Reuters (via AgBioView)
By Christine Stebbins, Reuters
May 20, 2009

Agricultural experts looking at Africa’s enduring problems with food shortages and famine say hunger is unlikely to be solved there unless political stability returns to allow investment to flourish. "Investment is not going to flow into unstable areas. It is not going to flow into poorly governed areas no matter what the natural resource space is — it’s just not going to happen," J.B. Penn, chief economist with equipment maker John Deere <DE.N> and former USDA economist, told a round-table at the World Agricultural Forum here this week.

"First and foremost, we’ve got to get the political system right. Then investment will follow. With the investment comes the technology," Penn said.

Africa, as it has for decades in the post-World War Two independence era, continues to be the leading destination for world food aid shipments but also for deaths from famine.

Political chaos in Zimbabwe that turned the nation from a grain exporter to a hunger crisis is often cited by investors. "Particularly at risk of widespread famine are over a dozen so-called "left-behind" countries, almost all in sub-Saharan Africa, that feature severe and increasing natural resources constraints coupled with high population growth and limited nonagricultural income possibilities," the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said on May 4.

With the recession in rich countries, there are few fresh infusions of investment capital flowing into Africa, with much of the recent investment coming from private foundations funded by Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett and the Rockefellers, experts say. Gary Blumenthal, chief executive of agricultural consultancy World Perspectives, told the forum: "Only 10 percent of all foreign direct investment around the world went into the food category. If you look at agricultural production, it was 0.006 percent."

Investment to transport grains and livestock and improve water and irrigation are key to Africa progress, experts said. But a big part may come down to a four-letter word: seed.

"What is the single most important thing that we can do tomorrow to improve food security in Africa? The answer is very clearly seeds. It is something that is available and farmers can grow everywhere," Aline O’Connor Funk, an agricultural consultant in Sub-Saharan Africa, told the forum.Funk said there are three major seed research and development areas that are simply bypassing the needs of Africa — germ plasma, seed treatment and biotechnology. "The best hope for food security and land sustainability is tied to seeds," Funk said.

Agribusiness representatives agreed that political stability was key for investment but government regulations on issues like trade restrictions and biotechnology were also barriers that deter private capital flows into Africa.

"We would increase some of our investments in some of these African countries. But it’s really about the unpredictability of barriers of technology — also the unpredictability of whether in one season or another an export ban will go in," said Devry Boughner, director of international business with Cargill Inc. While South Africa allows in some biotech seed varieties that can help fight weeds or drought and pests, many African nations still bar the technology, citing human health fears.

But Gerald Steiner, executive vice president of Monsanto <MON.N>, the top producer of genetically modified seeds, said attitudes within Africa seem to be changing as they have watched India double its cotton production using biotech seeds.

"We are seeing a number of countries — Uganda, Tanzania, Egypt, Mali, Ethiopia — advance biosafety regulations. So things are starting to move in Africa," Steiner said.