Unless Europe's anti-Africa protectionism ends, the Continent faces a COVID food security crisis that spells disaster for millions, argues Muhammed Magassy

The choices the EU makes in the following months could determine whether or not Africa faces increasingly grave insecurities during this pandemic and ahead.

I speak with the experience of a Parliamentarian in two governmental bodies. For I am a Member of Parliament in The Gambia, but also a Member of Parliament for ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States.

Gambia is one of the fifteen countries that comprise this economic union, which turned 45 years old in 2020. ECOWAS, founded to promote economic integration across West Africa (an objective that should be familiar to Europeans), binds a region that includes nearly 350 million people.

These days, Gambia and, by association, ECOWAS, face a direct and indirect challenge of a peculiar nature. How we move forward determines the fates of tens of millions.

The direct challenge is, of course, the terrible pandemic the world confronts. Recently, the World Health Organisation issued an alarm, concerning the rise in cases in Sub-Saharan Africa, which includes many ECOWAS states. But this threat is multiplied by indirect challenges.

Much of Africa's populations face food insecurity, although its cause may not be what the average observer expects. Rather, the EU's agricultural policies, which are deeply protectionist, prevent free competition; specifically, the Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP, pours some 43 billion euros annually into subsidies for the EU's agricultural sector.

The overall wealth of the EU thus heavily subsidizes European agriculture, which makes it nearly impossible for African farmers to compete. Over half of Sub-Saharan Africans are smallholder farmers, but four-fifths of the region's food supplies come from European imports. This was already a frustrating and precarious reality.

For example, in 2019 Coordination SUD, an NGO network, found that CAP was obstructing and undermining agricultural production in West Africa, including for milk powder and wheat. This worrisome situation has been worsened by the emergence of COVID-19.

For fear of threats to supply chains and associated concerns related to COVID19, the EU announced it would reduce food exports to bolster its reserve supplies. As if COVID were not enough. this announcement places the African consumer, and the African smallholder farmer, in a dire situation.

As a West African leader, I believe what Africa most needs are fair trade policies, allowing us to compete on a level playing field. In my study of the problems facing the developing world, I have found that other regions, similar in significant ways to my own, have faced similar challenges, also born through EU policy.

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Malaysia and the Pacific countries stand out as examples.

Similar to West Africa and The Gambia, many Malaysian farmers are smallholders. In Malaysia, many of these cultivate palm oil, an edible food product also produced for biofuel. In this instance, however, it was not CAP that harmed Malaysian farmers, agriculture, and economy, but a proposed blanket EU ban – though the impact in benefiting EU agricultural producers at the expense of smallholders in the global south, is very much the same.

A blanket ban on palm oil – may simply shift demand to less efficient, more land-intensive agricultural products, such as sunflower and rapeseed oil, resulting in even higher rates of deforestation and greater environmental strain. (Some policy experts believe that this is the point: despite the guise of environmentalism, the ban is fundamentally a protectionist effort aimed at boosting the EU's own oilseed industries – especially when Malaysia has slowed deforestation rates and created nationwide sustainability schemes).

Whatever the motivation, there is no doubt that the ban devastates the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, who comprise 50% of palm-oil producers. Add to that the decline in overall demand caused by the COVID-19 crisis, and smallholder farmers in Malaysia – one of the world's largest palm-oil producers – are facing a veritable "survival crisis," despite the tremendous progress the country has made in ensuring sustainable production.

Again, there is some evidence that the EU is rethinking its approach – begging the question: could there be a reset button?

Chances increased over the past weeks, when it was noticed that the EU had begun to re-evaluate the Common Agricultural Policy. Simultaneously, some discussion arose concerning CSA schemes – Community-Supported Agriculture, initiatives which would be of great benefit to West Africa's vulnerable farmers.

In Community-Supported Agriculture, or CSA, producers and consumers are not at a distant remove from each other, but instead in close contact. For West Africa, at least, a CSA model would be ideal. It would empower smallholder farmers by giving them direct access to consumers.

It would reverse the model of CAP, which subsidizes European agriculture beyond competition, and inevitably renders the consumer – distant from the producer, not only physically but mentally – more vulnerable. Add in a crisis like COVID, and ordinary food insecurity becomes gravely magnified.

But considering the distance between the EU producer and the West African consumer, it is not surprising that such concerns are rarely felt.

Worse still, these promising discussions were put on hold; the CAP continues to affect the destinies not only of African smallholder farmers, as we have seen, but of Africans themselves. But – hopefully, sooner rather than later – the world will overcome the coronavirus crisis one day.

When, however, we do emerge out into that new world, wherever we are from and wherever we call home, will we accept that things must change, or resign ourselves to things staying the same as they had been before? I know that West Africa has the potential to become a critical node in a growing global economy.

Committed, very much like the EU, to economic cooperation and integration, and combining the talents and energies of hundreds of millions, we can be a partner for the EU on any number of regional and global issues. But to do so, we must first see that the EU works with us – and not, however unintentionally, against us.

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