Oxfam should get serious about malnutrition: Africa needs roads and nitrates

A road in KwaZulu-Natal

A recent UK Times opinion piece by rational optimist Matt Ridley has really hit the nail of the head about food security, linking together many issues that are repeatedly tackled at this website.
The value of fertiliser.
The needs of Africa.
The tragedy of NGOs that harm  people they want to help.
Problems and delays caused by of tying up innovation with over-zealous regulation.
Even the dangers of manure, with the risk of diarrhoea and death from faecal germs like pathogenic E. coli, as exemplified by the dreadful disaster playing out in Germany at the moment.
Oxfam are indeed trying genuinely hard to tackle the big and complex issue of food security. At least they understand there is a problem with the supply of food. Others chant incessantly the inane phrase “but the world has plenty of food”, as if the food supply automatically keeps pace with the ongoing growth in global food demand driven by population and wealth increases.
But Oxfam get things so wrong about technology and innovation.The bigger tragedy is that they are not alone in this, but that’s another story.
Matt Ridley: Why Oxfam Is Wrong On Food The Times, 2 June 2011,  UK

Oxfam’s chief executive, Dame Barbara Stocking, claimed this week in a BBC interview that there will “absolutely not be enough food” to feed the world’s population in a few decades’ time.

…The truth is that even as the human population has doubled since the 1960s, calories per person have increased by about one third. Of course, those calories are not all in the right place, and Oxfam is right that it is a scandal that obesity and hunger coexist on the same planet, but the solution is plain: get fertiliser to poor African farmers and get their goods to market so both they and their customers can afford to eat. If Oxfam were really serious about malnutrition, it would stop writing reports about corporate greed, climate change and the need for world governance and start trucking nitrates.
That’s roughly what others have done. The Swiss scientist Ingo Potrykus identified vitamin-A deficiency as one of the biggest causes of childhood disability and death, so he invented — free — “golden rice” with genes from daffodils in it. Fifteen years later it is still tied up in red tape, thanks to disgraceful lobbying from environmental pressure groups. Bill Gates identified childhood diarrhoea as a top priority and set out to tackle it via the Gates Foundation.
Speaking of which, the diarrhoea epidemic that has afflicted 1,000 Germans and killed 16, wherever it originated, is a timely reminder of how life used to be when we relied on manure and human “night soil” to fertilise our crops. There was a reason your Victorian ancestors ate less salad than you do: recycling even cattle manure, let alone human sewage, carries risks. With modern, high-tech precautions, organic farming can produce safe and tasty food for the rich in the West, but it is nothing like so safe elsewhere.
Nor can it feed the world’s current population, let alone the nine billion of 2050. Because organic farmers have to grow their nitrogen fertiliser rather than fixing it directly from the air, they require a lot more land. If the world were to try to generate as many calories as it does without artificial fertiliser, it would need an extra five billion cattle grazing 20 billion acres of extra pasture. As an Indian biologist, C. S. Prakash, said to me once: “Sure, organic agriculture is sustainable; it sustains poverty and malnutrition.”

Matt Ridley is the author of The Rational Optimist
The full opinion piece is at his website here.
The Scientific Alliance, UK have this to say

3rd June 2011

Is the food production system broken?

