A Food Insecure Nation And Her Impoverished Farmers: Who Truly Cares?
Hunger and poverty are not new to the world. Throughout man's history, the scarcity of food has brought pain, misery and most times death upon people. The cry of many today is still “give us this day our daily bread”. Regardless of the order of magnitude of hungry people living in hardest hit areas experiencing severe famine today, we must never forget that, it started with one person feeling hungry, and then it spread to a family, then whole community, until the situation became uncontrollable. One hungry soul in a given community should be sufficient enough to strike at the conscience of every civilized man or woman in that community.
In today's world, which is hungry for both bread and peace, the vital role of agriculture, food production and supply cannot be over-emphasized. The answer to the unending cry of many for bread and a better life has a strong connection to agricultural technology. This is the simple truth which has eluded the many movements against agricultural technology. The smart nations in the world which we all regard as developed or advanced, were able to do so by providing first for their citizens unhindered access to safe food and the creation of wealth through a carefully planned deployment of agricultural technology. Certainly, for any nation to achieve these two primary objectives of agriculture, that nation must first recognize the indispensable role science and technology play. In our country today, misplaced agricultural policies have in effect made the practice of modern agriculture almost impossible, due to the high cost associated with the deployment of modern agricultural technology. The vast majority of our farmers therefore continue to engage in 10,000 BC agriculture, thereby making it more of a hobby, rather than a business, many of whom are still wallowing in abject poverty in our rural areas.
Hunger and poverty are the outward manifestations of any nation with a mushrooming population which still practice 10,000 BC agriculture today. The different transformations agriculture has undergone in many places in the world were all geared towards achieving the above core objectives in a more sustainable way. Any person with a fair knowledge about the intricate components of achieving food security and wealth creation through agriculture would never join the chariots of anti-science zealots, whose main goal is to vehemently oppose advancements in agricultural technology.
Bringing this home, from the onset of the discourse on plant breeders' rights and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Ghana; many opponents have sought to discredit and downplay the rationale behind their integration in Ghana's agriculture. These opponents continue to wage a war of propaganda instead of rationale arguments on the core subjects under contention. The strategy of these opposition movements is akin to the cunning and devious strategy of some of our current world politicians, who endlessly appeal to the emotions and sentiments of the general public in order to win their support. They always come in the shadow of seeking the interests of the poor Ghanaian farmers, but deny and vigorously oppose the technologies that would empower the farmers to create wealth.
But if I may ask, who truly cares for and seeks the interests of the poor Ghanaian farmers, whose unproductive farming ventures have plunged our nation into a state of food insecurity? As it is popularly known, figures don't lie, but liars always figure, I have therefore resorted to use some figures reported by our Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA), to help any well-meaning Ghanaian to give a sound judgement devoid of sentiments and emotions.
In MoFA's report on Agriculture in Ghana: Facts and Figures as at 2010, Ghana occupies a total land area of about 24 million hectares, out of which 57% (equivalent to about 14 million hectares) is regarded as agricultural land. In other words, this proportion is fit for agricultural use. More than half of the available agricultural land (i.e. 58% or about 8 million hectares) is already under cultivation. After cultivating more than 50% of our available agricultural land, we are still not even self-sufficient in food, let alone achieving food security, and therefore rely heavily on food imports to supplement our domestic production. If we are to rely on these figures to formulate policies that would improve our food security and also create wealth through agriculture, then obviously, it would be unwise to advocate for farmers to expand their farm acreages to new lands, even if land is still available. Unfortunately, this is the message being trumpeted by these anti-agricultural technology zealots on the various media platforms as the way forward.
The above mentioned figures clearly show that, crop yields for our major food staples are woefully low. Thus, in order to boost our domestic food production, we must begin to consider increasing food productivity per unit land area. So an obvious question is, how can a farmer who is cultivating one hectare (ha) of maize (1ha = 100m × 100m) for instance, increase his/her crop yield from 15 bags of 100 kilograms (kg) each to 60 bags of 100kg each (four-fold increase), using the same farm size?
To depict how sad our farmers' situation is in Ghana, let's do a simple comparison using maize as an example. The average maize yield in farmers' fields is reported to be about 1.5 tons per hectare, compared to about 8.5 ton per hectare in the United States of America. With the same farm size, the American farmer is getting five times what the Ghanaian farmer is obtaining, so why won't our farmers be poor? According to MoFA, the total land area under maize production in Ghana is reported to have increased from 697,000 hectares in the year 2000 to 992,000 hectares in 2010 (about 42% increment). The total maize production reported was about 1 million tons and 1.8 million tons respectively for 2000 and 2010; an increment of about 800,000 tons. However, if average maize yields on farmers' fields had increased from 1.5 ton per hectare to 6 tons per hectare, the nation would have recorded a total maize production of about 4 million tons using the same land area cultivated in 2000. Thus, without increasing land area under maize production to 992,000 hectares, the nation would have still made a surplus of about 3 million tons of maize grains (considering a per capita maize consumption of 44 kg/annum for 25 million people). If we are able to achieve this, our nation will become a net exporter of grains instead of a net importer. We are importing food from nations which have used this strategy to boost their food production and we continue to enrich the farmers in those nations at the expense of our own farmers, how sad?
The notable factors contributing to the low yields reported by our farmers include crop variety type, low soil fertility, pest and disease incidences and water stress. These negative factors besetting food production will always be present, so finding a sustainable way to mitigate their effects is highly paramount. The most important among these factors is the crop variety type, because this determines to a large extent the quality of the seed the farmer is planting. Through the science of crop improvement (both conventional breeding and genetic engineering), we can develop crop varieties that have the innate potential to produce high yields, and have the inherent capacity to resist pest and diseases, and are more tolerant to drought conditions, among other benefits. This has been achieved in advanced countries through a complementary approach of conventional breeding and genetic engineering. The only way a farmer can benefit from the application of a fertilizer for instance, is to plant a crop variety that can efficiently translate the added soil nutrients to economic yields.
We must exploit all current available technologies using a complementary approach to develop new improved crop varieties that are far superior to existing ones in the hands of farmers. The fear mongering and the demonization of agricultural technology by opponents must cease and we must trust those trained to make a good choice in the best interest of our nation. Let now, the good people of our nation judge who truly cares for the poor Ghanaian farmer and our food insecurity.
Alexander Wireko Kena
The author is currently a Doctoral student in Plant and Seed Molecular Biology at the South Dakota State University, Brookings, USA. He is also a faculty member of Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Faculty of Agriculture, KNUST, Kumasi, Ghana. He holds a BSc. degree in Agriculture from KNUST, Kumasi, and MSc. degree in Crop Science (Plant Breeding option) from the University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria.
Plant Molecular Biology Lab.
Department of Plant Science
South Dakota State University
Brookings, SD 57007
E-mail Address: [email protected]