David Attenborough and other food facts about Africa you probably didn’t know


by Guest    
11:58 am - September 19th 2013

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by Jonathan Kent

Many, but by no means all Greens are worried about population. It’s a multiplier on many of the problems we face. But it’s a very sensitive subject, as David Attenborough has discovered.

When I heard Attenborough say: “what are all these famines in Ethiopia, what are they about? They’re about too many people for too little piece of land. That’s what it’s about,” I hear the echoes of generations-old, lazy thinking about Africa and Africans summed up in the notion of the White Man’s Burden.

A little while ago there was a row about whether Green World, the magazine for Green Party members, should take an ad from the group Population Matters of which Attenborough is a prominent supporter. I argued, quite vociferously that it should; I dislike any attempt to stifle debate.

The anti-Population Matters lobby, among them Lib-Con regular Adam Ramsay, pointed out that the carbon footprint of a country like Mali is so small compared to Western nations that the population could double, treble or more without having much impact on the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

True, though unless we keep Malians poor or we can roll out clean energy fast that may not remain the case. And every African needs to eat the same minimum as every European, and even people in the rich West can only eat so much. Over-population results in countries hitting a food production buffer long before they hit an energy buffer.

But David Attenborough and others also need to stop blinding ourselves with stereotypes about Africa.

Firstly, in simple terms of density sub-Saharan Africa is far less populated than North West Europe, the Indian subcontinent, China and Japan.

Then, when one looks at which nations import and which export food, an even more interesting picture emerges. Many West and East African nations are net food exporters – Ethiopia included.

What do they export? Well next time you pick up a packet of mange-tout check out its origin. Chances are it’ll come from Kenya along with cut flowers and other products that drink up water and use valuable agricultural land.

Yes, populations outstripping the ability of the land to support them is a problem; but not in Africa. It’s a problem in Japan, and Saudi Arabia and Russia. It’s a problem in South East England and potentially across most of Europe too. But those are wealthy countries, so we don’t tell people there to stop having children.

Africa’s problem, on the other hand, is one of economics and justice; debt, balance of payments, the need for foreign currency and poverty. It’s about foreign governments and corporations (the Chinese prominent amongst them) buying up land because they know that rich nations consume more food than they can.

If only David Attenborough were as knowledgeable about the human as he is about the animal world he might have talked about the Black Man’s Burden – part of which involves feeding Europeans who are quick to advise, slow to listen and who, for the most part, simply don’t seem to care.


Jonathan Kent blogs here.

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Reader comments


It’s a problem in Japan, and Saudi Arabia and Russia.

In Russia? Really? It’s population is actually falling quite rapidly and it’s already one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world.

Since when was Africa homogenous?

In some parts of Africa, the above is true. In others, it very definitely isn’t.

The combination of population density and insufficient food production was one of the major causes of the genocide in Rwanda.

It has been pointed out by various sources that the price of bread was a significant factor in the Arab Spring.

Surely the crucial value here is a combination of population density *and* the capacity of the land to support a given level of agricultural production indefinitely? – and that varies widely from country to country – and may also vary according to climatic shifts and natural disasters.

This isn’t about the burden of one group of people, but rather about the common burden of humanity; and contribution to this common burden should be according to ability.

3. Torquil macneil

“Yes, populations outstripping the ability of the land to support them is a problem; but not in Africa. It’s a problem in Japan, and Saudi Arabia and Russia.”

It’s not a problem in any of those places because they get their food from trade.

“But those are wealthy countries, so we don’t tell people there to stop having children.”

We don’t have to. because they are wealthy countries people have stopped having babies all by themselves. It will happen in Africa too. Population panic is the purest flim flam when it isn’t outright sinister.

Check out Amartya Sen, a leading authority on famine, and you will know that all famines are political at root and they have never affected more than 20% of a population. There has never been a famine where there is a free press and there is no reason why there ever should be.

4. So Much For Subtlety

When I heard Attenborough say: “what are all these famines in Ethiopia, what are they about? They’re about too many people for too little piece of land. That’s what it’s about,” I hear the echoes of generations-old, lazy thinking about Africa and Africans summed up in the notion of the White Man’s Burden.

I don’t know why because what he said had nothing to do with the White Man’s burden – the need for White people to come from Europe and save Africans from themselves. Which is interesting because I certainly hear it in this article. What you mean is that you heard echos of people calling Africans lazy. What you do not say is that David Attenborough was wrong – the Ethiopian famine had nothing to do with land or population. It was due to the Marxist government and their policy of collectivisation. Famine follows Communism everywhere it is tried. Well, not Cuba. But everywhere else. It is not rocket science – the sort of Hard Left policies lauded around here kill people.

I dislike any attempt to stifle debate.

You’re a Green. Of course you do.

True, though unless we keep Malians poor or we can roll out clean energy fast that may not remain the case.

We. We. We. There’s that White Man’s burden. Perhaps Malians will decide for themselves what they will do with their lives? Perhaps it is not up to you and other rich White Europeans to choose what they will do?

Over-population results in countries hitting a food production buffer long before they hit an energy buffer.

There is no such thing as a food production buffer. Especially not in Africa where there is so little properly farmed land. They can expand agriculture enormously.

It’s a problem in Japan, and Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Well not in Russia. But oddly the Japanese are not starving. There have been no famines there for a long time. I wonder why that is.

But those are wealthy countries, so we don’t tell people there to stop having children.

And of course the Japanese have stopped having children so there is no need to do so.

Africa’s problem, on the other hand, is one of economics and justice; debt, balance of payments, the need for foreign currency and poverty.

Indeed. And notice again you deny Africans agency. The problems you list are *our* problems, not *their* problems. Ethiopia’s famine was caused by Ethiopia’s policies. But you do not list bad government policy. You list things we can do something about and nothing they can do something about – except export more flowers and so have more foreign currency.

There’s that White Man’s burden again.

4

‘Famines follow communism’

There may be a correlation but it isn’t causation, nearly all communist states emerged from a peasant type economy, and it’s that which is the major cause of said famines.

I’m surprised that the method of production relating to human reproduction hasn’t been mentioned, the fact is, most of the indigenous peoples of Africa require ‘hands’ to cultivate, they have no access to the machines which industrialized countries take for granted. If you look at reproduction in the UK prior to industrialization, large families were the norm, and child mortality rates were high, just as the are in Africa.

Of course, there are other factors,

Attenborough’s views are just pure prejudice, he has libelled us all by describing humans as a plague.

Once he does that, nothing he says is cool economic or political analysis, it is just nasty human hating garbage.

Who uses the more of the earths resources, Mr Attenborough or a person from africa?

Those of you who might like to get a sense of what David Attenborough actual thinks rather than the distortions presented in this article, you can hear him talkabout them in more detail here: http://www.populationmatters.org/attenborough-talk/

People like Attenborough think Africa should be one big game reserve, with only a few natives to serve the gin & tonics etc.

10. anonymous coward

OPT/Population Matters has leading Greens amongst its patrons – Jonathon Porritt, Sara Parkin and James Lovelock. Seems some Tories agree with the attacks on Sir David http://politicalscrapbook.net/2013/09/tory-councillor-david-attenborough-is-old-fart-who-should-kill-himself/#comment-1663709


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