[OPE] British imperial thinking and the green beans from Kenya

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@telfort.nl>
Date: Sun Nov 22 2009 - 08:04:09 EST

The neoconservative British Prospect magazine argues for eating more green
beans from Kenya ("How green are your beans?" by Mark Ashurst, Prospect 18th
November 2009, issue 165). I've eaten them before here, they're good beans,
but I had to think about that some more. Mark Ashurst discourses:

"Driving from Nairobi, a visitor to Kenya's agricultural heartland is struck
by a lush green landscape [there are now nearly 935,000 cars in Kenya (popn
38.5 million), more than half of them in Nairobi alone, according to
official figures
http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2008-08-03-3906294309_x.htm ]. Here, at
the foot of the eastern slopes of Mount Kenya in an area known as Mwea, rows
of irrigated fields sprout neat rows of green beans. These vegetables will
occupy only a small space on the shelves of European supermarkets-but,
alongside fruit and flower sales, they are vital to Africa's economic
prospects. Yet in early November, a report by lobby group Consumer Focus on
Britain's supermarkets chastised many of them for not selling enough
home-grown products. The truth is that buying from African smallholders is
actually kinder to the planet than industrial farming in Europe-as well as
vastly more useful to the people most at risk from climate change. (...)
Speaking in London in October, the Archbishop of Canterbury urged us to stop
buying African vegetables and to start growing our own. Yet Rowan Williams
has revived a flawed argument-recently floated, and then abandoned by the
Soil Association-that the carbon footprint of air-freighted food is not
sustainable. The scientific research tells a different story: in Kenya, more
than 60 per cent of crops are grown by smallholders who farm by hand in the
old-fashioned, labour-intensive way."

But this really misses the real issues by a mile - three points ought to be

(1) in Kenya itself, there are alarming levels of malnutrition, while Europe
effectively subsidizes European farmers and landowners not to produce more
food. For example, about 200,000 people in Mandera, North-East Kenya, which
has a population of about 325,000, are already relying on food aid,
according to Titus Mung'ou, Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) communications
manager. http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=83857 The UN's World
Food Programme is currently trying to provide food to one in every ten
Kenyans, in the wake of a drought afflicting South Kenya, the Rift Valley
and the North (bear in mind that three-quarters of Kenya's land area falls
in arid, semi-arid or pre-arid climatic zones, i.e. the lush greenery
Ashurst sees from his SUV describes only the minor part of Kenya

"Green beans are an excellent source of vitamin C, vitamin K and manganese.
Plus green beans are very good source of vitamin A (notably through their
concentration of carotenoids including beta-carotene), dietary fiber,
potassium, folate, and iron. And, green beans are a good source of
magnesium, thiamin, riboflavin, copper, calcium, phosphorus, protein,
omega-3 fatty acids and niacin."

Question is, while religious authorities dispute about the farts created by
air-freighting Kenyan beans to Europe, shouldn't every tenth Kenyan be
eating some of the 30,000 metric tonnes of green beans Kenyans grow for
export each year, themselves? Globalization and export-led development
sounds nice, until you realize that a situation is promoted where nations
which fail to distribute their national income and property equitably,
cannot even feed themselves properly as a result, and therefore need to be
"helped" by the West. While businesses export their home-grown food for
profit, Western taxpayers are invited to provide food aid to feed the local
people. Some kind of "rebalancing"... it often looks more like starving
people into capitalism, while a "clean air" brigade disputes the morality of
the stench.

(2) it may be true - as Ashurst lyrically claims - that "Kenya, more than 60
per cent of crops are grown by smallholders who farm by hand in the
old-fashioned, labour-intensive way". But as Susanne Freidberg explains in
her book "French Beans and Food Scares" (Oxford University Press, 2004, p.
15-16) the reality is different:

"In the 1980s, Kenya's smallholders, often organized in cooperatives, took
on more and more of the country's fresh vegetable export production - nearly
75 percent by 1992. They helped to make Kenya one of the World Bank's
favorite "success stories" of non-traditional export development... but
during the mid-1990's, as UK supermarkets consolidated their control over
their overseas supply chains, they looked increasingly to "source" Kenyan
fresh produce from large, vertically integrated, and typically white-owned
company farms... by the end of the decade, seven such firms controlled 75
percent of the country's FFV export production".

Somehow Mark Ashurst missed all that, while touring from Nairobi and seeing
things "first-hand". So anyway, it is simply a falsification when he implies
that the exported beans are "grown by smallholders", because they mostly
aren't. According to one estimate, "By the end of the 1990s, 40% of the
produce was grown on farms owned or leased directly by importers in the
developed countries and another 42% on large commercial farms. Smallholders
produced just 18%."

COLEACP reports that "In Kenya, we have seen a clear pattern. Exporters
first certified their own farms (2002), and then they began to encourage
their outgrowers to become certified (from 2004). PIP has been supporting
exporters to help their outgrowers become compliant. One/two years later we
are seeing that: (a) many of the certified smallholder outgrowers are
themselves deciding not to continue with certification in the future because
it is not worthwhile (b) export companies are changing their minds. Many had
requested support from PIP to certify their outgrowers. They generally began
with a small number of outgrowers, and then adding more farmer groups to the
programme year-on-year. We are finding that some exporters, after getting
some of their outgrowers certified, are deciding not to continue with the
programme because it is not financially worthwhile."

(3) consider total bean consumption in Kenya. We find that "It has become
increasingly common for Kenya to import beans as domestic demand overwhelms
production. The country consumes approximately 450,000 tonnes of beans
against a local production level of between 150,000 and 200,000 tonnes
harvested from about 800,000 hectares. The country imports the deficit
mainly from Uganda, Tanzania and Central Africa."

So even as Kenya exports one-sixth of its beans to the West, it is importing
up to one-third of its own bean needs, mainly from other African countries
where there are also hungry people (in Uganda, about one in every seven of
the people is malnourished, in Tanzania one in every three, and in the
C.A.R. two out of every five, according to FAO estimates
http://www.fao.org/economic/ess/food-security-statistics/en/). Economists
are still pontificating about Ricardo's foreign trade theory of "comparative
advantages", but fail to understand the significance of intra-industry trade
demolishing the advantage.

All told, it's the wonders of the globalizing market economy in microcosm:
"trading up" means kicking them when they're down.

Nice try, Prospect magazine! But it won't wash.



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Received on Sun Nov 22 08:12:06 2009

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