More Food or New Colonialism for Africa?

Charles W. Elliott

In a recent (June 30, 2013) speech in Cape Town, South Africa, U.S. President Obama announced new overtures to support agriculture in Africa.  But the people of Africa need to be on their guard lest these renewed efforts to “help farmers” in Africa become mere Trojan horses for corporate colonialism.

President Obama declared that “Governments and businesses from around the world are sizing up the continent, and they’re making decisions themselves about where to invest their own time and their own energy.”  With phrases invoking American generosity, he proclaimed that:

Instead of shipping food to Africa, we’re now helping millions of small farmers in Africa make use of new technologies and farm more land.  And through a new alliance of governments and the private sector, we’re investing billions of dollars in agriculture that grows more crops, brings more food to market, give farmers better prices[.]

No one would complain if the United States and its corporate partners would help “millions of small farmers” grow more food.  But we wonder: what kind of agriculture is the beneficiary of billions of dollars of investment?  And what are the “new technologies” that purportedly will help those millions of small farmers?

Observers, such as Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, question this new focus on Africa by an alliance of government and corporate power:  “It sounds great when we think about this new alliance for food. You know, increasing yields, increasing productivity all sound fantastic.” However, she added: “if you look beyond the mask, beyond the title,” what you see is what many are calling a “land grab” by multinational corporations, or an appropriation of much of the “last remaining arable land on this planet.”[1]

Three issues create the most concern: (1) the appropriation of ancestral lands and forced dispossession of longtime residents; (2) the appropriation of land for biofuels production – the “feeding of cars, rather than people” – for export; (3) the effort by multinational corporate interests to substitute high-cost and environmentally damaging technologies as instruments of control and profit, such as GMO crops, in place of sustainable agroecological practices. These efforts threaten to sweep away small and medium-size farms and their traditional ways of life and practices in Africa, and to vest control of the seeds of life throughout that continent in corporate hands.

The focus on GMO technology, rather than agricultural technologies appropriately scaled for smallholder farmers, is sadly consistent with recent disclosures in U.S. diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks, the Guardian and others. These cables reveal how U.S. officials engaged in a deceptive and aggressive campaign to break down resistance to the GMO industry.  See, e.g., Biotech Ambassadors: How the U.S. State Department Promotes the Seed Industry’s Global Agenda”, (Food and Water Watch, 2013).[2]

As the Food and Water Watch report (p. 3) says:

 Although the U.S. commodity crop market is nearly saturated with biotech seeds, most of the world remains biotech-free. Even 17 years after biotech crops were first introduced in the United States in 1996, only five countries cultivated 89.4 percent of biotech crops in 2012 (the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India).[footnote omitted] The seed companies need the power of the U.S. State Department to force more countries, more farmers and more consumers to accept, cultivate and eat their products.

These corporate pitches disguised as diplomacy particularly targeted Africa. These efforts are attempts to secure a foothold for corporate biotech interests in the continent at the expense of smallholder farmers. After all, high-priced patented seeds that cannot be saved and replanted and toxic chemical herbicides are poorly suited to farmers in the developing world.

Obama’s speeches in his recent tour of Africa also promoted his agricultural development program “Feed the Future”, under which the U.S. purports to “lead efforts to end famine in Africa” by increasing “global food security” and “nurturing African agribusiness.”  This USAID “Feed the Future” initiative includes a partnership with biotech seed and agribusiness companies such as Monsanto, DuPont, Cargill and Syngenta. (Food and Water Watch Report, p. 6).  This initiative has invested heavily in Africa.

Not surprisingly, the pro-biotechnology organization International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotechnology Applications (ISAAA) called Africa the “final frontier” for biotechnology. [3]  We can expect African officials to be targeted by intense pressure and corrupting influences to accept these technologies at the expense of traditional, sustainable agriculture.

According to Gareth Jones, Researcher at the African Centre for Biosafety (

 Countries joining the G-8 ‘New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition’ will be expected to facilitate access to land (including communally held land), and enact intellectual property laws around seed which will criminalise age-old agricultural practices among Africa’s peasant farmers, including the saving and sharing of seed. [4]

Other civil society organizations and faith-based groups are raising troublesome and fundamental questions about these global initiatives to “help” Africa:

We are concerned that the New Alliance risks serving primarily as a vehicle for market access by multinational companies, paving the way for them to extend their reach into African markets and exert control over African resources.

We are deeply concerned about the New Alliance’s vision and approach which enshrines food security in a market orientation, rather than as a human right. We believe the initiative falls short of what is needed to eradicate hunger and could potentially undermine progress towards that end.

CIDSE: Whose Alliance? The G8 and the Emergence of a Global Corporate Regime for Agriculture, CIDSE and EAA Recommendations, Executive Summary.[5]

Africa does not need more multinational corporate control of its agricultural sector and expensive high-technology GMO crops that will destroy traditional ways of life and block the way forward for sustainable, environmentally-protective practices.

Global assistance for Africa should instead ensure that: (1) the human right to adequate food is fundamentally embedded in agricultural assistance policies, with global governance at the center, rather than corporate competition and profit motive; (2) policies and systems are created to enable a transition to sustainable agriculture through agroecological models of production; (3) local markets are supported as the principal pathway to economic development; (4) small-scale food farmers and producers of food are empowered with education, credit,  transparency and influence in decision-making, and access to and control over productive resources; and (5) there is a fairer distribution of value across agricultural supply chains.


[1]  Some argue that the “land grab” is actually a “water grab”.  See “Squeezing Africa dry: Behind every land grab is a water grab” (GRAIN, June 2012),

One response to “More Food or New Colonialism for Africa?

  1. Gospel, I say! Outstanding article which asks the right questions and actually offers some solutions.