Africa’s Corn Monocultures and the Global Commodities Market





[Crossposted at Future Challenges Organization]

How does the increased diversion of corn for biofuel production affect African farmers?

The history of corn in Africa can be traced back to the early 1500s, when Portuguese explorers recorded the cultivation of what they termed „zaburro“ or „mehiz“ (derived from the word „maize“) on the Cape Verde Islands. Corn, or maize, is indigenous to what is now known as Mexico, where it was cultivated by the Maya and Aztec. In some parts of West and East Africa, corn supplanted the roles of sorghum, millet and rice in local diets. It is versatile- eaten in the early stages of ripeness, boiled or roasted and even dried and ground for staples like ugali in East Africa and kenkey in West Africa. The continent of Africa is unique in that most of the corn it produces is consumed by humans, compared to North America and Europe where corn is used as livestock feed. However, corn monocultures and the diversion of corn toward biofuel production in the dual contexts of climate change and fickle global commodity markets pose risks to food security on the African continent.

In Malawi, corn occupies 90% of cultivated land and 54% of Malawian caloric intake. Among Malawians, a popular Chichewa saying is „’chi mango ndi moyo’ („Corn is our life“) and a favorite variety of corn is called „chimango cha makola“ (literally ‚maize of the ancestors‘), in spite of its origins in North America. The Kiswahili word for corn is „muhindi“ (literally „the grain of India.“) In West African Hausa and Fula dialects, the word for corn are derived from the root „masa,“ suggesting that corn was‘s eastward origins in those areas. All of this linguistic and dietary evidence suggests the centrality of corn in the lives of Africans.

Corn is a particular plant. It does not thrive in dry environments and in tropical areas, it is subject to rot. Corn monocultures are particularly vulnerable to weather patterns, water shortages and lack of nitrogen in the soil. Corn‘s sensitivity to water shortages is of especial import in parts of East Africa that suffer from periodic drought. Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are recognized to be in a food security crisis. Eighty five percent of Ethiopia‘s rural population are subsistence farmers living on less than 1USD a day and nearly 10 percent of Ethiopians rely on food aid. Corn monocultures in areas subject to drought are disastrous to farmers and local markets, but unfortunately, they are more common than not.

Why have corn monocultures been on the rise since 2006? One possible answer is the use of corn as a biofuel. At the beginning of 2006 and midway through 2007, the price of corn doubled due the rapid increase in the price of oil and gasoline. To be precise, the increase in oil and gasoline prices pushed up demand for ethanol, a solvent that is often added to gasoline. In this period, it waspredicted that Ethanol would oust oil in the fuel market. Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, is a clean-burning fuel that has been lauded as an alternative to petroleum-based fuels. Ethanol is formed in the fermentation of cane sugar (some converted from starches) with yeast. Similarly, ethanol can be produced from corn biomass through industrial fermentation. In addition to serving as an alternative fuel to gasoline, it is used as a solvent in varnishes and paints.

However, as farmers in Africa shift toward corn monocultures, they are vulnerable to environmental shocks (climate change) and global market demand for their produce. As most small farmers on the African continent are women, this has implications in for gender equity among Africans. Additionally, the diversion of corn from the food supply toward biofuels has been a major factor in the increase in global food prices. As a result of the increase in corn prices, demand for grains like wheat has gone up, driving up the price of wheat. In South Africa, where up to 60 percent of arable land is used to cultivate corn, the African Center for Biosafety(ACB) has expressed concerns over the inclusion of corn in South Africa‘s biofuels policy. Citing the fickleness of global commodity markets and the possible resultant food insecurity, ACB‘s Haidee Swanby stated:

 „“The use of maize as feedstock for agrofuels has contributed to massive hikes in the price of food on the global market. The 2008 global food crisis was largely attributable to the diversion of maize in the US to ethanol production.”

This sums up the dilemma. At present, the promise of cleaner fuels comes at the detriment of the global food supply.  World Bank estimates suggest that global agricultural production needs to increase by 70 percent by 2050 in order to feed a population of 9 billion. On a microeconomic level, farmers who cultivate corn monocultures are subject to the effects of climate change and the whims of global commodity markets. In northern Kenya and Ethiopia, where food insecurity, drought and water shortages are recurring problems, the corn is a risky crop to hinge one‘s livelihood upon. The challenge here is to produce alternatives to petroleum oil-derived fuel without decreasing the food supply (thereby raising the price of foods) and sacrificing global food security.



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