After decades in which the population was continuously on the edge of famine, and following a disastrous harvest in 2005 when more than a third of the population needed emergency food aid, the Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika said that enough was enough, and re-introduced fertiliser subsidies – the first sub-Saharan country to do so.
As a result, agricultural production more than doubled in 2006, and trebled by 2009 as fertiliser use doubled. By 2007, Malawi was exporting its surplus corn to Zimbabwe and Kenya, unthinkable just two years earlier. When I visited Malawi in 2010, the country had closed the grain gap from eight months (time during which the granary stores are empty) to two months, and some had two months’ surplus. In going against the World Bank, Malawi created a production level that dragged its people out of starvation. The programme was curtailed in 2011, but a dozen countries are now following Malawi’s lead.
There is no doubt that African farmers need access to synthetic fertilisers if they are going to catch up with the rest of the world in crop production (that is, close the yield gap) and preserve their wild spaces from slash and burn. But a truly successful outcome for Africa, and the world in general, would be to see agricultural yield per hectare increased with minimal environmental impact and in a way that can be sustained as the climate becomes less conducive.
So when I hear the passionate views about whether farming should be entirely organic and GM-free, or entirely industrial-scale with the efficiencies of synthetic tools, my response is that it will be all of these things.
The answer is to use fertilisers in a far more efficient and better targeted way, so that just the right dose is given to each plant with minimal run-off or waste – a concept known as micro-dosing. And to eat less meat so that the protein in the crops we fertilise is used in the most efficient way.
Meanwhile, traditional methods should be embraced. Farmers reap multiple benefits from planting nitrogen-fixing trees and hedgerows around their fields, for example, while also sowing the most effective crops for the area, climate and soil type – whether that be GM rice or conventionally bred cassava - rather than vast grain monocultures. With an enormous variety of crops, fields and farmers, there will be a variety of different practices used (including the investigation of wild-type relatives of staple crops), and we will need this variety in the coming decades.