Professor Pedro Sánchez of the Columbia University’s Earth Institute was one of the scientists Mutharika chose to heed despite resistance from most of Malawi’s international donors.
“We had a meeting with the newly elected president, Bingu wa Mutharika," Sánchez recalled in an interview with TakePart. "The guy told several of us, ‘Hey, I didn’t get elected to be a beggar nation, and right now we’re begging for about 45 percent of our food. Do you have any suggestions?’
“We said, 'Yes, sir. Subsidize fertilizers and hybridized seeds.' And he did it.”
Within two years, Malawi went from famine to food exportation. Now the fertilizer subsidies have caught on among neighboring countries—10 are testing similar policies, including Tanzania, Nigeria and Zambia. Faced with the evidence of success, USAID, the World Bank, and many European donors are putting their support behind subsidy programs.
Not without its drawbacks, of course.
A major criticism of the Malawi model is that it encourages farmers to turn to a single staple crop (and yes, it's corn, in case you were wondering...). Horticulturist Linda Larish notes that the traditional Malawian staple, a taro-like plant called manioc, has largely been abandoned by farmers switching to imported hybrid corn.
“Even though they are self-sufficient and can grow their own food, they are at the mercy of the seed and fertilizer companies,” Larish says.
Not by coincidence, Malawi’s policies gave Monsanto a foothold for its hybrid maize in sub-Saharan Africa. Is it philanthropy, PR, or simply shrewd business?
Many people I know are ambivalent about Monsanto. When the Gates Foundation invested in the Monsanto, for example, The UK Guardian couldn't but ask why:
Seattle-based Agra Watch - a project of the Community Alliance for Global Justice - was outraged. "Monsanto has a history of blatant disregard for the interests and well being of small farmers around the world… [This] casts serious doubt on the foundation's heavy funding of agricultural development in Africa," it thundered.
But it got worse. South Africa-based watchdog the African Centre for Biosafety then found that the foundation was teaming up with Cargill in a $10m project to "develop the soya value chain" in Mozambique and elsewhere. Who knows what this corporate-speak really means, but in all probability it heralds the big time introduction of GM soya in southern Africa.
The two incidents raise a host of questions for the foundation. Few people doubt that GM has a place in Africa, but is Gates being hopelessly naïve by backing two of the world's most aggressive agri-giants? There is, after all, genuine concern at governmental and community level that the United State's model of extensive hi-tech farming is inappropriate for most of Africa and should not be foist on the poorest farmers in the name of "feeding the world".
Monsanto responded to the questions raised in this Guardian article. And it looks like China's trying to get in on the GMO act with their 20 new organizations devoted to hybrid rice seeds and such. Only time will tell just how destructive all of this, but I foresee lots of land issues in African countries' futures from all this, none of which will be to the benefit of small farmers' livelihoods.