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Africa's food crisis has deep, centuries-old roots

Africa faces a worsening food crisis that scientists are finding is deeply rooted in the continent's past. For much of the last 2 million years, icecaps covered Northern Europe, America, and Asia. In Africa, which was drier but not much colder than now, the great sand-sea of the Sahara formed, while south of it the tropical jungle contracted to its present size.

Open grassland with its thorny bush, baobab, and acacia trees became the characteristic landscape of the continent's east and south. It was in this African savanna that man evolved and learned to make fire, talk, and shape tools of flint.

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Today, about 40,000 years later, man has applied science and technology to set off a quiet agricultural revolution all over the planet - except in Africa.

On a 5,000-mile journey through Senegal, Mauritania, and Mali in West Africa, this reporter saw the continent's basic problem everywhere: the red earth, starved greenery, and blowing dust of the world's oldest and weakest soil, never enriched by the glaciers of the north and leached of its minerals by irregular torrential rains.

Africa's now-endemic drought is taking a sharp turn for the worse as it enters its 13th year. Drought has spread from West Africa's eight Sahelian nations to 24 countries in all, with Mauritania, Ethiopia, and Mozambique hit the hardest.

The breakthroughs in tropical plant genetics that have rescued much of Asia and Latin America from hunger - the dwarf, fast-maturing wheat, rice, maize, and other grains - do not grow so well in Africa's soil. The soil doesn't hold water , is not easily fertilized, and if cultivated too intensely, quickly degrades.

''There's a solution in Africa, but it's going to take a lot of hard work,'' says John Bayis, an agricultural expert with the United States Agency for International Development in Senegal, whose view is shared widely here. ''We haven't invested anywhere near the time, money, and energy in Africa that we have in Asia. The technological problems here are more difficult and will take just that much more effort,'' he says.

Scientists here say soil problems are the main reason Africa's food production is not keeping up with its population growth. This is why food production has fallen 11 percent per person since 1970.

Recently in Washington, Montague Yudelman, who runs the World Bank's agricultural program, said in an interview, ''We thought what happened elsewhere would happen in Africa, but it didn't. If we knew the scientific and technical issues, we would be addressing them.''

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John F. Scheuring, a young plant breeder working in Mali, says Africa's existing agricultural system is rapidly eroding and the West needs to learn more about the Africans and their ways. ''We must respect what exists,'' he says, ''otherwise we can destroy.''

Dan Goodman, another young American agricultural scientist working in Niger, says that in places where draft animals and the plow were introduced more than 20 years ago, there is already rapid degradation of the soil.

Like the other scientists, Goodman thinks Africa is going to require an entirely new agricultural technology that fits its soil and climate.

This scientific challenge has yet to be appreciated in Washington.

''Africans are always starving,'' one official said half-seriously just before my trip to Africa. He was probably just being more honest than most. But one sensed that even drought and famine become a bore if they last long enough.

The drought resulted in 100,000 known deaths in 1973 alone. But during the 13 years of drought, most African populations have risen at least 50 percent (largely as a result of antibiotics and modern medicine). The continent now gains 3 percent more people each year and the annual rise in food production, even before the drought worsened, was just 1.3 percent.

This year's total food deficit of 5 million tons (the United Nations is seeking 3.2 million tons of this in food aid) is twice what it was a decade ago. Meanwhile, the Sahara keeps creeping south at the rate of four to 7.5 miles every year.

Africa's predicament has yet to capture much American attention. Us presidential candidate Jesse Jackson has scarcely mentioned it in all the campaign debate about the third world. Though UN agencies appealed for massive food relief almost a year ago, it took a trip to Africa in March by Sen. John C. Danforth (R) of Missouri before Congress passed a supplemental food aid appropriation of $90 million, especially for Africa. (Central America, Poland, and 2 million Afghanis in Pakistan had first priority.)

The UN is still short of its food targets. Everyone prays for rain, but if it does come this month, many dirt roads will be washed away and airlifts may be needed.

President Reagan has asked Congress for $75 million for fiscal 1985 as the first installment of a $500 million, five-year African aid initiative. The administration intends to use the aid as an incentive to get governments to raise farm prices, cut down the size of their swollen bureaucracies, and do what makes sense to grow more food. Priority will be given to governments like Mali's , where an ex-socialist military regime is abandoning state ownership in favor of a free-market economy under the guidance of the International Monetary Fund. The House of Representatives approved the request in May, and Senate action is pending.

Already $8 billion a year in aid from all donors is flowing into Africa, or about $20 per person.

The need is not really for money, but for scientific knowledge about how to grow more food in specifically African conditions. As Scheuring, one of the young agricultural scientists, says, ''Real progress comes hard and from slugging away. You have to advance step by step and carefully. I've been here for five years. Five years ago, I had more solutions than I do now.

Can Africa wait?

Much of it is reeling. In the parts of the Sahel which I visited, Mauritania's largely nomadic Moor society had lost at least half its livestock. Its 1.8 million people had either fled to the capital of Nouakchott or to a few towns along the Senegal River, which was down to its lowest level since 1903. The remaining nomadic herdsmen have driven their cattle, camels, sheep, and goats deep down into Senegal and Mali. Unless the rains return soom - and seeds can survive in the Sahara sands 100 years - a way of life is ending that had gone on pretty much unchanged for 5,000 years.

''Our civilization is dying,'' says Ba Aliou Ilora, secretary of Mauritania's ruling military committee. ''This drought is the destruction of our history and our culture - the choice forced upon us to regroup and settle our population has been more painful, more fundamental than a foreigner can perhaps understand.'' (One could believe him. Yet the entire history of West Africa has been the settling of pastoralists.)

South, in Senegal, the desolation, once you get inland from the coast or away from the green irrigated land along the river, comes as a shock. In villages from which everybody but children and old people have fled, wells are dried up, water tables have fallen, crops have failed, and even the baobab and acacia trees are dying. There is nothing to eat, nothing to drink, nothing to do. At water holes one sees tens of thousands of long-horn, humpback white Zebu cattle. Along the roads are the bones thousands more.

In landlocked Mali, per capita GNP is down to $185 (compared to close to $500 in Senegal and Mauritania), making Mali Africa's fourth poorest country. (Ethiopia is now at the bottom of the heap.) Mali's northern half is a semi-desert of failed crops, lost herds, and abandoned villages.

The great Niger River has fallen to its lowest level on record. Many of the inland lakes and marshes formed by its normal overspill, which provide pasture for the nomads, are dried up this year. Timbuktu and Gao, famed for the Saharan camel caravan trade, have been worst hit; many Tuareg tribesmen have abandoned the nomadic life. American Quaker missionaries trying to settle them around the Gouma area reported a mass exodus as wells dried up. Nara, near the Mauritanian frontier, is another spectacle of countless starving cattle and camels.

Even if the rains mercifully come, the biological effects could long outlive the drought's impact. For instance, lack of rain has touched off an explosion in West Africa's leaf hopper insects, much as grasshoppers plagued the Midwest during the dust bowl days. A new blister beetle has emerged to drive out millet from northern Mali. Sorghum is being planted instead, but it is less drought resistant. This spring huge (three-inch-long beetles) moved into Senegal, posing one more problem.

Africa, where man began, now needs his most advanced scientific techniques.

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