Africa's food supply

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The United States recently joined other leading industrial nations to pledge 20 billion dollars towards improving farming in Africa. But as The World's Gerry Hadden reports from Morocco, some Africans are wary of this latest round of help from outside.

KATY CLARK: I'm Katy Clark, this is The World. The United States recently joined other leading industrial nations to pledge 20 billion dollars towards improving farming in Africa. There's wide recognition that the continent needs to grow more of its own food. But as The World's Gerry Hadden reports from Morocco, some Africans are wary of this latest round of help from the West.

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GERRY HADDEN: Moroccans spend nearly half their earnings on food, so even small price hikes hurt.

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GERRY HADDEN: At this outdoor food market in Rabat, vendors weigh olives on metal scales before bagging them for customers. One shopper is Sem. She says each month her money buys less.

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GERRY HADDEN: She says, food prices are going up. Take olives, for example. They used to cost the equivalent of about 35 cents per pound, now they're more than 50 cents. And the others products are getting more expensive too.

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GERRY HADDEN: Sem says she doesn't know why or how food has gotten so expensive, but she wants her government to protect her.

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GERRY HADDEN: That's my hope, she says, but the government doesn't think about us poor people. Our leaders always say that their hands are tied, that they can't control market prices. But they can cushion them. Morocco's government has absorbed much of the increases in food prices over the last year. By doing so it avoided the social unrest seen in other parts of the developing world. But that's hardly a permanent solution, hence the concept of food security. Everyone's talking about it. The question is, how to achieve it. There's widespread agreement that modernizing farming practices is one key.

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GERRY HADDEN: About half an hour outside Rabat, a group of farmhands sit in a huge barn piled with potatoes. They're sorting the good ones from the rotten ones. Farmer Mohammed Ilhaheel says most are spoiled.

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GERRY HADDEN: He says, "I don't have enough cold storage for this year's crop. And I can't sell because prices right now are too low." Part of the proposed G8 development money could go towards improving storage capacity on farms like Ilhaheel's, so crops last longer. But there's an even bigger challenge to tackle, water, or the lack of it. Ilhaheel's potatoes are so cheap this year because it rained a lot, producing a huge crop. But the weather across Africa is unpredictable, points out Robert Jackson, making the widespread practice of depending on the rain a dangerous and outdated gamble. Jackson is the charge d'affairs at the US Embassy in Rabat.

ROBERT JACKSON: Morocco has suffered from droughts over last 30 years. And there was a terrible drought in 2006, 2007 that saw households eating less than the nutritional requirements.

GERRY HADDEN: Jackson says some of the water problems are man made. For example, deforestation here has led to the erosion of topsoil, which in turn is silting up reservoirs.

ROBERT JACKSON: The equivalent of two major dams have been lost in recent years because of citation. If you put that in very concrete terms, 1.4 billion cubic meters of water storage is no longer available.

GERRY HADDEN: To counter this, the United States supports a reforestation program, mainly with native olive trees. The US and the Moroccan government are also promoting water efficiency. Morocco now subsidizes small farms that abandon traditional irrigation by flooding fields. International aid could help even more.

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GERRY HADDEN: On another tiny Moroccan farm, owner Abdelkaider Zaydee, snaps a few green beans to see if they're ready for picking. Zaydee waters his 4 acres with a government subsidized drip system. A hose runs along the stalks of his plants. Pin sized holes deliver a targeted and controlled measure of water. Zaydee says it's a small first step, but he needs much more help to remain competitive.

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GERRY HADDEN: He says he wants plastic sunscreens to cover his crops because they wouldn't need as much water if they were out of direct sunlight. But he says he can't afford the sheeting without government help. Money is the principal challenge to modernizing here, but there's a much thornier issue beyond costs. A heated debate as to what Africa should grow, and what it shouldn't. The same countries promising new rounds of African aid are also pushing to liberalize trade, that is, to eliminate protective tariffs and subsidies on farm goods. Robert Jackson says the free market lets developing countries specialize in what their good at growing and buy foods produced more cheaply elsewhere. One example, he says, is bread.

ROBERT JACKSON: Moroccans love bread. You need wheat for bread, and this country is not appropriate for wheat growing. Unless you're going to change people's dietary habits significantly, you need a system in which you can import and export. So that you can make certain that there are sources when climatic conditions impose droughts on various regions and you can draw from the supplies that are available elsewhere.

GERRY HADDEN: Access to world markets, Jackson says, guarantees a diversity of food sources. But while for Jackson and free marketeers this translates into food security, many believe it will lead to the opposite. Najib Akesbi is a leading Moroccan economist who defines food security this way.

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GERRY HADDEN: He says to be able to produce in your own country, all the food to cover your own people's needs. Akesbi says the notion that countries should focus only on niche crops, earn cash, then shop for everything else overseas enslaves them to world prices. When prices spiked last year, there was social unrest from Indonesia to Haiti. He says in Morocco you don't have to look any farther than cooking oil for an example. A generation ago he says, Moroccans used their own, home produced olive oil. Then, cheaper, imported corn oil was introduced in stores. Moroccans stopped making olive oil. Today, it's very expensive and mainly for export. Imported corn oil now accounts for 95 percent of Morocco's consumption.

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GERRY HADDEN: He says, I exaggerate it to make the point, but Moroccans now produce what they don't consume and consume what they don't produce. So we're now in a position of total dependence on the international market. That same world market, Akesbi says, has created a land rush in Africa. The US, China, India and others are buying up African land and starting mega-farms. Akesbi says they're not for feeding Africans, but at least one industrial agriculture firm, from India, says that's not so. Ram Kuramuti runs a 100 thousand acre farm in Ethiopia, growing corn and other staples.

RAM KURAMUTI: Last year this time maize, corn was selling here for 360 dollars, and now it's selling for 250 dollars. And that's because of increased production not just from my company, but a whole lot of other producers.

GERRY HADDEN: One reason Kuramuti isn't selling his crops back in India is because India has a food surplus. But if that changed, say those wary of food colonialism, his African grown corn would disappear from African markets overnight. For The World I'm Gerry Hadden Rabat, Morocco.