In September 2022, I published We are not starving: the Struggle for Food Sovereignty in Ghana (Michigan State University Press), an ethnography of food sovereignty activism, development aid, and genetically modified (GM) crops in Ghana. As I conducted research for the book, I was continually struck by how often scarcity and urgency were utilized as narrative devices in the world of agricultural development.
In texts, development institutions would write of African (broadly) farmers toiling in fields, without access to new technologies, and in need of intervention. At workshops, policymakers would speak of low yield exclusively as a function of seed quality, and thus call for the uptake of “modern” seed varieties. And private industry—in the case of my book, the biotech industry—would frame the African continent (again, broadly, almost always) as lacking those very modern seed varieties or the ability to produce them, and thus display their wares—GM seeds and patented genetic traits—for purchase or leasing.
Of course, readers of Africa Is a Country won’t need an introduction to the idea that scarcity underscores popular narratives of the African continent. Those of us writing from the neoliberal university won’t need introduction to the idea that scarcity and urgency also underscore so many of our institutions, as well as ways of addressing complex social problems. And certainly, many of my interlocutors—Ghanaian activists, farmers, scientists, and officials—were well aware of this type of framing and would regularly critique it. Take, for example, this quote from food sovereignty activist Constance:
All those people who are supporting GMOs, … they think that, “okay, so, Africa is suffering, they are hungry, they need food, this is a quick fix, this is a quick fix for African hunger.”
And so, while I was writing the book, I knew that some of my focus had to be about these narratives, their origins and subsequent circulations and reconstructions, and their use by actors. This task required a broad, interdisciplinary reading, a few examples of which I will endeavor to share here.
Amanda Logan’s The Scarcity Slot: Excavating Histories of Food Security in Ghana demonstrates how scarcity, as it relates to food and agriculture, is a historical, powerful construct, one that has persisted across time and space. Logan uses archaeological research, archives, and oral histories to track food availability in western Ghana across time. 600 years to be exact. In the deep archaeological record she finds food abundance, abundance that survives environmental and social change, but which is eventually ruptured by slaving, imperialism, and political struggle. Logan uses these findings to argue that narratives of natural scarcity are not only false, but that they overlook what farmers, social movements, and social scientists have long asserted: that food production and access are shaped by political-economic systems.
Jemima Pierre’s The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race shows how racialized ideas of difference and power that were solidified within the Gold Coast’s colonial governing structure live on in postcolonial Ghana today. This helps to broaden understanding of how ideas of agricultural scarcity—those which Logan explores—not only served as governing tools for the colonial empire, but also how they continued through independence.
Structural and historical legacies shape contemporary farming practice, exemplified by Beatrice Akua Duncan’s study on the gendered effects of colonial agricultural policy, Kojo Amanor’s work on the cascading impacts of structural adjustment on Ghanaian agricultural research and production, and Hanson Nyantayki-Frimpong and Rachel Bezner Kerr’s insights on diverse farming practices in northern Ghana that have persisted across time.
If scarcity narratives have successfully mobilized capital and justified certain types of governance since the 19th century, then perhaps it’s not surprising that the narrative would be used to mobilize funds and justify the genetic modification of crops for African farmers. Here I enjoyed reading Matthew A. Schnurr’s Africa’s Gene Revolution: Genetically Modified Crops and the Future of African Agriculture, which carefully tracks nearly 30 years of efforts to use tools of biotechnology to modify African crops.
A feature of the GM projects that Schnurr explores is that GM crops are so often presented as a silver bullet: a response to climate change, a pro-poor intervention, a technology for women and marginalized farmers, a sure bet for ensuring food security. This type of framing, as Schnurr and others contend, limits both imaginations and discourses, as it presents a false either/or choice: you must adopt GM crops, or risk food insecurity. You must plant GM crops, or risk the wrath of climate calamity. These binaries are underscored by urgency (action must be taken now, or else!) and scarcity (a scarcity of alternatives).
As Ashanté Reese writes in Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in the Nation’s Capital, scarcity narratives can impede structural change and instead make way for one-off, non-critical interventions. Language is essential here, as she argues that phrases like “food desert” denote a sort of natural scarcity, when in reality it’s human in/action that results in a lack of food access options. Reese pushes for thinking beyond scarcity, or as she writes in a more recent essay, toward “imagining a world with food abundance at its center.”
This brings me back to the book’s title, “We are not starving.” This quote, again from Constance, is a direct call out of scarcity/urgency narratives. As she and others demonstrate throughout the book, scarcity/urgency framings can produce half-baked interventions, ones that often fulfill the needs—or at least visions—of those espousing the narrative rather than those the intervention is meant to serve.
Moving beyond scarcity, as Constance, Reese, Logan, and so many others contend we must, means to reject the idea that there is a scarcity of alternatives, to plan beyond “quick fixes,” and to make meaningful steps toward structural-level change.