Saturday, January 17, 2015

Non-viable ag technologies in Africa

This is an article about a joint effort between Dupont and 4H (the youth agriculture club) to bring 4H programs to youth in Ghana and other countries.  The article is ostensibly about how Dupont and other such companies may be using US government programs to get a toehold in promising new markets, in this case by using 4H program youth as free advocates for Dupont Pioneer seed.  This is a valid concern. 

But as an agronomist, and specifically a systems agronomist who studies how peasant farming systems work, there is something else that jumps out at me from this article; at current price points, the input-intensive agriculture that Dupont is promoting through Ghanaian 4H clubs just isn't economically viable in the prevailing context.  Simply put, if the seeds you plant (not to mention the herbicide you spray and the machinery you rent) cost more than the final product you sell, then you are not going to use those seeds (or herbicide, or machinery).  Another way of looking at it is that the current, "primitive" practices of the peasant farmers are in fact much more productive and profitable than the model Dupont and 4H are pushing.

If I proposed to someone a business venture that would require more up-front investment than the final payout, that person would laugh in my face.  That person would think I was a fool for even proposing the venture.  However, in the interaction between peasant farmers in postcolonial countries and glossy, rich-world ag companies, it seems that it's the farmers themselves who assume they are fools for not being able to make the venture work.  The cultural dynamic is such that peasant farmers find it more reasonable to assume that the farming systems that have sustained their family for generations are inherently inferior to a farming system that isn't even sustainable in the first generation.  At least that's what's depicted in the article.  I'm sure there are plenty of farmers in Ghana who quickly see that the Dupont 4H model of agriculture is a fool's venture, but they're not quoted here.

In this case, if Dupont's prices really are indicative of their cost structure, then for now their hybrid seed will never be viable in Ghana's current farming context (it would be different if the seed were an open-pollinated variety, which can be replanted multiple times before you have to buy new seed, and which would thus allow farmers to amortize the up-front seed costs).  The only way it might be workable for a Ghanaian farmer to use Dupont's seed is if Dupont lowers seed price (which would assume that right now they're charging an artificial, gouging price), or for Ghanaian farming to totally flip its structure to resemble more closely US farming conditions--large expanses of land farmed by one farmer and a bunch of machines, which might facilitate lower per-hectare costs in other areas so as to permit the assumption of high seed costs.  But that would represent a drop in net wealth creation per hectare as compared to the present system, and would only be workable if all the farmers displaced by machinery found better-paying jobs in the cities. 

Given all this, it seems that Dupont's model would be a great fit for Ghana today, if only Ghana today were actually the Midwestern US in the 1950s!

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