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Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500-2000

Author(s):McCann, James C.
Reviewer(s):Bogue, Allan G.

Published by EH.NET (September 2005)

James C. McCann, Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500-2000. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005. xiii + 289 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-674-01718-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Allan G. Bogue, Department of History, University of Wisconsin.

A historian and African Studies specialist, James C. McCann has studied in Africa, conducted research there for international philanthropic agencies and written histories of Ethiopia and the African environment. In this book he describes “maize’s historical encounter with the landscapes of Africa” from introduction to its current status as Africa’s dominant food crop. Of concern also is the “implicit question” of whether the New World’s gift of this crop has bestowed a blessing (grace) upon Africa.

More important as a food source in Africa than in comparable entities maize is expected to double production by 2020. It is the world and Africa’s most adapted food crop, thriving in many environmental conditions and farming systems. Some African nations devote more than seventy percent of their cereal acreage to maize. Old African farmers were artisans adapting crop mixes to local ecology, soils, elevation, and moisture. Initially corn was a garden plant valued for early maturity and easy food preparation. In contrast, writes McCann, North America and Europe developed an industrial model pointing to monocropping and use of chemicals to overcome differences in soil capability. As a cereal in Africa, maize displaced wheat and sorghums, less often rice. A great variety of colors, field characteristics, and disease resistance developed in a process of folk selection of seed. Women gardened it; men tended it in field. It had political implications because it could feed armies or support social objectives. Early Africanization produced heterogeneity — now replaced by standardization of cultivation methods, reflecting, says McCann, the political ecology changing from local initiative, through colonialism to globalism. Some unique features remain including the fact that in Africa maize is primarily used as human food. Industrial phase maize is preferred in today’s global system, explains McCann, because it can be controlled by the state and corporate agriculture, features economies of scale, and is comparable across geography and cultures.

In his first chapter McCann introduces the maize plant, explains its American origins, its need for human care in propagation, its five major families — sweet, pop, floury, flint, and dent — and their many colors and characteristics. Africa’s maize crop increased area most strikingly in the twentieth century, particularly since 1950. In some African states it provides more than fifty percent of the food calories. “For better or worse,” writes McCann, “modern genetic alchemy has transformed maize from an obligingly adaptive vegetable crop to a hegemonic leviathan that dominates regional diets and international grain markets” (p. 21).

Documentary evidence of maize’s arrival in Africa as a “stranger” cultivar is fragmentary. Those types introduced reflected the New World contacts of the European nations whose traders worked the African coastlines. A trail of flint types also led from Seville to Venice and thence to Egypt and the Nile valley. The types and varieties later present and regional names for maize left tracks of the introduction process. The speed of acceptance varied; in some of West Africa maize became a basic part of the intercropping, rotation, and burning of pioneer forest agriculture and a slave trade staple. Here floury maize supplanted flints. But in some areas maize long remained a vegetable. With the adoption of African experiment station initials and numbers in naming new varieties it was “no longer the stranger” (p. 38}.

Having covered such introductory matters, McCann describes major features of the crop’s adoption and development in key areas of Africa beginning with the Asante in Ghana where maize fueled that tribe’s “hegemonic growth” (p. 43). Here maize produced two crops a year, fitting into the forest fallow system along with cassava. The Asante’s maize-fed army expanded tribal reach into neighboring savannahs, adapting floury maize to the drier climate. Currently quality protein maize from the Ghana Crop Research Institute is allowing a shift toward monocropping. Despite some differences with Ghana, Nigerian farmers also found that maize produced the greatest returns. But McCann cautions that diversion from “a biodiverse forest ecology to virtual monocropping may be an increasingly fragile” trend (p. 57).

Next McCann provides a discussion of maize in two peasant empires, that occupying the northeastern Ethiopian highlands and the Venetian Republic, the latter enhancing the book’s comparative dimensions. Dominant in the Mediterranean trades, the Venetian elites suffered with the opening of transatlantic connections and diverted investments into the agricultural hinterland. Here, the landlords wished their tenants to produce wheat. But due to peasant resistance and initiative, maize became the primary crop, supporting grain and livestock production and providing the peasant’s major food, a dependence that later produced the scourge of pellagra. In Ethiopia maize remained a garden plant for centuries. Despite some overlord presence, Ethiopian farmers controlled the crop selection on their plots, developing a conservative agrarian culture, its members satisfied with their mix of cereals. Maize emerged as a field crop in the twentieth century along the southern edge of the highlands where commercial production began in the 1930s and a coffee-maize economy developed after World War II. Government controls on coffee during the socialist era, 1974-1991, persuaded many to expand their maize crop, as did demographic crisis and other government policies. By 1991 half of Ethiopia’s cereal production was maize. Italy by the 1990s was the world’s thirteenth leading maize producer, its dent hybrids supporting dairy and meat agroindustries. But in Ethiopia the late turn to maize accompanied “a decline into precarious subsistence” and efforts on the part of the state and international agencies to “break traditional cropping patterns.” If a blessing in Italy, maize was not so in Ethiopia (p. 93).

