Again, this matters beyond Malawi's borders, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. The world's population growth is scheduled to be driven by "high fertility countries" -- most of which are in Africa. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, recently argued that the world might be better fed not by pumping the soil with chemicals, but by using cutting-edge "agroecological" techniques to build soil fertility, and using policy to achieve environmental and social sustainability. In a review of 286 sustainable agriculture projects in 57 developing countries covering 91 million acres, a team led by British environmental scientist Jules Pretty found production increases of 79 percent -- again, far higher than the fertilizer subsidy in Malawi, and with a far broader range of ecological and social benefits than increased food production.
These programs succeed, in part, because they don't see hunger as the consequence of a surfeit of peasants or a deficit in soil, but as the result of complex environmental, social, and political causes. You don't just need chemists to solve hunger -- you need sociologists, soil biologists, agronomists, ethnographers, and even economists. Paying for their skills is the opportunity cost of spending precious dollars on imported fertilizer. Of course, agroecology is an entirely different paradigm than one in which technology is dropped into laps from foreign laboratories accompanied by a sheet of instructions. The programs require much more participatory education work, and much more investment in public goods, than the Malawian government and donors currently seem inclined to provide.
Agroecology is the third development vision battling for the future. In Malawi, it works. By growing cowpeas and groundnuts with maize -- expanding the range of crops -- Bezner Kerr's program has beat the fertilizer program's yield by 10 percent and increased nutrition outcomes too. Yet even agroecology has its limits. Fifteen percent of Malawians remain ultra poor, living on less than a dollar a day and unable to buy enough to eat. They tend to be people who are landless, or who have poor quality land and have to sell their labor at harvest time, just when they need it the most. They remain untouched by the Malawian miracle.
The future doesn't look terribly promising for agroecology. Concerned about the financial sustainability of its fertilizer subsidy program, the Malawian government is about to embark on a Green Belt project, in which thousands of acres will be irrigated to induce foreign investors to begin large-scale farming of sugar cane and other export crops. The foreign exchange brought in by this program, it is hoped, will bankroll the fertilizer spending. The result will help balance the country's current account, but as a consequence, thousands of smallholders are scheduled to be displaced to clear lands that will attract the kind of large-scale agriculture of which Collier would approve.
Particularly in the light of the new population projections for the 21st century, it seems foolish to stick to 20th century agricultural policy. Recall that the agroecological interventions in Malawi turned on women's empowerment. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has famously argued that there are few policies better placed to improve individual, family, and community lives (and lower fertility rates) than education -- particularly the education of women and girls. The prophesies presented to us by demographers vary widely -- change the assumptions, and you end up with a world of between 8 billion and 15 billion people. No matter what the future holds, though, it's clear that a world in which everyone gets to eat depends on women's empowerment -- and rather than treating that fact as something irrelevant to feeding the world, agroecology puts it right in the middle.
A great deal of past agriculture policy has been designed either economically to bomb villages in order to save them, or to administer a technological quick fix in order to postpone politics. Collier wants to get rid of peasants. New fads want to keep them, but keep them knee-deep in chemicals. Yet if we are serious about feeding the hungry, in Malawi or anywhere else, we need to recognize that the majority of the hungry are women, and that we need more public, not private, spending on those least able to command rural resources. Because when it comes to growing food, those who tend the land are anything but fools.