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Columnists

Change policies to ensure food security

Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has published a report titled World Agriculture: Towards 2015/2030. The report says that the growth rates of world agricultural production and crop yields have slowed.

This has raised fears that the world may not be able to grow enough food and other commodities to ensure that future populations are adequately fed.

In Kenya, yield from much of what used to be productive land has plummeted due to excessive use and subdivision of land. Until 1954, traditional or tribal land was communally managed.

Roger Swynnerton, then a colonial official at the Department of Lands drafted what was to be known as the Swynnerton Report. It recommended that all high-quality native land be surveyed and enclosed; that the policy of maintaining ‘traditional’ or tribal systems of land tenure be reversed; and all the thousands of fragmented holdings be consolidated and enclosed.

Although the highlights of the report’s objectives were to create family holdings large enough to keep the family self-sufficient in food and also enable them to develop cash income, its real purpose was to guarantee British settlers title to land. Parts of the arid and semi arid lands were not affected by this colonial land policy.

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A new policy by the Jomo Kenyatta government, rudi mashambani (back to the land) shifted growing urban population back to rural lands. Its objective was to allow native African farmers grow cash crops, be given technical assistance, and have access to all marketing facilities, all of which were previously available and restricted to the white settler minority.

Although less than 20 per cent of Kenya’s total land area has sufficient fertility and rainfall to be farmed, barely eight per cent can be classified as first-class land. In 2010, about 70 per cent of working Kenyans made their living by farming, compared with 80 per cent in 1980.

Undercapitalised subsistence (peasant) farmers contribute 50 per cent of Kenya’s total agricultural output. By comparison, in developed economies less than 5 percent of the populations earn their living from their capital intensive farming.

Majority of the 38 per cent of Kenyans living in absolute poverty are peasant farmers. Clearly, our important agricultural sector is not developed and largely inefficient, employing 75 per cent of the workforce compared to less than three per cent in the food secure advanced economies. Is it not time that we change gears?

There is no better time to change our land tenure policies than today. The discovery of a large aquifer in Kenya’s best terrain for mechanized farming, Turkana is God send. What remains is for the Governor and the Land Commission to ensure that land in Turkana is NEVER subdivided.

The community should lease the land in large chunks to investors with money to build proper agri-business in the county. The FAO report says that there are three main sources of growth in crop production: expanding the land area, increasing the frequency with which it is cropped (often through irrigation), and boosting yields.

It has been suggested that we may be approaching the ceiling of what is possible for all three sources. But it also warns that a detailed examination of production potentials does not support this view at the global level, although in some countries, and even in whole regions, serious problems already exist and could deepen.

Countries that face a shortage of suitable land like Kenya, intensification through improved management and technologies will be the main, indeed virtually the only, source of production growth. In many places land degradation threatens the productivity of existing farmland and pasture.

It may be necessary to reverse current cultural practices on land ownership through subdivisions by carefully managing rapid urbanisation followed by intensive land consolidation.

What is needed most is building of smarter cities with adequate supply of water, energy, broadband and food not just for now but for future generations. Demand for resources will increase correspondingly with population growth.

Our current practices of managing resources are not sustainable. What will separate winners from losers is planning for the future. Smarter solutions will reduce cost in all aspects of our lives, cater for our future and improve life on earth. This is what God created us for.

Dr Ndemo is a former Information PS and a lecturer at University of Nairobi.

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