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Story Publication logo December 8, 2009

Kenya: Officials Warn of Food Shortage


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African farmers already struggle to grow sufficient maize, which is a thirsty, fertilizer-hungry...

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Kenyans woke to a warning in the nation's largest newspaper, the Daily Nation, that the country could face "an unprecedented food crisis" next year because of the drought that still plagues the Rift Valley and other regions. The problem is that the rainy season is ending without the precipitation expected when farmers planted in October. The Kenyan government provided a billion shillings, or about $13 million, in farm inputs to encourage the October planting, according to the newspaper. But the forecast El Nino effect simply never materialized, and the rains that have come haven't brought relief to enough of the country. Riccardo Gangale's photo above gives you an idea what cattle are left in the Rift Valley southwest of Nairobi look like.

One thing that has been brought home to me as I've talked with farmers and with agricultural experts is that food production is done very differently here than it is in an industrialized country like the United States. In the developed world, production is centralized in a relatively small number of intensive, efficient, commercial-scale operations. Those farms are concentrated in areas with reliable, sufficent rainfall - Iowa comes to mind - or in areas where water for irrigation is available. There are large farms in Kenya, too, including grain operations covering thousands of acres. But outside of the cities, and even inside them, people very much rely on growing their own food, even in areas without reliable precipitation. Every small house or shack it seems has a small plot, sometimes two or three acres, usually planted to corn and beans. When the rains are good, these families can be self-sufficient and sometimes even have enough left to sell. They supplement their incomes by working as laborers on larger farms. But when the rains are spotty, these farmers are left dependent on whatever they can get from neighbors or off the market with their meager incomes. And when they spend what shillings they have to buy seed and then lose the crop, as many did this year, their problems are compounded. Not only are they short of food, but they are left without the means to plant the next crop.

One solution in the more arid areas would be irrigation, and some very small farms have their own workable, though crude systems. But the cost of the wells is out of the reach of farmers who can barely afford a couple of bags of hybrid seed.

By the way, not just cattle herders and small-scale farmers in dro ught areas are being affected. Edith Gitao, who has a coffee farm with her husband, says the stream that provides the water for processing beans and irrigated trees was running dry this year. She told me the stream originates with retreating glaciers on Mount Kenya. The shrinking of those glaciers is blamed on climate change, which also has been a major news item in Kenya with the start of the Copenhagen summit. A lot of the attention, of course, is focused on what kind of aid the big pollution nations are going to provide to developing countries. But it's clear African governments are going to have to do something themselves to increase their food production, given the more variable precipitation expected in coming decades.

As I write, I'm headed for South Africa, after a day wasted clearing up a passport issue, to look into the experience there with genetically modified corn. Two-thirds of South Africa's corn production is now from biotech seed, and its grain has been vital to relieving shortages in Kenya this year.


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