My good friend and colleague Rachel Bezner Kerr told me that a letter we’d co-written in response to Jeffrey Sachs’ enthusiasm about fertilizers in Malawi had actually been published in the International Herald Tribune earlier this year. Just for the record, here’s our gripe with the Columbia professor’s views.
We agree with Jeffrey Sachs (“How Malawi fed its own people,” Views, April 20) that international development agencies have served African farmers poorly. But in his praise for imported fertilizer and hybrid seeds, Mr. Sachs glosses over the trouble this policy has caused.
Malawi has little foreign exchange and can ill afford to spend close to 7 percent of its government budget to subsidize fertilizers. Alongside other economic problems, the subsidy has bankrupted Malawi, sparking protests last year in which 19 people were killed by authorities.
Yet there are proven, sophisticated alternatives in Malawi that outperform the subsidy program. New farmer-led innovations combine agro-ecology and nutrition, using legumes such as pigeon peas and groundnuts as local sources of nitrogen and food. Diversified-crop and community-nutrition programs have improved corn yields and child nutrition. We’re disappointed that Mr. Sachs lauds one tired idea over another, when Malawians themselves are developing far more robust ways of feeding themselves.
Rachel Bezner Kerr
Department of Geography, Western University, London, Ontario
Department of Political and Administrative Studies, Chancellor College, University of Malawi
Center for African Studies, University of California at Berkeley
Professor, Soils and Cropping Systems Ecologist, Kellogg Biological Station, Michigan State University