By Taruvinga Magwiroto
If you are a netizen (as I am), and interested in rural and international development and innovation, and you are of a Zimbabwean persuasion, chances are that you have heard of the word “Pfumvudza”.
To the uninitiated, “Pfumvudza” is a Zimbabwe-specific, highly branded variant of conservation agriculture that has been promoted with variable vigour in many parts of the world since the 1990s.
In large measure, the policy, politics and production “wars” around Pfumvudza reflect the global “Food Wars” described by Lang (2004) in a book by same title. Basically, it analyses the politics of food production and security, the rise and fall of the “Productionist” paradigm and the viability of the alternative paradigms.
Pfumvudza is many things to many people.
To its doctrinaire proponents, Pfumvudza is the solution to all our food security problems: it will result in higher yields per hectare; is environmentally friendly; and is a smart, climate-proof way of ensuring food security.
To its rabid opponents, Pfumvudza is an overhyped, retrogressive programme meant to stifle agricultural productivity, return people to back-breaking labour, stifle industrial agriculture and return people to stone-age practices. A couple of people derisively called it “Chitemene”, the famous slash and burn method of tillage popular in Zambia in the distant past.
As is the case with most things, the truth lies somewhere in between. I will try to unpack the issues below.
Climate change has been wreaking havoc with agricultural productivity in many countries in Southern Africa, but none more so than Zimbabwe, whose agriculture is still reeling from the effects of the 2000s land reform programme. New farmers are beginning to realise the potential earning power of agriculture, particularly the larger, better resourced A2 farmers. They are discovering (and mastering) “Productionist” agriculture: herbicides; inorganic fertilisers; drugs; mechanised land preparation and export markets. The fun is just starting!
But as the lessons of the Agriculture Revolution in the 1960s showed, the “Productionist” paradigm has serious externalities, especially to the physical environment. It is not a sustainable way of development: the soil structure weakens; chemicals pollute the environment, including underground water sources; productionist agriculture is thirsty business (it requires lots and lots of water, itself a very scarce resource); and the benefits of productionist agriculture tend to accrue to the already-haves, itself a problematic consequence of the dominant development paradigm that informed the Agricultural Revolution.
Enter the Government of Zimbabwe. The government has more or less appropriated the Pfumvudza concept (rather opportunistically), and vigorously promoting its use by conditioning free agricultural inputs to its adoption. You want free government inputs? Well, show us your well-prepared Pfumvudza plot!
As far as policy goes, that is a smart incentive system. It is good politics too: the small holders are more amenable to Pfumvudza since their agricultural plots are smaller anyway, and they are used to the back-breaking labour required by Pfumvudza (remember, it’s all about the hoe: individual seed stations dug to a substantial depth; mulching; hoe-weeding, etc). And the distributive effect of the intervention can’t be ignored. And, looking at the holistic picture, it’s about promoting sustainable agricultural practices while distributing national resources to all who need it. Smart.
But questions linger. Just as in the Food Wars, the million dollar question remains: in a world of ever-increasing population pressure, will “conservationist” Pfumvudzas of this world result in food security? The answer is patently “not yet”. There are still many attractive sides to the productionist paradigm, not least the short term high yields, particularly at individual farmer level. As one person asked: would it be good to destroy our agriculture, in the name of sustainable production, only to be forced to import food from the same countries that practice “Productionist” agriculture?
These are certainly hard questions. It gets even harder when opposition parties accuse government of cynicism: that in fact government is misleading people by purporting that “Pfumvudza” leads to higher yields than conventional agriculture when in fact that is impossible. Many people charge that government is playing politics: that in fact it is using government resources for political party campaigning.
In conclusion, lessons from history show that the “Productionist” paradigm yields high short term benefits but exact exceedingly high long term costs. Conservation agriculture, on the other hand is kind to the future, but painful on the present. Reconciling these extremes and finding the right balance is the challenge of this generation.