Oxfam believes it is. The headline on their web page makes their case unambiguously: “The System’s bust: It’s not just drought. Or famine. Or a bad harvest. Rising food prices, climate change and complacent world leaders mean nearly 1 billion people don’t have enough to eat.” This is accompanied by a picture of a traditionally-dressed African woman, holding some grain in her hands, against a background of barren earth. And to emphasise that this is a major campaign, the photo was taken by Rankin. He is joined by a modest galaxy of other celebrities – including Scarlett Johansson, Kristin Davis, Helena Christensen and Zoe Ball – to launch a report which underpins the new Grow campaign,Growing a Better Future.
Development charities, despite the undoubted good work that they do and the idealism and commitment of their supporters and staff, have become big business. The star-studded launch of Oxfam’s report represents a further step in what might be called the Bono-isation of development policy. In an increasingly sophisticated and competitive arena, charities have to compete for our money with emotional messages, but often backed up with research reports which provide the intellectual justification for their appeals.
Few people actually read the reports (indeed, it takes a bit of searching even to find a link to Oxfam’s on their website). But it is important that they are looked at critically. People making donations deserve to know that their money is being used constructively. And, by this, I don’t mean that trying to help people get enough to eat is not a very deserving cause, because it clearly is. But we need to ask why they are going hungry and how to best tackle the root causes.
If food was equally available to all, there would be enough to feed everyone adequately. FAO figures show that food availability per capita has actually been increasing, from 2,250 Kcal per person per day in 1961 to 2,800 in 2003, over a period in which the population more than doubled. Plant breeding – particularly the work of Norman Borlaug and colleagues in developing semi-dwarf wheat and rice varieties – and better use of fertilizers and crop protection products enabled the green revolution in the 1970s and harvests have grown steadily since.
Food production is not really the issue, although the need to perhaps double yields yet again over the next half century will certainly provide challenges. But there are real issues of inequality of distribution. Discussions of malnutrition usually conjures up an image of sub-Saharan Africa, but the greatest number of the roughly one billion who are chronically hungry are in South Asia. India in particular has grown rapidly in recent years, spawning a large and relatively prosperous middle class. But it still has a stubbornly high rate of malnutrition, particularly among children, despite high-profile government intervention (for more detail, see Putting the smallest first, from the Economist).
The problem is almost entirely one of poverty. Poor mothers are often anaemic and poorly fed themselves and give birth to underweight babies who in turn are malnourished. Stunting occurs in the early years of life and cannot be reversed, leaving adults less capable of productive work and so continuing the vicious circle. Poverty leads to malnutrition and malnutrition leads to poverty.
Despite continued moral pressure on governments to increase their aid budgets, the overall positive impact has been difficult to see, although there are doubtless cases where it has worked. There have been serious criticisms expressed over many years, most recently by the African-born, former World Bank consultant and Goldman Sachs employee Dambisa Moyo in her book Dead Aid (see‘Everybody knows it doesn’t work’, an interview in the Guardian).
Moyo, however, accepts that targeted aid from charities can make a real difference to people, while pointing out that much of Africa seems to have gone backwards despite $1 trillion dollars of aid since WWII. What, then of the Oxfam campaign?
Their analysis defines three major challenges:
• The sustainable production challenge: we must produce enough nourishing food for nine billion people by 2050 while remaining within planetary boundaries;
• The equity challenge: we must empower women and men living in poverty to grow or to buy enough food to eat;
• The resilience challenge: we must manage volatility in food prices and reduce vulnerability to climate change.
It is easy to agree with the broad thrust of this, but the danger is that Oxfam is trying to reform an entire system, and in a rather prescriptive way. So, to quote from the report:
“Achieving the vision for 2050 requires a redistribution of power from the few to the many – from a handful of companies and political elites to the billions of people who actually produce and consume the world’s food. A share of consumption must shift towards those living in poverty, so everyone has access to adequate, nourishing food. A share of production must shift from polluting industrial farms to smaller, more sustainable farms, along with the subsidies that prop up the former and undermine the latter. The vice-like hold over governments of companies that profit from environmental degradation – the peddlers and pushers of oil and coal – must be broken.”
This is uncompromising politics, pushing all the radical buttons in a few lines. Fortunately, such tub-thumping is not found on every page. But there are certain built-in assumptions, not least about the concept of sustainable intensification. This term has become widely used since the publication of the Royal Society report Reaping the benefits: Science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture. But, whereas this report essentially supported the application of the best available science to grow more food on the same land area, Oxfam seem to have hijacked the term to propose a lower-input approach. For example “Use of animal and green manure reduce dependency on expensive inorganic fertilizers, the price of which is linked to oil.
Undoubtedly, there are many regions where pitifully low yields could be improved very significantly by relatively low-tech approaches such as rainfall capture, inter-cropping and use of manure. But to get close to the far higher yields regularly achieved in Europe – and this is what will be needed to meet the food security challenge – this is not enough.
Neither is it enough to criticise the hold that big business has on the food system. The intensification of agriculture over the past half century is what has made possible the relatively high level of food security most of us enjoy today. Yes, the number of undernourished people is far too high, but it has remained at a similar number over the same period. The system which Oxfam condemns has reduced the percentage of malnutrition dramatically.
What remains is not the fault of some malign international conspiracy, and nor will it be solved by a centralised redistribution of wealth. Those who contribute to Oxfam should see their money being used to help poor farmers support themselves and their families by having access to the best farming technology they can use. The system isn’t broken. It doesn’t need fixing. Targeted interventions to allow families to be self-supporting and make their own decisions about the future are the way out of the relentless cycle of poverty and dependency.
The Tele says this
The solution to rising food prices? How about – nothing at all

