  

Ok, nothing new there but that seems to be the gist of this article in the Christian Science Monitor entitled, "How a Kenyan Village Tripled its Corn Harvest."  If you added a question mark to the end of that title I would have answered, "Throw a lot of money and fertilizer at local farmers," and that is pretty much what the Millennium Village Project, which the article profiles, is doing.  The MVP is the brain child of Jeff Sachs and my skepticism is by no means the first criticism that it has received.  The article focuses primarily on agriculture so I will too, here is an excerpt:
"No one is arguing anymore whether you can double production through input subsidies to small-holder farmers in most agricultural environments across Africa," says Glenn Denning, director of the Millennium Development Goals Center in Kenya. "We now have the evidence from the Millennium Villages that Africa holds tremendous potential to actually be the supply response to the global food crisis."
Who was arguing this in the first place?  Again, if you've got enough money and fertilizer you can increase yields anywhere you want for a limited period of time.  And that's the rub.  Limited.  Eventually the money runs out, no one supports an unsustainable project forever, and eventually the nutrient requirements of your soil outpace the inputs which you can acquire and apply.  The problem isn't usually how to increase yields but how to do so sustainably - in every sense of the word.  A model of agricultural production that attempts to turn Africa into the corn belt seems preposterously naive and intentionally oblivious to the changing tides and limiting factors in global food production.  

I like the idea of the MVP as a laboratory for ground level development efforts but I wish they were more grounded in reality and the complications of scalability and sustainability.  This is particularly true with agriculture.  There are significant areas of production that they could be focusing on: water conservation, soil enrichment with organic matter, seed selection, collection and storage, and the integration of local markets with regional markets.  Unfortunately these final comments from the article are more telling than they realize:
A number of other African countries are now waiting for the funding to implement a similar national program, including Tanzania and Rwanda.

"We need to move very quickly and get a financing mechanism so that these countries can access funds to pay for seeds and fertilizers and train extension workers," says Denning.

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