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Fighting famine


A Plan for Famine Prevention

By Robert Rodale

Sierra Club Books, $18

Reviewed by David Holahan

Western aid is largely to blame for the sorry state of food production in developing nations. We don't have to save Africans from themselves; we have to save them from two decades of ill-advised Western agriculture and relief assistance.

That is the thesis of Save Three Lives: Africans were doing just fine 20 years ago when Africa was self-sufficient in food and before development "experts" introduced alien crops and American agricultural practices.

Written by Robert Rodale, a magazine publisher who died in an automobile accident in the Soviet Union in 1990, the book cites the 1984 crisis in Ethiopia as a classic example of a well-intentioned aid snafu. Television coverage of starving Ethiopians that autumn triggered massive donations to relief efforts. The bulk of the food aid didn't arrive, however, until the following year, far too late to help the majority of those in need. "The food arrived so late that, for many Ethiopians, the new rains had already ended the crisis," wrote Rodale. Ironically, as farmers brought in their first good harvests in years, they found they could not sell it because the country was flooded with free grain.

Much of the grain sent to places like Ethiopia is either lost to corruption or becomes fodder for rival armies. Rather than relief, Rodale argues, what is needed is the re-establishment of traditional agricultural methods: small farms growing a variety of native crops (and trees) and relying on natural rather than chemical fertilizers.

Large-scale planting of non-indigenous crops like corn, which require massive quantities of water, fertilizer and pesticides, have contributed to both a rapid rise in Third World populations as well as the vulnerability of their harvests. While native crops could survive dry seasons, corn cannot. It is literally a case of either feast or famine.

The solution, says Rodale, is to keep development programs small and in tune with Third World cultures. He urges readers to lobby relief agencies and political leaders on the importance of famine prevention. Unfortunately, not all of his claims of success are well supported. He predicts, for example, his program would effect a decline in Third World birth rates _ but offers little but sheer optimism to prove why.

Still his book, which combines sociological, botanical and political commentary, merits a wide audience. After all, as Rodale has shown, there are many people in the world who need to be rescued from progress, development and traditional relief programs.

David Holahan is a writer living in Connecticut.