Agent Shakwei Mbindyo
posed a question for us all here
: should smallholders in African countries grow food to export to Europe? In her comment Agent Jen Shaffer expanded the question: she knows that many African nations export flowers to Europe. Are either one of these, or both, a good idea for Kenya and Kenyans? Shakwei asks, does "food miles" or other environmental concerns make this a bad idea?
It's a complex issue that many people are passionate about (read the comments). Many people strongly believe that Kenya has the right to participate in global trade. I certainly don't disagree, but I fear that argument misses the larger point. Six observations and questions:
1) Tulip mania (in Wikipedia
). By which I mean that markets change. If Kenya commits itself to growing food or flowers for export, how likely is it that the market for these goods will change? How well is Kenya able to compete in this system? How resilient is Kenya if its market does ebb or collapse?
2) Old potatoes, new potatoes. An article in the March 13 issue of The Economist titled "Green Shoots
" describes how McCain Foods is converting over Indian farmers to a new type of potato that's suitable for the industrial approach of India's McDonalds restaurants. (India's common potato varieties "are too small, watery and sugary, caramelising when fried.") The comments
capture various views about this development. Does Kenya want to teach its people how best to fit into the needs of a global system? Are there other ways to get knowledge about horticultural improvements to its people, ones that don't displace traditional knowledge and culture?
3) I just read recently about biologists combing old homesteads
in the American West, looking for heritage apple trees. Once upon a time, there were thousands of cultivars of apples in America, each suited to different growing conditions; the biologists were hoping some of those cultivars could still be found. If Kenya begins to grow export foods, what will it no longer be growing? How many years of horticultural knowledge might be lost?
4) Household agriculture. In his article about Haiti in Harper's Magazine, Steven Stoll notes some statistics about modern "subsistence agriculture." He writes, "Of Uganda's 32 million people, 24 million – or 75% – work their own gardens. In 2007, Uganda's commercial and household farmers harvested 9.2 million tons of plantain, 4.4 million tons of cassava, 2.6 million tons of sweet potatoes, 615,000 tons of bananas, 732,000 tons of millet, 1.3 million tons of maize, and hundreds of thousands of tons of sorghum, beans and potatoes. Through the 1980s, a remarkable 44% of Ugandan GDP came from outside the money economy, and more than 90% of these exchanges involved household agriculture." By focusing on foreign capital, is Kenya turning its back on a more readily accessible, less risky, more sustainable type of economy?
5) The truth about food miles. People often feel that "food miles" (the distance a particular food has traveled, or more generally the amount of energy it takes to bring you your food) is purely an environmental cost (and what harm can one more jumbo jet exhaust cause?). But the truth is that's only a small part of the story. "Food miles" is a quick, readymade index to the link between energy cost and supply and your food, and is thus an index to the insecurity of your food system, whether you be the grower or the buyer. It's a clue as to how much infrastructure must exist (refrigerated warehouses, airplanes and trucks; regular shipments; monocropping, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and so on) for the system to work. Especially in the case of energy, will you be able to continue in a world where energy and carbon footprints will undoubtedly get more expensive? Is it possible that you are taking on a market that European suppliers have foreseen is doomed?
6) Buy fresh, buy local. I myself might buy Kenyan tea; I will not buy Kenyan fruit, vegetables or (especially) flowers. I enjoy meeting the people who grow my food or my flowers, and knowing when I give them my money where that money is going. If I buy Kenyan fruit so much of it goes places I know not, to people I know not, and so little of it goes back to Kenya. And as Jen Shaffer has pointed out, a large portion of the actual cost of bringing me that fruit or flower is going poof! up into the air for our children to pay, with interest.
So that is my (long) answer to Agent Shakwei and to Kenya; I hope there may be some wisdom in it for you to find!