Thursday, October 15, 2009

Al Gore's Bullshit Won't Make the Crops Grow

Today is Blog Action Day, where lots of blogs around the world all write about some aspect of climate change. I'm all for promoting environmental and climate change issues but I noticed that, pretty late in the day, Al Gore got involved in the initiative. I'm sorry that an otherwise worthwhile sounding effort feels the need to be associated with a loudmouthed freeloader who jumped on the environmental bandwaggon when his political career went off the rails. I suppose there'll always be Gores and the like, who attach themselves to something that allows them to promote their own interests.

Anyhow, developing countries like Kenya are going to bear the brunt of climate change and are probably already feeling the effects. There have been prolonged droughts in many areas for some time now. The El Nino rains are due to start soon, which may resolve some of the short term problems. But they may also increase the problems. If the rains are too heavy and result in flooding, crops that are planted could be washed away. There has already been flooding in several areas, with loss of life and livelihoods and a lot of people being displaced.

The Kenyan government has done little to alleviate the problems and probably a lot to exacerbate them. The much talked about Mau Forest, where large scale logging over a long period has probably resulted in a massive reduction in water tables, is still being destroyed. True, the government has very publicly evicted small settlers in the forest but they will not quickly reverse a problem that took such a long time to develop.

Over several decades, people have been persuaded to grow things for export, such as flowers, tea, coffee, fruit and vegetables. This sort of farming has done a lot of environmental damage. But also, these are cash crops and they are not used to benefit ordinary Kenyans. They will not solve the food shortages because they are produced by rich landowners, often foreigners, who expect big profits.

What Kenya needs now, and what they have always needed, is food security. They need to produce enough staple crops for the domestic market and ignore the advice they seem to get from foreign interests to keep concentrating on exports. Feeding Kenyans should be the priority.

The Kenyan government is belatedly talking about things like providing fertilizer at low cost. This may help some large scale farmers but it is unlikely to help small farmers, the majority, who only produce enough to provide for themselves and perhaps for a modest surplus. Some of them are planting right now in the expectation that rains will come. If the rains come, great. But if there is not enough rain, the crops will be destroyed by the use of these artificial fertilizers, just as much as they would be if the rain failed altogether.

This kind of intervention is typical of the sort of short term thinking that has made small farmers increasingly vulnerable as the years go by. Small farmers need also to consider organic waste, household and farm waste, whatever is available. Artificial fertilizers may be of use in the short term, especially to large farmers, but even they eventually end up destroying their land.

But small farmers can least afford this process of land degradation. To keep their costs and their losses low, they need to use cheap or free materials. Because, even if they don't have to pay much now for artificial fertilizers, they will still have to bear the costs in the long run. The production and use of artificial fertilizers is part of the problem, it will never be a sustainable solution. It may not even be a short term solution.


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