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Agricultural Conference to Address West African Food Shortage - 2004-06-18


The human and economic costs of Africa's food crisis are staggering. Poverty and lack of food force one out of every three people to go hungry. An upcoming conference in West Africa will examine technology as a way to help farmers in that region of the continent.

In an effort to better feed West Africa's 226 million people, the United States and Burkina Faso governments are co-sponsoring an agricultural science conference in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso's capital. U.S. Agriculture Department official J.B. Penn says the focus is on using science and technology to increase food production in West Africa.

"We recognize that technology is not an end in and of itself," he says. "It's developed to serve people and their needs. And this conference is a response to the needs of hundreds of millions of people who simply don't have enough food. It's a response to farmers who are struggling to grow enough food first to feed themselves and then enough to earn income to feed their families."

Hunger is continent-wide in Africa. Mr. Penn says the meeting focuses on West African countries because they have established some political security. "Investment is only going to flow into places where there is some safety, and security, and good government," he added.

Ghana-based agricultural scientist Walter Alhassan welcomes the attention on West Africa. He is the West African coordinator for the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project Two, a public-private consortium promoting research and policy development. Mr. Alhassan says technology needs to help farmers not only grow more food, but also find better ways to store it and bring it to market.

"We think it's a very good opportunity since it brings together policymakers at the very high levels," he explains. "When there's a buy-in at that level, it facilitates the development of the technology."

Officials will discuss water management, biotechnology and regulatory policies to fight drought, crop diseases, and barren soil. J.B. Penn says that rather than looking at new inventions, policymakers will concentrate on making existing technologies more usable. "It may be better seed varieties, better planning practices, better processing techniques or better ways of irrigating crops," he notes. "Whatever the technology, it needs to be affordable, appropriate, and accessible."

Mr. Penn says the conference will not address the controversial subsidies the U.S. government pays to American farmers and crop buyers. Many Africans are critical of these subsidies, saying the price breaks out-compete West African growers, especially in cotton. The U.S. farm official says the place to discuss foreign subsidies is at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The Ouagadougou conference teams several U.S. government groups with West African economic and agricultural organizations like ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States. Mr. Penn thinks that the West African meeting will improve regional communication.

The U.S. Agriculture Department is expected to sign an agreement with a new group called the African Agricultural Technology Foundation to enable technology transfer to West African scientists.

"This foundation we see as a device that will help us facilitate the dissemination of the technology," Mr. Penn adds. "We can deal with the foundation. The foundation in turn can deal with all the member countries that it represents."

In Ghana, Walter Alhassan says better science is just one part of the solution for West African farmers. He points out that for all but the richest farmers, the cost of advanced methods eats into profits. He believes countries should subsidize fertilizers and other supplies and make policies that support the new technologies. Mr. Alhassan also says more must be done to get farmers to accept the technologies. There has been particular resistance to genetically engineering plants to stave off disease.

"The resistance is out of ignorance," he states. "We need to do more public enlightenment to disabuse the minds of people of the perceived dangers of the use of genetically modified organisms."

The West African meeting is modeled after a Central American regional conference in May.

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