Science in Society Archive

I-SIS miniseries - Hidden Lights at the Earth Summit, Sept 2002

The official World Summit on Sustainable Development has failed by all accounts, which is hardly surprising. But all is not lost. This miniseries brings you some of the many highlights overlooked by the mainstream media.

  1. Africa Unites Against GM to Opt for Self-sufficiency
  2. Green Revolution Pioneer Supports Small Farmers
  3. Canadian Farmers Against Corporate Serfdom
  4. Ethiopia to Feed Herself
  5. Launching Convention on Knowledge at Earth Summit

Ethiopia to Feed Herself

Ethiopia and famine have become synonymous ever since Bob Geldorf's Live Aid Concert 17 years ago brought the plight of starving Ethiopians to the world stage. Not anymore. At the Earth Summit, Dr. Mae-Wan Ho learned how Ethiopia is on her way to self-sufficiency through sustainable agriculture practiced by small farmers. This gives the lie to the claim that GM crops are needed to feed the hungry.

According to government statistics in Ethiopia, the total summer season production in 2001 was estimated to give everyone 469 grams of cereals, 43 grams of pulses and 11 grams of oil crops a day. Adjusted for the spring rain production, which adds some 10%, the figures become 526, 48 and 12 respectively.

Root crops, ignored in the statistics, are an important part of the Ethiopian diet. Enset, Ethiopia's most important root crop, probably gives an additional 120 grams per person per day of Kotcho, food made from harvested enset.

The food available to every Ethiopian is equivalent to a total of 223 165 calories per day, which is well above the minimum caloric requirement of an average European male, of 70kg body weight. This does not include fruits and vegetables, which form an increasingly significant part of the Ethiopian diet, nor does it include animal products.

In 2000, there were 33 million cattle, 11 million sheep, 8 million goats, 28 million chickens and three million beehives in a country with an estimated population of 65 million.

Ethiopia is also one of the world's major centres of origin and diversification of crops. More than 100 crops species are cultivated, but production statistics are available for 'major' crops only, leaving out more than 80 crop species. Thus, the actual food production and per capita energy available for Ethiopians are much higher than official estimates.

This matches the low prices charged for food in July 2002, which indicates that food must be readily available, if not plentiful. July and August is the planting and weeding season, so food tends to be most expensive then.

But that still doesn't mean that every Ethiopian goes to bed with a full belly. The problem is the lack of infrastructure such as roads for transport and distribution.

A report from Ethiopia's Environment Protection Agency points out that the country has suffered repeatedly from foreign interference throughout its history, which resulted in civil war and unrest. The worst famine occurred between 1889 and 1892 when the Italians introduced Rinderpest from India while forcing their way into Ethiopia. This killed most of the cattle in a country where oxen have been and still are the essential draught animals.

Ethiopia had been feudal and decentralized, and it was feared that the decentralized governance could provide an opening to European infiltration. The government in Addis Ababa began to marginalize, and often forcefully disband local community organisations, so land management started to deteriorate. High input agriculture led to the loss of topsoil and other land degradation.

The disturbances started by Europe in the 19th century affected neighbouring countries such as Somalia and Sudan. Many internally displaced Ethiopians and refugees from neighbouring countries add up to millions of people who have no means to grow their own food, nor money to purchase food however cheap.

That's why millions of Ethiopians go hungry even when production is high and the market is full.

The effort to intensify production through the application of chemical fertilizers has increased since 1995. But it has not significantly affected the average yields of the major crops. And especially with grain prices being very low, those farmers who had used credit for buying chemical fertilizers are finding it difficult to repay their debt.

In 1995, the Institute of Sustainable Development, Directed by Dr. Tewolde Egziabher, carried out an experiment jointly with Ethiopia's Environment Protection Agency, which aimed at stimulating four local communities in Tigray, Northern Ethiopia, to intensify production as they know best, but with composting being introduced as a new technology. The smallholder farmers were reassured that the government would not interfere with their community-level decisions or their management of the environment. Each local community developed its own statutes. The results were remarkable.

In one local community, it was possible to compare the impacts of different inputs.

Comparison of effects of different inputs, in kilogram/hectare
Crop No input Compost (C) Chem. Fertilizers (F) Difference (F- C)
Teff 790 1710 1840 +130
Barley 920 2390 2580 +190
Finger Millet 760 1850 1570 -280
Maize 1760 5040 7100 +2060
Faba Bean 940 2310 not used
Field Pea 730 1700 not used

Composting increases yield two to three times, comparing favourably with chemical fertilizers, and in the case of finger millet, out-performs chemical fertilizers. What the farmers now realize is that the effect of chemical fertilizers disappears often even before one season is out, while the effect of compost is cumulative over several consecutive years.

"Our experience in all four communities is that the farm and its immediate vicinity, together with domestic animal dropping give enough compost for intensifying food production without incurring any debt." Dr. Sue Edwards from the Institute of Sustainable Development said.

Million Belay, also from same Institute, reported the results at a side-event organised by the Third World Network. "The best improvement is in the soil", Belay said, "One farmer tells me they can now move in their farm, whereas it was sticky before. Also, the farmer can now send his children to school and go to weddings carrying a requisite bunch of flowers picked from his own field."

There is still the need to increase the quantity and the quality of the compost. Women-led households are among the poorest of the poor. Attention is being paid to training in data collection, and rural land management. At the same time, local craftsmanship is being diversified.

"We have a basketful of choices in Ethiopia," said Belay, "We take the whole system approach, and not just focus on a single seed."

Article first published 08/09/02

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