Commentary: Will Obama’s Food Security Program Usher in a New Colonialism?

Activists and local farming groups have condemned the U.S.-led New Alliance initiative for exploiting Africa's agricultural system and resources.

Posted: 06/27/2013 08:03 PM EDT

African farmers provide a much milder news narrative than Islamic terrorists, civil wars and corrupt politicians. Yet, the agriculture industry in Africa has become fertile ground for highly sought after investment and development opportunities for foreign countries, including the United States.

President Obama responded by launching the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a U.S.-led partnership funded by African leaders, wealthy nations and multinational companies like GMO giant Monsanto and fertilizer titan Yara International. Nine African countries have already signed up to receive touted benefits, like agricultural growth and donor funding. The ultimate goal: to lift 50 million people in sub-Saharan Africa out of poverty by 2022.

One year and more than $3.7 billion later, the president has embarked on his first presidential tour of Africa. He will address food security while in Senegal on Friday. He will address starvation, malnutrition and poverty.

But will he address those food rights activists, local farmers and civil society groups who have dubbed New Alliance “a new wave of colonialism.”

None deny the need for investment and aid in agriculture, but opponents of New Alliance and similar private-sector investment programs argue that the local partnerships pledged by these programs are less kumbaya, and more “come buyout.” The same opportunities that New Alliance proponents tout — access to new, African-based markets and natural resources to export overseas — are the same exploitations that proponents criticize.

Activist, writer and scholar Raj Patel, best known for his 2008 book, Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, has boycotted this notion of agribusiness.

“One needn’t be starry eyed about this,” he told BET.com. “In fact, it’s important to have a cold realistic look at what investors are doing. They’re trying to get more profit out of Africa by investing in it.”

In a 2012 address spotlighting New Alliance, President Obama noted that investment in agriculture would not only pull developing countries out of poverty, but also benefit developed nations.

“Food security is a moral imperative, but it’s also an economic imperative,” said the president.   

“And as we’ve seen from Latin America to Africa to Asia, a growing middle class also means growing markets, including more customers for American exports that support American jobs. So, we have a self-interest in this.”

Like Patel, Gareth Jones, a researcher at the African Centre for Biosafety, laments the land grabbing, lack of transparency, and law reforms that accompany New Alliance investments and funding. Jones claims that the large-scale systems on which these initiatives are modeled disregard local farming frameworks and lack long-term sustainability.

“Judging on past experiences where these kinds of initiatives have been run, there is a risk that tens of millions of small scale farmers will be forced from the land, if not directly then by market forces,” said Jones.

Regardless of the many appeals made by protesters worldwide, the most recent progress report released by New Alliance struck an optimistic tone.

“A year later, we can see that this consistent, coordinated effort to reverse a long history of underinvestment in African agriculture is paying off in a variety of important ways,” read the report. It also cited large-scale American and European-based frameworks that have been applied, such as a state-of-the-art seeding processing plant in Ethiopia.

Patel would argue against the need for imported “state-of-the-art” agricultural systems, insisting that African farmers already had sophisticated, homegrown farming methods.

“Africa has plenty of innovation,” he said. “And what we need to be doing is supporting it rather than crushing it.”

So, you decide: A new colonialism or a new day for Africa?

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(Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

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