1 June 2011
We’re all going to starve, apparently. Well, some of us, anyway. Food prices are surging, and not just because of a one-off commodities spike. According to Oxfam, the price of such staples as cereals will rise by between 120 and 180 per cent over the next twenty years. “Yea, the hind also calved in the field, and forsook it because there was no grass. And the wild asses did stand in the high places, they snuffed up the wind like dragons; their eyes did fail, because there was no grass.”
Oxfam’s proposed solution? Politicians should step in and regulate food prices. It is, of course, the eternal function of NGOs to demand that The Government Must Do Something; but surely even Oxfam has noticed that famines tend to occur in places where food production is regulated…..more at link.


  1. What if growth in resource extraction of all sorts–mineral ores, natural gas, etc.–has reached its zenith and is about to decline. If that were the case, would the kind of development program outlined in the article make any sense? I mean, should we really be getting farmers hooked on imported fertilizers? Should they focus on export markets to earn income, or regional markets?
    Just asking.

  2. Why imported fertilizers? South Africa has coal for example.Coal will be viable to make fertiliser for a long time And why is the cost so much higher for the small-hold African farmer. More importantly what are the opportunity costs lost by them not having access to cheaper nitrate of ammonia

  3. It is probably cheaper to make urea where there is cheap natural gas and ship the urea by water than to make it in South Africa from coal. Ammonia from natural gas has lower GHG emissions (slightly) than from coal. Nigeria has abundant oil and abundant natural gas. Nigeria is still flaring gigantic quantities of natural gas. That would be easy to capture and convert to ammonia, all it would take is capital (and good governance).
    Essentially all developed countries have their own ammonia synthesis industry for reasons of security. Ammonia is needed for food production but also for the production of armaments (smokeless powder and explosives). These countries wouldn’t allow their domestic ammonia production to be displaced offshore to where there is abundant natural gas.
    To make explosives you need nitrates which are made via oxidation of ammonia. Armament security requires nitrates, fertilizer security does not. If you are going to make nitrates, ammonium nitrate is the easiest and cheapest solid high N fertilizer to make. Urea is more expensive and takes a separate plant. Ammonium nitrate is a pretty good explosive all by itself and is the favored material to make IEDs out of.

  4. Hey, I have an idea! Legumes. Plant legumes in rotation with food crops. Legumes fix nitrogen from the air (via a root symbiosis with a bacteria).
    This way you can bypass the natural gas or coal to nitrogen step entirely! (And the whole notion there’s plenty of this stuff is probably incorrect, especially if you model any growth in usage. Including S. African coal).
    Seriously, agriculture is often so poorly managed in Africa even legume rotations are frequently not done, and it may not even be understood that this can be done by local farmers. (Of course, the same could be said in the US.).

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