11/01/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Responding to Famine in the Horn of Africa: Learn from Past Mistakes

In mid-September, John Holmes of United Nations announced that the mounting famine in Ethiopia and other countries in the Horn of Africa may dwarf the severity of similar famines in the 1980s and 1990s. While humanitarian concern and speedy on-ground action are surely justified, we must ask why this famine is being predicted to be more devastating than others in the past, and how (or to whom) this 700 million dollars of proposed relief will be targeted. Like current questions about the proposed bailout of American financial institutions, answering why this crisis has occurred and who will really benefit from the mitigation strategies are key issues.

Ethiopia and its neighbors have faced many droughts of comparable physical severity over their histories, and their farmers at times have shown remarkable resilience by shifting to their most drought-adapted crop varieties and associated wild foods to help stave off hunger. The sad truth is that famines are shaped less by drought and more by inequitable political and economic access to seed diversity, technical assistance, and temporary food relief.

This impending famine was not only triggered by drought, but also by the rising global costs of fossil fuels and transportable cereal supplies, and by the recent ravage of wheat crops by a relatively new rust disease known as Ug99. But while most of the technical aid reaching the Horn of Africa has been focused on costly attempts to breed and employ rust- and drought-resistant wheat varieties, Ethiopian farmers themselves recognize the importance of planting a greater diversity of so-called "minor crops" such as teff whenever wheat or barley crops fail. Little outside aid has gone to bolstering crop production of these diverse indigenous crops, even though Ethiopia was recognized as a global center for such crop diversity more than three quarters of a century ago by the great food geographer Nikolay Vavilov.

Ethiopia's governmental seed conservation program--the Institute of Biodiversity Conservation and its own NGOs such as Seeds of Survival (SoS) are some of the most sophisticated in the developing world in their approach to such crises. As Ethiopian scientist Melaku Worede, a recipient of the prestigious Right Livelihood Award has affirmed, "The existence of such genetic diversity in Ethiopia has a great significance for long-term food security of the country... because it provides the resource base on which sustained development of high-yielding and stable varieties depend." During previous droughts, Worede and other Ethiopian scientists completed the work begun decades before by Vavilov by rescuing and conserving many traditional or heirloom crop varieties imperiled by drought. Today, those can be employed---if aid is directed properly---to get diversity back in the fields and on the table---rather than seeing a repeat of earlier failed attempts for the international community to appropriately respond to Ethiopia's plight.

It's time that the U.S. and Western Europe respond to Africa with something other than technological fixes---genetically-engineered hybrids or fossil fuel-based fertilizers---and focus on low-input, farmer-based approaches that draw on Ethiopia's crop diversity and traditional agricultural knowledge. These are features which amazed Vavilov on his visit to Ethiopia nearly a century ago; they continue to offer traditional farmers more long-term resilience and food security in the face of climate change and rising fossil fuel costs than can any imported or top-down solution proposed to end famine.

Gary Nabhan is an agricultural geographer at the University of Arizona, who has written on food security, diversity and famine in his new book from Island Press, WHERE OUR FOOD COMES FROM: Retracing Vavilov's Quest to End Famine.