Sympathetic Stupid

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Slices of Worldchanging

Couple of dollops from Worldchanging have piqued my interest. (Slow day at work? You better believe it. It's so nice outside and so air-conditioned in here.)

First, more leapfrogging biz. Developing countries are leapfrogging over legacy fixed phonelines right now. Us rich countries are slowly disconnecting landlines but "(c)ell phone subscriptions jumped 67 percent south of the Sahara in 2004, compared with 10 percent in cell phone-saturated Western Europe". The real advantage of this is "not just the leap over landlines to handsets", but also "the leap over paper mail" and the implied requirements of literacy and a fixed address. It's a big market for smart companies.

The other bit is about agriculture in Africa. Traditional farming methods, refined for centuries, have developed the ability to deal with the natural cycles in the region - whether droughts, insect invasions or storms. But "(h)ow will traditional practices fare in an era of climate change"? There's work going on to make these traditional farming methods more sustainable, focusing on reducing erosion and saving water. But there is resistance from local farmers who trust their ancient expertise.

My impression is that food shortages are Africa's major problem. If this is caused by worsening climate change which the practices can't handle, then the practices need to change. It's also likely that the geology of Africa means that traditional agriculture can't support huge populations - after all, when we say (as in Guns, Germs and Steel) that population densities have always been lower in Africa than Europe, surely that actually means that traditionally a lot of people starved to death before they could reproduce?

It seems likely that if Africa's farmers could instantly begin using industrial agriculture, as rich countries do, many of their food problems would be solved. (Assuming water is sufficient, of course.) It also seems likely that the environment would seriously suffer.

Cause agriculture is a vexed environmental topic. Modern industrial agriculture - fertiliser, pesticides and GM crops - allows much higher food-per-land yields than even 50 years ago. While no-one wants more land (and rainforests, and pristine grassland, and national parks) to be swallowed by agriculture, it's unarguable that industrial agriculture comes packaged with serious environmental problems - loss of biodiversity, fish stock depletion, uncontrolled chemical runoff and aquifer depletion. The right balance between high-tech farming and inefficient farming is kinda unclear. Kinda very unclear.

So what does that mean for Africa? Maybe another potential leapfrogging opportunity? As Jamais says in the article, it seems like incremental changes, tailored to the region, will be easier for farmers to accept. Hopefully that means the correct choices will merge with traditional practices, to avoid the obvious missteps of industrial agriculture and yet keep the millennia of hard-won knowledge.