Pull a book about food security off a shelf and it’s likely to be an academic treatise or sentimental rant shaped by developed-nation biases. Lost among numbing statistics or chest-thumping screeds -- Monsanto is evil! Particularly in Africa! -- are the stories of individuals who suffer. Also lost: genuine promise that their lives can improve.
Enter Roger Thurow, a veteran reporter who covered two-dozen African nations over 20 years for the Wall Street Journal. His new book, The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change, brings welcome clarity and humanity to what can be a complex topic fractured by decades-old either-or propositions: Is trade with developing nations better than direct foreign aid? Is acceptance of aid an acquiescence into a kind of neo-colonialism? Once aid is given, is it ever possible to grow past it so it isn't needed anymore?
The book follows a small group of farmers in western Kenya for a year, as they prepare their land; seed it; suffer through the so-called hunger season, when their supplies run out and their new crops aren't ready; harvest; and plant again. These families are using farming practices that in some cases harken back to the dawn of agriculture. Thurow asks a simple question: How can they break an annual cycle in which hunger isn't merely a risk, but an expectation?
The question is an increasingly important one as the world adds two billion people over the next four decades. Africa is one of the few regions left where crop yields may be boosted without resorting to industrial methods that degrade environments. Thurow's short answer is that the farmers can change how they farm, and he demonstrates how. The families he follows work with a group called the One Acre Fund, a Minnesota-based nonprofit founded in 2006 that helps farmers access seeds, fertilizers, farming advice and loans. The goal is to boost production and income by getting more from the land, and to end the hunger season, which can last anywhere from one to eight months.
Thurow follows four farmers in Kenya. The challenges and promise of African agriculture are told through their stories:
There’s Leonida Wanyama, a mother of seven, who has a son in boarding school, struggling to pay tuition bills while her husband suffers from malaria and younger children aspire to education.
There’s Rasoa Wasike, a 30-year-old married woman, who is placing her faith and shillings in a dairy cow that will mature and give milk just as their eldest child enters high school.
There’s Zipporah Biketi and her husband, who wanted to switch from growing sugarcane, a crop grown for agribusiness that left them with little income, to corn.
And there’s Francis Mamati, who at 53 years old, is an elder in the village. He forecasts weather and prays for rains that are achingly long in coming.
The One Acre Fund's seeds and fertilizers create opportunities for education, income and a greater return for back-breaking labor than existed before for these farmers. Still, a complete dependence on undependable rainfall clearly imperils their gains. In policy debates, it should become more difficult to argue against the seeds and fertilizer, or ignore the ominous signals of climate change, when set against the backdrop of the people most directly affected.
The book's weakness is the disconnection between the families and the larger debates, which Thurow references mostly in passing. A look at the U.S. Congress’s ongoing debate over food assistance seems tacked on, as a way to make connections, or perhaps is simply less compelling than the human stories unfolding in Africa. Its lack of resolution reflects a known peril of journalism: When an author has just one year to research, and the year turns out to be not-so-dramatic, the narrative suffers.
Readers who don’t follow food security closely may struggle to connect the individual stories to the global debates. A passing knowledge of the Green Revolution in Asia, for example would be helpful: That was the massive effort, funded by private foundations and foreign aid, to make Asian agriculture more productive in the 1960s and 1970s through fertilizer, seeds, and loans, a model which, with some tweaks adapted to Africa's climate and politics, may work in sub-Saharan Africa, the author contends. Readers might also get more out of the book if they enter with an idea of why agricultural development efforts have failed in the past -- mainly because advances on a small scale couldn't be ramped up, or because governments threw roadblocks into markets before they were robust enough to sustain themselves.
Fortunately, a good primer already exists on those topics: Thurow and Scott Kilman's book Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty. The Last Hunger Season is Thurow’s second book and may work best as the second Thurow book you read. Like soil, the reader’s mind is best prepared beforehand. A richer harvest, in understanding, is your reward.
Bjerga covers agriculture for Bloomberg News.
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