Ghana’s new agriculture policy is leaving behind its smallholders

In a recent meeting at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Ghana, we were presented with the designated Minister, Dr. Owusu Afriyie Akoto’s plans for what the new government is going to offer its farmers: Planting for Food and Jobs, a Campaign for Rapid Growth.

The plan makes grand claims to promote growth in food production and create 750,000 new jobs through a focus on five areas: seed, fertilizer, extension services, marketing and e-fertilizer. The growth will come from five main food crops maize, rice, soybean, sorghum and vegetables and in the north of the country where I work, the focus will be entirely on the first three: maize, rice and soy. Notably, yam, millet, livestock and other animals are not included, as well as other natural resources like shea.

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Women’s shea production and processing group, Ghana

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African yam mounds

The campaigns focus on getting every Ghanaian to grow food for the country is reminiscent of the 1970s Operation Feed Yourself policy that focused on Green Revolution development approaches only without the focus on mechanization and a renewed emphasis on seed and fertilizer. A novel feature is that local district assemblies will have a main coordination role alongside the local Ministry of Food and Agriculture units. We will wait to see what support to strengthening local government systems will be provided beyond hiring new extension staff proposed. The National Buffer Stock (NAFCO) will be reinvested in, operating as the market, storage and processing option. We also wait to see if support for operations is budgeted for and not just infrastructure maintenance.

Most worryingly is that the government is only registering ‘lead farmers’ those who have 10 acres or more of one of the targeted crops. In a place where virtually all farmers are smallholders who grow many crops to meet a diverse diet and reduce risk, government extension have expressed concerns about who the government is targeting and how their services will shift. As one extension staff said in the meeting, “I bet we won’t even get up to 100 farmers registered for the entire district”. Since farmers are registered for where they are farming and not where they live, it is likely that most of the farmers registered will not be those in the rural communities, but business men from the city or government staff who have the capital to rent and prepare land, hire labour and access inputs on a medium scale. Moreover, it is likely that women (especially those who do not inherit land) and the ‘teeming youth’ will not have the ten acres needed, leaving them behind.

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The extension staff I work with perceive their jobs to be about developing smallholder livelihoods and rural communities and in the meeting, they began strategizing about how they could register them so they are included. One suggestion was through the registration of groups of smallholders (farming based organizations), like cooperatives where they could aggregate land. But, no, individuals are only allowed. Others suggested registering smallholders with plots next to each other, but under one name. I can’t help but think about the deep mistrust between smallholders and government and the potential community conflict that could arise because smallholders’ land, rented tractors and hired labour are already being monopolized by these business men who can afford to pay more at the necessary time. Now the government is supporting them, not the smallholders.

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This campaign for rapid growth is worrying because where there is rapid growth, there tends to be rapid inequality and rapid environmental degradation. There seems to be a mismatch between what the government, NGOs and the private sector sees as the future of agriculture in Ghana and what smallholders themselves want. Chemical fertilizer for example is being widely adopted by smallholders, and government (with pressure from farmer lobbyists) have subsidized the cost from around 100 GH cedis to 85 GH cedis per 45 kg bag to reduce costs. However, smallholders have issued concerns to me about the impact this fertilizer usage has on soil health and the quality of food produced. Those both near and far away from town are reluctantly adopting fertilizer because of desperation and they perceive themselves as being addicted to these expensive chemicals. The improved, shorter varieties of seed provided produce more in times of erratic rainfall, but the quality of produce and ability to withstand drought is also a problem perceived by smallholders. We will also wait to see what kinds of seeds are encouraged in the future and perhaps the renewal of hybrids and other non-open pollinated varieties smallholders are not willing to adopt will make its way back in the name of growth. Moreover, the focus on e-extension and e-fertilizer was tried and failed last year because of the technical and literacy problems across the country. We await to see what new innovations are provided to combat this.

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After all, it is the medium scale farmer who is willing to invest and depend on these inputs year after year to generate surplus, moving on when the soil is dead, but not the smallholder who needs to think about sustaining her subsistence and existence first – food quality, diversification and environmental sustainability.

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Smallholder farmers in Ghana

Development concentration: When non-profit and for-profit efforts in agriculture converge

With recent talks about the impact of corporate concentration in the agro chemicals and seed industry sparked by the move of Monsanto to Buyer, I have been thinking about what the potential impacts of ‘development’ concentration could be for smallholders.

In case you did not hear, the seed company Monsanto was recently taken over by Bayer, a large pharmaceutical company. Monsanto is commonly associated with GMOs, but also environmental degradation and lack of business ethics in the way their products and services impact family farmers. One way Monsanto’s products, research and services plans to break the poor brand and reputation is to morph into a larger corporation with the hope to change the image of GMOs. This is discussed in a CBC The Current podcast here.

But, what do seeds and chemicals have to do with each other?

A lot of the seeds developed by Monsanto require pesticides. Monsanto has been trying to partner (as mentioned in this article at The Guardian here) firstly, and unsuccessfully with Sygenta. Dow and Dupont is another example of a company, which controls 40% of the corn and soybean market in the US. Related, ChemChina has also purchased Syngenta giving it the largest handle on the agricultural chemical market. The reality is that mega-mergers like this are happening because of low interest rates and cheap borrowing since the financial crisis.

