More rants about international pressure
22.02.2007 20 °C
Had a pancake party last night. Was great fun! Yummy.
Today I got chatting to a lady mycologist at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute. She and her colleagues in the Plant Pathology division are the main centre in Kenya to help farmers who have a problem with diseased crops. Farmers send in cuttings or samples of afflicted plants and the labs try to diagnose what is causing the disease and then advise or help with its control. They have people specialised in bacterial diseases, fungal disease, nematodes and viruses. This is vitally important to the livelihoods of Kenyan farmers and food security for the nation, since only by knowing what is wrong with your crop can you act properly to cure it. Diseases left unchecked can spread across a whole farm, province, country or even continent. Control may involve the use of chemical sprays to kill the causative agent or changing the way the crop is grown to avoid it being grown at a time of year when the pathogen is at its nastiest. It may also involve changing the crop… some pathogens are very selective to one species of plant, so if a field is contaminated with a disease that kills maize, then growing cowpea may be an option. Or it may involve planting varieties that are resistant to that particular strain of pathogen.
Obviously fast diagnosis and detailed knowledge of the disease causing agent can have a big impact… however, sometime in the last 10 years the Kenyan Government, in its wisdom decided that agricultural support and extension work should be self funding. I have a feeling that this is due to international reforms forced by the rich countries of the world (through institutions like the IMF, World Bank, WTO) on the poor countries to remove agricultural subsidies. The government cannot subsidise seed supply, fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides… the argument being that if people pay the full value of something they will use it more wisely and it will encourage entrepreneurs and the private sector to help out in a more efficient way than a 3rd world government ever could manage… if farmers pay the full value of seeds then it will support the breeding for and development of new locally produced varieties that are particularly adapted to the national setting. Somehow, these rules on not subsidising farming enforced upon the developing world do not apply to USA or the EU. We pay a British farmer 70 pence to make a bag of sugar that will sell on the market for about 40 pence. I don’t want to get too much into the unfairness of this situation as we’ve all heard from Make Poverty History and other campaigns the effect that our farming subsidies have on the ability of an African farmer to get a fair prices for his crop… if she/he makes sugar at 50 pence a bag then there won’t be a market for it!
What I’m ranting about today is the absolute madness of the withdrawal of government subsidies from a plant pathology unit. Here we have a few well trained scientists and agronomists (some with PhD’s from UK/Australia) who know how to use the relatively cheap and efficient biotechnological techniques of PCR or ELISA (which uses antibodies) for diagnosis of disease in a very quick and specific manner. They have an ELISA machine in their lab and some access to other equipment and yet they are rarely used because the Plant Pathology Unit must be self financing. They must take in as much cash from farmers as they spend… and when local farmers struggle to pay the 500 Kenyan Schillings per sample (about £3) the advanced techniques can’t cover their costs. Instead they resort to old school taxonomic analysis of looking at the fluffy shapes that the fungal cultures make.
It seems to me incredibly short sited of the powers that make the rules. I am not an economist and I don’t know how to do proper cost/benefit analysis, but I imagine that the benefit of knowing early about threatening diseases is worth more to the country than just to the farmer with the diseased plant… and could certainly be worth more than £3… if it stops the disease spreading to his neighbouring farms and destroying livelihoods of farmers who will then be unable to pay for their kids to go to school and may also rely on food aid handouts from the government. So expecting the farmer to pay the full cost of stopping an crop infection does not seem reasonable.
I would really like to know if this is driven by the agenda of the Kenyan government or the rich donor countries of the world.