Predicting a Brighter Future for Africa


When the latest edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac came out last fall, it predicted drier-than-normal weather for the corn-growing states in 2008. I’ve never placed much stock in these super-long-range forecasts. The meteorologists often can’t even tell me if it will be sunny on Saturday, let alone what the rainfall will be like in July and August.

Yet predictions that use the phrase “drier-than-normal” always concern me. Here in Iowa, farmers depend upon abundant rainfall. We can withstand a season that’s a little below average in the precipitation department, but never look forward to it. If we don’t get enough water from the sky, our crops don’t produce well.

The thing we dread most of all is the D-word. If I were superstitious, I probably wouldn’t even utter it. Drought is a farmer’s worst nightmare. No amount of careful planning or finely-tuned equipment can quite prepare you for it.

The good news is that if one region of our country suffers from abnormal dryness, other parts of the nation often pick up the slack: In the developed world, we’re never at risk of an actual famine because we enjoy substantial food security thanks to an economy that’s fundamentally strong even during downturns. We’re so good at feeding ourselves that more people worry about obesity than hunger.

The same can’t be said for other parts of the world, where famine is a real dilemma. A drier-than-normal growing season isn’t merely a threat to farmers, but to whole societies. Human lives literally hang in the balance. The prospect of global warming (from whatever the cause) threatens even more challenging conditions in the not-too-distant future.

Recently, a news report said that 60,000 coastal Kenyans currently “face starvation” due to crop failure caused by drought.

That’s why I’m so encouraged to learn about a new project called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA). It’s a public-private partnership to develop drought-tolerant corn for the world’s most impoverished continent. More than 300 million Africans depend upon corn, mostly grown by small-scale farmers, as their main source of food. During any given year, it’s almost inevitable that some portion of them will deal with poor growing conditions from a lack of water.

WEMA is a collaborative effort that brings together the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, companies such as BASF and Monsanto, and the governments of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and South Africa. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation have committed $47 million to the project. (Howard Buffett is the son of financial guru Warren Buffett and a long-time acquaintance of mine)

The plan is to breed new varieties of corn that can withstand dry spells in uniquely African conditions. The groups hope to accomplish this through traditional breeding as well as biotechnology. Although BASF and Monsanto are for-profit corporations with fiduciary obligations to their stockholders and employees, they have agreed to work without royalty.

WEMA’s goals are both ambitious and realistic, according to a press release: “The partners estimate that the maize products developed over the next 10 years could increase yields by 20 to 35 percent under moderate drought, compared to current varieties. This increase would translate into about two million additional tons of food during drought years in the participating countries, meaning 14 to 21 million people would have more to eat and sell.”

The enemies of biotechnology probably will issue all of their usual complaints about this arrangement. They will do so from the comforts of the developed world, where they never go to bed hungry. If their own countries suffer from drought, they’ll survive it, possibly without even noticing. A combination of advanced agricultural practices, modern infrastructures, and international trade promise to keep them well fed.

It’s hard to see how any rational person could object to this union of non-profit groups, private companies, generous philanthropists, and democratic governments. By working together as WEMA, they hope to alleviate suffering through modern technology.

If there’s an Old Farmer’s Almanac for Africa, perhaps the next edition will predict a brighter tomorrow for its readers.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology.

Dean Kleckner

Dean Kleckner

Deceased (1932-2015)

Leave a Reply