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What is the big deal about these corporate mergers? – It will negatively affect smallholders

Corporate consolidation of input agribusinesses also concentrate power, where they can lobby governments to shape the political economy. Government favouring large scale, industrial agriculture will disenfranchise the smallholder who prefers to save their seed, diversify farms and practice agro ecology.

Smallholders in northern Ghana where I am doing research have explained a reality that they haven’t told their government policy makers or civil society groups because of the lack of trust and perceived poor representation: They don’t want to use chemicals or hybrid seed (especially not GMO) that these corporations are providing or funding, whether foreign or locally bred. Smallholders claim that the chemicals make their physical health and soil sick and reduces the quality of their food.

These smallholders felt pressured to adopt chemical inputs and are now addicted to using them because of the lack of fertility in the soil and lack of alternative agro ecological practices and technology resulting from land and labour pressure. Shifting their open pollinated variety of seed to hybrid seed, where they can no longer save their seed each year makes them further dependent on corporations that their government is supporting. This is all something smallholders have been resisting for decades, but articulate to me that they have been left with little choice for alternatives.

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The Second African Green Revolution

 There has been renewed interest in what has been perceived as the failure of the first Green Revolution in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, where farmers refused to adopt ‘modern’ technologies, such as improved seed and chemical inputs to intensify their farms. However, in northern Ghana the 1980s was the height of the agriculture sector where the country was producing enough food for self-sufficiency and export. I have been told that even smallholders owned assets, were producing on much larger tracts of land and used many best planting practices, such as dibbling and spacing. But with the onset of Structural Adjustment Progammes and the liberalization of agri-food markets (including cheap food importation), allowing for foreign investment and privatization of inputs that have been increasing prices and consolidating good quality land, the Second Green Revolution in Africa is perceived as even more problematic by smallholders then the first.

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So, what are ‘development actors’ doing exactly? – Private sector growth

Something that became apparent to me on my last visit to Ghana and has sparked my reflection by the recent corporate mergers is the uniformity of agriculture development efforts. Governments, non-profits (like USAID’s Feed the Future programmes), and agribusinesses like Wienco (Masara N’Arziki) seemed to be doing the same thing in similar ways. They are striving to intensify smallholders through Green Revolution technology provision and market integration. As explained in this webinar here by IFPRI and Rockefeller Foundation on the importance of intensification of smallholders for food security. The Government of Ghana has recently established the national fertilizer subsidy program and set up a number of public seed research units (CSIR / SARI) supported by USAID to improve varieties. USAID focuses their efforts on the agriculture value chain connecting all types of agribusinesses to provide inputs to farmers. Wienco imports new kinds of technologies and provides them to farmers and does so in a viable business model.

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I have been told the only difference between what is being done now to support farmers in comparison to the 1980s or the first Green Revolution is that there is a strong focus on market integration and that all efforts are led by the private sector, even if government is involved. This is communicated as an improvement, as development, but the costs of inputs are perceived to be too high and the loans impossible. Undoubtedly, there have been improvements, hunger rates have been decreasing as people have access to cheaply, imported food and storage has greatly developed with a lot less food wastage.

Although in theory sustainable intensification practices that account for a triple bottom line in agribusiness: environment, social justice and growth are proposed, this is not what is happening in practice in northern Ghana. Especially since, from what I have seen, none of these actors directly support agroecology. For example, by developing manure markets or subsidization as opposed to just chemical intensive ones. To be fair, the intercropping of soya is proposed as a nitrogen rich alternative that is more nutritious, but this does not actually address the inequitable power relations within an agri-food political economy by depending on an unregulated input market, cheap grain imports, labour migration and land consolidation. It kind of ignores the problem.

I have also been told by different staff at all three of these organizations that they find it difficult to work with smallholders. Smallholders often do not fulfill contracts or promises and ‘abuse’ their partnership by diverting inputs to other plots, lying to them about their yields and practices and sometimes go as far as burn their fields. I am told they are unreliable and reliability is the most important thing in a business model and value chain.

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Artificial flavours imported that are cheaper and easier

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Dawadawa – is a preferred spice, which comes from  a tree, but I have been told it is being dropped in favour of imported ones because of cost and ease with related negative health consequences

We need to ask why are smallholders resisting the Second Green Revolution (as with the first)?

Perhaps it is because the smallholders feel what is on offer (Green Revolution technology) is not useful and might actually create more harm than good to their environments –it’s not really that green (unless you count drought resistance?). This might also not meet their farming mental model, which differs than the business one. Perhaps it is because they do not like the terms of the agreements set by the unregulated private sector. Perhaps it is because they see the corruption of both the public and private sector through the catering to the business men and not the family farmer. At least this is what they are explaining to me.

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GMO food is ‘Generally Missing Observation’ & Why Smallholders in Africa are so Against Growing it

To all of the converted – to those who turn to the quick, technical solutions of GM food for saving the ongoing food crisis – there is something you should know.

We actually have enough food in the world to feed everyone (FAO, 2014).

