More farmland in Africa?

More farmland in Africa?

I read recently that the Democratic Republic of Congo will lease up to 247,100 square miles of potential farmland, according to a Oct. 29 Wall Street Journal piece.  This chunk of land is larger than France, and 25% of Congo’s landmass.. “The land is rich in cultivatable soil and water, including the Congo River, Africa’s second-longest. The government wants investors to transform the country’s subsistence farming,” the WSJ report says.

So far, a South African company, the first to lease this productive Congo land, has planted 8.5 square miles of corn, and will have planted 24,710 acres of corn by late January, the report adds.

The report says that leasing instead of selling the land is an attempt to avoid conflicts over “land grabs,” where developed countries buy productive assets from less-developed countries..

Feeding 9 billion people by 2050 is the siren song of American agribusiness companies, and I have no doubt that we will do that. This modified land grab (leasing instead of selling productive land) is one market response to recent higher crop prices. Yes, I believe we need a second Green Revolution more comprehensive than the first: wholesale transformations in how food is grown, stored, processed and distributed. But, to remain competitive, America needs to step up on our transportation system, among other things. Because as these more remote regions reach full capacity, how competitive will we be?

And, how long will it take for Congo to develop the transportation infrastructure to deliver farm inputs, and to deliver the crop for potential export?

The report goes on to state that “Congo’s plan to lease land to investors was developed after an earlier initiative to support small-scale farmers failed. A government project to provide seeds and equipment, such as new hoes and machetes, wasn’t sustainable because it depended on limited public funds,”says John Ulimwengu, project organizer and adviser to the Congolese prime minister. “The farmers also didn’t have the capacity to store and process their produce, or transport it to market.”

So, basically, the hope is that private industry will accomplish what the government mandate could not. Probably true. This will only happen if grain prices are low enough to make it all pencil out…which is not good news for the world’s breadbasket.

But it does give the U.S. time to improve its infrastructure to remain competitive. Our cornucopia is our biggest export, and the pillar of our global competitiveness. Look no further than the rail mess in the Dakotas, our lagging lock and dam maintenance, to measure our apathy our toward maintaining our principal export arteries. Let’s not wait until we need a defibrillator before we invest in America’s biggest export industry. 

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