Market-based farming and national food sovereignty: Lessons for Uganda

As Uganda embarks on an agenda to transform peasant
subsistence agriculture to modern commercial farming based on a market
mechanism and large-scale domestic and foreign producers, the authorities need
to look closely at past experience in time and space to determine the best factor
combination of producing for the market and for domestic consumption in a
sustainable manner. This is important as more foodstuffs and factors of
production shift from human consumption to livestock feeding and bio-fuels.

various reasons including peasants’ willingness and ability to produce export
crops in quantity and quality as demanded by the colonial power,
Uganda escaped being a white settler colony. Through a
family division of labor with men focusing on the export crop and women on food
for domestic consumption, it was possible to meet export and food requirements
or national food sovereignty. The latter means that a country must produce a
sizeable amount of food to minimize dependency on donations and food imports.

land from peasants to large-scale commercial farmers has had serious employment,
environment and food security implications. Let us review briefly some of these
implications in different parts of the world.

When Ireland became a British colony, vast chunks of land were
transferred to English and Scottish Protestant settlers. By 1790, Irish
Catholics owned a mere 14 percent of the land in their own country. The
transfer of land initiated a process that impoverished the Irish people who
were reduced to eating potatoes and wearing rags that were often second-hand
clothing imported in bulk.

the Irish languished in poverty, the foreign landowners accumulated massive
wealth. Irish fertile soils were used to grow a wide variety of farm products
such as wheat, oats, barley, cattle, pigs, eggs and butter for the English
market to make profit.

in Central and
Latin America are characterized by large-scale farming for export markets
with serious consequences on employment opportunities, domestic food security
and environment protection. In 1950 cattle ranches in
Costa Rica covered 1.6 million acres of land – one eighth of
the country. By 1991 that acreage had risen to one third of the country. Apart
from exhausting the land, beef production for the export market reduced
supplies for domestic consumption. By 1960 per capita beef consumption in
Costa Rica has declined by more than 40 percent. And towards
the end of the 1970s the average Costa Rican consumption of beef had fallen to
28 pounds a year less than the average amount consumed by an American cat.

In Nicaragua large swathes of land were cleared for beef
production. The head of State Anastasio Somoza exported $30 million worth of
beef every year to the
United States. Before he was overthrown from power, his family
owned one quarter of all
Nicaragua’s arable land.

of land ownership including by foreign companies is common in Central and
Latin America. Consequently many peasants have become landless.
And everywhere pasture is spreading at the expense of rainforest and food
production for domestic consumption. The best lands are used for beef ranches
while peasants are pushed on steep slopes with very poor soils and low
productivity. Because of beef specialization, there is no milk production on
rainforest ranches.

terms of employment, whereas various forms of peasant agriculture can support
up to one hundred people per square mile, the average rainforest cattle ranch
can employ only one person per twelve square miles.

modern cattle complex is reminiscent of earlier invasion and usurpation,
colonization and greed. Consequently the human and environmental toll resulting
from a worldwide cattle ranching calls for a reappraisal of the merits of the
entire enterprise.

countries such as those in
and the Caribbean where sugar is king there have also been many problems. In Northeast Brazil, large pieces of land were allocated to foreign developers
who converted them into sugar plantations. To produce sugar labor was needed
and more slaves were captured in
Africa. Sugar
production turned a once well watered and forested land of great fertility into
an eroded wasteland and a hunger hotspot which depended on food imports. In
short food, fauna and flora were sacrificed on the altar of sugarcane

sector development in search of profit turned
Northeast Brazil into the most underdeveloped part in the Western

In Africa production for export markets is having significant adverse impact on
food for domestic consumption. During the severe drought in the
Sahel in the early 1970s, large amounts of food were exported to earn foreign
exchange so the elite could continue to enjoy Western European lifestyle while
peasants starved. Cattle exports in 1971 totaled over 200 million pounds, up 41
percent compared to 1968. The annual export of chilled or frozen beef tripled
compared with a typical year before the drought. Fifty six million pounds of
fish and 32 million pounds of vegetables were exported from the famine-stricken
Sahel in 1971 alone.

the drought period from 1970 through 1974, the value of agricultural exports
from the region totaled $1.5 billion – three times more than the imported

Ethiopia is a country that suffers endemic food shortages. At
the same time it is a country that exports large amounts of food, flowers and
livestock feed even during one of the worst famine periods in 1974 and 1984.

more people move into the middle class category especially from developing
countries, their diets are shifting from cereals to meat and diary products.
This shift calls for the diversion of human food to livestock feed. Many
countries are therefore shifting production in the latter area where large
profits can be reaped. The human effects of shifting from food to feed
production were illustrated in 1984 in
Ethiopia where agricultural land was converted to the
production of linseed cake, cottonseed cake and rapeseed meal for export to the
and other European destinations when thousands of Ethiopians were starving. Millions
of acres in developing countries are being converted into the production of
feed for markets in the developed world.

Ethiopia has also joined the bandwagon of Third World countries producing flowers for developed economies.
Almost overnight
Ethiopia has become an exporter of flowers. In 2008 the
country is projected to export some $150 million in flowers, up from $159,000
six years ago.
Ethiopia is now Africa’s second
largest flower exporter after
Kenya. Yet these are the two countries that are unable to
produce enough food for their people and are dependent on imports and food aid.
Fifty three percent of the flower farms are foreign-owned. To attract foreign
investors, Ethiopian fertile land is leased for as little as $15 per hectare
per year.

globalization gathers speed and the demand for bio-fuels and stock feed
increases, developing countries are moving in these areas in a big way. Land is
increasingly being allocated to foreigners to produce for the export market at
the expense of food to meet the demands of increasing population especially in
developing countries.

a sharp rise in global food and commodity prices rich investors including those
from the
Middle East are rushing to buy land in developing countries to
grow food for their populations. While encouraging foreign direct investment in
agriculture, the Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of
the United Nations (FAO) has warned against outright purchase of land,
stressing that land is a political hot potato. Margaret Coker of the Wall
Street Journal reported on
September 10, 2008 that “The [land] deals have raised concern that
agricultural resources could be dominated by foreign investors who will ship
food overseas. In politically unstable countries, meanwhile, critics worry that
large-scale foreign investors could prop up unpopular regimes or exacerbate
longstanding legal disputes over land ownership, much as foreign oil or mining
concessions have done”.

above case studies have provided lessons that Ugandan authorities could use in their
efforts to design a modernization policy that strikes a balance not only between
food for domestic consumption and commodities for the export market but also
ensures sustainable development. The development of
Uganda’s fisheries for export has already demonstrated the
pitfalls of overexploitation and lack of adequate attention to the needs of
domestic consumers.