Those who are often the hungriest tend to be farmers (Watts, 2013).

Despite all of the gains we have made in technical improvements (we are producing 17% more food per person than we did 30 years ago) close to a billion people are hungry and this number has not changed for decades. In some regions, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the situation is getting worse.

So if hunger and malnutrition still exists despite improved technology and food production to meet the growing population, than what is going on? Why are so many people still hungry?

Like any technology, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) do not exist in a vacuum. Whether they are successful in increasing food production by deterring pests and insects, or add nutritious elements to the crop itself, this is by no means something that farmers want to grow or consumers want to eat.

Worse still, there is actually very little research conducted about GMOs. The recent article we published here finds very little evidence pointing to the health, environment or political economic gains from biotechnology.

Food for thought

In this paper we ask important questions about equality issues: will an innovation cause unemployment or migration in rural communities? Will the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? Have the negative impacts of an innovation been considered?

Uribe, Glover, and Schnurr’s (2014) contribution makes clear that contextual factors such as governance and policy frameworks, credit availability and seed markets, as well as local agro-ecological factors such as insect pests, shape food security outcomes of GMO technology.

So what is the actual evidence?

Evidence of positive gains from GMOs in Africa:
– In a most recent meta-analysis, Klümper and Qaim (2014) details that herbicide-tolerant crops have lower production costs although insect-resistant crops have higher seed prices.

– Production levels of GM crops for herbicide tolerance rose by 9 and 25% above that for insect resistance. For example, average yields for GM cotton in South Africa from 1998 and 2001 were 25% higher than for conventional cotton with average increased earnings of 77%. Additionally, in Burkina Faso Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton hectares increased by 126% in 2010 from the level in 2009. According to Clive (2013), biotech cotton in low- income countries increased the income of 16.5 million smallholder farmers in 2013, including success in India (Kathage & Qaim, 2012).

Despite the few positive studies, evidence of gains for most is quite mixed and uncertain. If one thing’s for certain, an overwhelming majority of farmers have collectively organized against GMOs across the continent of Africa. Particularly against the private-sector-led agriculture investment strategies for food security that pushes GMOs.

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The evidence supporting farmers concerns in Africa are many:
– Cases exist where industrial agriculture pushed by large corporate investment and their respective technologies have contributed to a decline in community development and environmental conditions (Patel, Torres, & Rosset, 2005) because they have no mechanisms or incentives to ensure basic rights (Carney, 2012; Patel et al., 2005, p. 430; Shepherd, 2012; Yengoh & Armah, 2014)

– Related neoliberal economic models of deregulation policies to allow for technology have weakened government services that regulate markets, which push vulnerable smallholder farmers to give up farming and migrate (Kuuire, Mkandawire, Arku, & Luginaah, 2013).

– The focus on technical and short-term fixes by public–private partnerships shifts funding away from fundamental structural problems (DFID & Wiggins, 2004).

– Even the focus on incorporating the smallholder farmer into the value chain has been found to work for only the top 2–20% of small-scale producers, who are often only men (McKeon, 2014, p. 10) and typically excludes farmers themselves in the planning process.

-Generally, smallholder farmers are unable to afford traditional agriculture technologies and especially not the more costly new biotechnology (Patel et al., 2005).

– Due to the monopoly of power on biotechnology by certain major corporations, GM crops would result in the costs of inputs increasing and the diversity of seed choice declining (Shiva, Jafri, Emani, & Pande, 2000).

Terminator technologies ensure that farmers must either purchase new seed for each season or buy chemical keys to activate bioengineers’ crop traits, which will also put certain farmers at a disadvantage.

– Engineered genetic constructs may contaminate other farms unintentionally (Bailey, Willoughby, & Grzywacz, 2014).

-Leakages of GM crops into the food and feed supply have been reported with Prodigene corn, Syngenta Bt10 corn, and Liberty Link rice pointing to larger implications if done in places with poor infrastructure regulation (Bagavathiannan et al., 2011).

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In current political economic conditions, should we really be pushing this stuff?

So even though there is some positive evidence that points to increasing yields and lowering production costs for farmers in Africa, the political economy of production (cotton in South Africa for example) has resulted in inequitable profit-sharing, coerced eviction, and widespread indebtedness of farmers (Witt, Patel, & Scnurr, 2006). It is unclear in the range of studies accounted for in the meta-analysis (Klümper & Qaim, 2014) whether these factors are considered and how they relate to food security or nutrition.

“When are you people going to stop coming into our continent with your recipes for solving our problems rather than supporting our own solutions?” – USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah in Rome in May 2012 speaking to the National Alliance. (McKeon, 2014, p. 13)

Policymakers, planners, donors tend to blame farmers for being ignorant, backward, lazy and low to uptake the technology. The implication is that farmers do not know what is good for them. That they do not understand the vision for modernization and progress for the future of their agriculture systems and food security.

However, perhaps it is the farmers who know what is best for their own farms.

The bioethical concerns over GM crops and other biotechnology needs to be situated in the much wider related issues of poverty, inequality, and social justice that puts the smallholder farmer at the centre of analysis, which is why debates of biotechnology must be understood within the broader context of neoliberal agrarian policies.