The End of Poverty Part VI. Effects of high-quality modern agricultural technology on food production in Malawi

posted in: Syndicated | 3
Maize (corn) production, and net exports trade statistics for the African country of Malawi for the period 1998 to 2008, based on FAOSTAT data. Graph prepared by D Tribe.

There is much debate and concern about food security and development for Africa. On a hopeful note, several GMO Pundit posts have dealt with the wonderful story of improved corn growing output in Malawi (see links at the end of this posting).

GMO Pundit has now found the time to look over the FAO official statistics for corn production and corn trade in Malawi.  He has produced from official FAO statistics the graph shown above.

This graph documents the overall economic story surrounding the decisive government policy response to the disastrous 2005 food crisis in that country with interventions that subsidised seed and fertiliser inputs for 1 million smallholder farmers.

The the trade and farm statistics suggest that Malawi has made a break from the past as a result of this carefully considered intervention.

The past consisted of all too frequent food emergencies–and Malawi was at these times of food crises, a food import-dependent country.

The present record shows that that Malawi is now a major maize exporter with significantly increased capacity to produce the staple maize crop.

It will be fascinating to follow the ongoing results of corn trade from this country, which will hopefully increase rural family incomes and drive down poverty. Whole country food output is a very strong measure of whether there has been improvement in farm productivity.

Some commentators doubt whether modern technology is helpful or even relevant to African smallholder producers. The real scenario in Malawi should give these commentators reason to pause in their arguments.

Previous GMO Pundit posts relating to Malawi and other interventions to end poverty:
There is hope in Africa. A fertiliser scheme in Malawi raised maize yields from 0.8 to 2.2 times per hectare; one of the continent’s poorest countries now exports food. 2010

How the Rich World Can Help Africa Help Itself. 2007 – Glenn Denning and Jeffrey Sachs, Financial Times (London) , May 29, 2007

The End of Poverty Part I. The Positives.
The End of Poverty Part II. A reversal of fortune.
The End of Poverty Part III. The Poverty Trap Is a Rural Phenomenon.
The End of Poverty PartIV. Interview with Jeffrey Sachs
The End of Poverty Part V. In 1978 China’s economic resurgence started with rural farming communities.

Update 5 December 2010
from a reader comment posted at the Biofortified mirror version of this posting
the Pundit is extremely grateful to Andrew Dorward for making this contribution, and is currently reading has research paper with considerable interest.

Author of comment : Andrew Dorward
Thanks for this. There is much to learn from the Malawi experience and its achievements. You may be interested in an in depth analysis of the programme with more detailed and comprehensive statistics: see
Dorward, A and Chirwa, E. (2010) ‘The Malawi Agricultural Input Subsidy Programme: 2005-6 to 2008-9.’International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability (IJAS), 9 (1). (Forthcoming)
This can be downloaded from <>


Malawi’s implementation of a large scale agricultural input subsidy programme in 2005/6 and subsequent years has attracted significant international interest. This paper reviews the background, processes, achievements and outcomes of the programme over the period 2005/6 to 2008/9. The very large scale disbursement of heavily subsidised fertilisers and (mainly hybrid and composite maize) seed to very large numbers of beneficiaries across the country represents a significant logistical achievement and led to significant increases in national maize production and productivity, and this has contributed to increased food availability, higher real wages and wider economic growth and poverty reduction. However the latter years of the programme have also been accompanied by very high international fertilizer prices and costs and by high maize prices, the latter undermining the programme’s food security, poverty reduction and growth benefits for the majority of Malawian farmers, who are very poor and rely on purchased maize for significant amounts of their staple food requirements. Estimated economic returns to the programme have been modest but, given other benefits of the programme not captured in cost benefit analysis, satisfactory. With substantial reductions in both prices and subsidised volumes of fertilisers in subsequent years, there is considerable scope for building on achievements to substantially raise programme effectiveness, efficiency and benefits. Any application of Malawi’s subsidy experience to other countries needs to take account of special characteristics of the Malawian maize economy and of measures needed to raise such programmes’ effectiveness and efficiency and ensure their best fit with and contribution to sustainable development policies.

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David Tribe is an applied geneticist, teaching graduate/undergrad courses in food science, food safety, biotechnology and microbiology at the University of Melbourne.