Adopting Agroecology: Madonna, Malawi and Malthus

Again, can’t even read National Geographic without thinking about that cursed word, ADOPTION. This month’s issue has an article about the global food crisis. When I got to the part about Malawi, of course the only thing I could think about was Madonna and her haphazard attempts to adopt another Malawian orphan-who-is-not-an-orphan. Even NG talks about it when discussing Malawi’s two Millennium Villages:

Good primary schools, improved road systems, and connections to the power grid and the Internet are on the way in these villages, and in the “Madonna” village, which is further north.

The Madonna?” I asked.

“Yes. I hear she’s divorcing her latest husband. Is that true?”

The “green revolution” of the 1960s-1990s has not helped places like India, where cancer and birth defects are rampant in some areas. Aggressive fossil-fuel-based fertilizer use has resulted in contaminated ground water and barren soil. Western ideals of “helping” Africans and others by bringing the green revolution to them is not going to solve the problem of food production. Neither is the corn-based ethanol craze in my native Illinois, or genetic engineering, or any of the other “modern” techniques most people think will be the magic bullet. As I said in my previous post, we need to return to the simple, tried-and-true method of organic self-sustaining farming, otherwise known as agroecology.

And that is what some people in Malawi are doing. The Soils, Food, and Healthy Communities project (SFHC) helps farmers get off the ground by distributing legume seeds, which nourish soils and children’s bodies at the same time. As NG describes:

The program began in 2000 at Ekwendeni Hospital, where the staff was seeing high rates of malnutrition. Research suggested the culprit was the corn monoculture that had left small farmers with poor yields due to depleted soil and the high price of fertilizer.

[T]he project’s research coordinator, Rachel Bezner Kerr, is alarmed that big-money foundations are pushing for a new green revolution in Africa. “I find it deeply disturbing,” she says. “It’s getting farmers to rely on expensive inputs produced from afar that are making money for big companies rather than on agro-ecological methods for using local resources and skills. I don’t think that’s the solution.”

I live in a rural-suburban community where farming is still an important part of life. I’m lucky that I can (and do) grow my own food, or go to our local farmer’s markets and find a plethora of delicious produce sustained in Illinois soil. There is a big push in my community toward helping our farmers by buying or growing organic, sustainable produce. But we’re lucky. We have an abundance of rainfall, excellent soil, and easily accessible grocery stores when you just can’t help that craving for Ben & Jerry’s Cake Batter ice cream. Like so many others, Malawians don’t have that luxury. Instead they get people like Madonna taking advantage of the food crisis by sweeping in and stealing their children, and thus their culture, much as happened (continues to happen?) to Native Americans in the Western Hemisphere and Aborigines in Australia.

In 1798 Thomas Malthus suggested that our population and our food supply are inextricably linked. NG writes:

Though [Malthus’] essays emphasized “positive checks” on population from famine, disease and war, his “preventative checks” may have been more important. A growing workforce, Malthus explained, depresses wages, which tends to make people delay marriage until they can better support a family. Delaying marriage reduces fertility rates, creating an equally powerful check on populations.

Which is exactly what we’re seeing in the United States. Couples delay, discover they’re infertile, and wham! come up with the concept of “rescuing” those poor non-orphans by adopting them. This is merely distributing the population, it doesn’t solve the problem of the food supply nor does it benefit the cultures from which these children are stolen.

Madonna could have given her adoption blood-money to the SFHC instead. I wonder how many legume seeds THAT would bring! Not as fashionable an accessory as a child, true, but far more beneficial for both the planet and its people. We could preserve the Malawian culture by preserving their most valuable asset, their children, and at the same time help them restore their soil and their future through sustainable farming.

Why is that less noble than ownership via adoption? Why can’t we adopt agroecology instead of kids?


  1. I read that her charity “Saving Malawi” has questionable accounting. and I wonder what will happen to it now that she did not get what she wanted. But I give lot of credit to the malawi courts for standing firm and not being BOUGHT!

    Like you, I relate most everything to adoption. I recently was watching something about saving polar bars and though how interesting it is that when animals lack enough to et in their natural habitat, when their environment is causing them to become extinct – no one suggests taking them away to another part of the globe. Instead the recommendations are to repair the failing environment. Amazing concept! Again, too bad its not applied to children…but then the later is more coveted and brings a higher price by more people.

  2. Catching up on my reading today and wanted to send kudos on your two most recent columns! Excellent!

    Those of us who are adopted can’t help but see the parallels to adoption in other societal practices. You make some very good points!