Southern Africa developed two patterns of maize culture — one of small farms, often operated by women, following a subsistence strategy but also selling surplus grain in competition with large commercial farms in a national market supervised by marketing boards. Maize had arrived in southern Africa by the mid 1600s, Brazilian flints, floury types and North American dents following in sequence by 1900. Dutch settlers brought mechanized agriculture which also revolutionized hinterland native agriculture, maize replacing sorghums. Diamonds, gold, and railroads industrialized the economy and created a national grain market. After World War I, white farmers used open pollinated white dents as a cash crop that provided the “agrarian economic base of the rapid expansion of settlers’ rule in southern Africa.” By 1930 maize had superseded wheat as a cereal in northern South Africa and the families of industrial workers left behind “on impoverished farms in the black homelands” of an apartheid society lived on the local crop (p. 110). Meanwhile white settler farms grew, assisted by price controls, government credit, extension, and marketing activities that encouraged monocropping. So marked was the influence of southern Africa in maize research and administration that white dent became dominant in Africa.

McCann’s last regional story describes the successes of hybrid varieties in Rhodesia and its successor states, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi. Learning of American hybrid corn research in the 1930s, plant breeders at the Salisbury Agricultural Research Station in southern Rhodesia began to develop inbred dent lines. Working solely to sustain European-style agriculture they produced a promising parent line in the 1940s, suited to the soils of the white commercial farmers, and continued work when the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland emerged. They released the phenomenally successful hybrid, SR52 in 1960. Only after creation of the Rhodesian heir states, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi did black farmers benefit from improvements in hybrid maize, although the resulting monoculture increased vulnerability to drought. Maize had somewhat different histories in the three states but all (as also Kenya) are now marked by hybrid monocropping, production for a national market, and the major presence of agricultural science.

Interspersed amid the historical accounts of maize in various settings, McCann discusses two crises in African cereal culture. In Sierra Leone in 1949 a devastating attack of American Rust on the maize crop occurred, spreading rapidly over the next several years along the West African Coast and finally reaching Southern Rhodesia, Kenya, and Tanganyika. The villain was P. polysora an American resident but left behind in the Atlantic crossing. Local plant scientists and “multilateral international agencies” rushed development of rust resistant maize and by 1953 promising strains were ready when the infection disappeared. P. polysora is now an African resident. The reaction to the outbreak, writes McCann, was that of a “mature imperial world” transitioning to one dominated by “the modern development industry and invasive multilateral organizations” (p. 121). He also describes the severe malaria epidemic that swept Ethiopia’s northwest high lands in 1998. Here the government with assistance from a Japanese philanthropic program, Sasakawa Global 2000, and the Carter Center had continued its “infatuation with improved types of maize” by encouraging the use of new hybrids, increasing production substantially (p. 186). BH 660, the major variety, tasseled late. McCann shared in research that found expansion of maize areas, using this variety, when linked with late rains, fortified the mosquito breeding catch basins with corn pollen. This supported the development of a large proportion of mosquito larvae thus reinforcing the vector of infection.

Africa’s agricultural production is increasing at two percent per year while population grows at a three percent rate. This book is an invaluable source of information on a basic element in the situation, essential reading for anyone interested in Africa’s history or current problems. In the conclusion McCann suggests that the current emphasis on maize in Africa may have a Jurassic Park effect given the narrowing of genetic flexibility entailed in monocropping hybrid maize, the possibility of plant disease outbreaks, a growing danger from mycotoxins, drought and climate change, human epidemics enhanced by population mobility, and the volatility of international markets. “It is a gloomy prospect,” he writes, “a cautionary alarm is justified” (p. 210). Threaded through the narrative is a policy critique. African plant breeders long served the needs of only white commercial farmers and by ignoring the old varicolored maizes of the black farmers they restricted future options. McCann’s ideal is biodiversity and local initiative. International philanthropic organizations are “invasive” servants of globalism. In beginning his book McCann in effect promises a benefit/cost analysis of maize’s contribution to African history and this he delivers if somewhat impressionistically. We should be grateful. But there is still an opportunity for economic historians to provide a more rigorous analysis. At a less notable level this reviewer was impressed, as will be others, by the author’s success in moving a pun-laden title past the Harvard University Press editors.

Allan G. Bogue is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His publications include articles and books in American agricultural history, the most recent being The Farm on the North Talbot Road (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001).

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):Africa
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII