Africa and China Agriculture: The New Breadbasket?

While America’s great food debate rages on—Organic? Sustainable? Traceable? Local?—mass agriculture’s technological future might not lie in our hands at all, but in the potential new-breadbasket alliance between China and African nations.

At the African Union Summit, which ended its session on Friday, the theme was “Agriculture and Food Security in Africa.” Africa has 60 percent of the world’s land capable of growing crops, and at a time when farmland is disappearing, such a statistic is particularly interesting to a country with a rapidly expanding economy, cash to invest, and a need for more space. At the World Economic Forum on Africa last month, China announced that its direct investment in Africa would be up to $30 billion this year, with a $100 billion target.

Those billions in direct funding (as opposed to the US model of supporting companies who want to get involved in Africa) will be aimed at upgrading farming technology in Africa. China’s “High Quality and High Yield Agriculture Demonstration Project” will likely be the advent of big agribusiness on the continent and may eventually establish Africa as a powerhouse exporter of food.

An African food surplus in quantities enough to be exported may seem paradoxical, with recent famines in West Africa and Somalia. But those shortages can begin to be addressed by agribusiness—fertilizers to help poor soil that is depleted from constant use and genetically modified organism (GMO) crops that are created to withstand drought, pests, and disease. China’s assistance will include training 2,000 agricultural technicians to work on the ground in Africa, bringing the most recent advances (many of them American) to a struggling population.

Photo of a rice farmer in Madagascar

A farmer carries rice across his field in Madagascar. Photograph courtesy UN/Lucien Rajaonin

It’s one fix, to be sure, but as we are debating in the United States, is it a sustainable and wise fix for the long-term goal of feeding 9 billion people good food by 2050? Could Africa achieve food security, let alone food exportation and further entry into the global economy (if they so desire), without agribusiness?

Africa has a longstanding suspicion of GMOs, resulting in a relatively low acreage of such crops grown on the continent. One of the hesitations is based on farmers’—and particularly small farmers’—fear that reliance upon such seeds would increase foreign dependence and threaten African sovereignty. Even anxiety that cross-pollination between small farms (which comprise most of Africa’s agricultural system now) would threaten neighbors’ crops prevents some farmers from using GMO seeds.

But China’s direct investment of billions, with the goal of increasing technology and yield, will likely increase GMOs in most nations hungry for crops and a better economy. And part of the goal is to target a new generation who may not have such GMO biases: “It is important for young people to understand that farming is ‘cool’,” according to a Nigerian official.

Photo of a rice field in Rwanda.

Farmers prepare for another long day on their rice farm in Rwanda. Photograph courtesy IRRI

A report by Standard Chartered bank estimated that China will have to import 100 million tons of food in 20 to 30 years to avoid shortages. Ugandan Agriculture Minister Tress Bucyanayandi said he had no problem with China growing food in China to export.

Whatever the motivations and solution, Africa continues today to have lower crop yields than other continents and it is incumbent upon others to help. Concerns about colonialism aside (just too big an issue for this post), if in the process Africa could feed its people and freely chose to become a new breadbasket for itself and others, all the better. But as other countries are discovering after decades of agricultural technological advances, technology must be balanced with long-term views of sustainable practices that are good for the health of people and land. Otherwise, “assistance” is no assistance at all.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.