The Gates-Rockefeller Green Revolution for Africa: Still ignoring the root causes of hunger?
The Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced their joint $150 million Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). According to Gary Toeneissen, interim president of AGRA and Director for Food Security at Rockefeller, the initiative will bring benefits to the continent’s impoverished farmers who have—until now—been bypassed by the Green Revolution. This statement is remarkable given that, according to a World Bank evaluation, over the last twenty years the Green Revolution’s research institutions have invested 40-45% of their $350 million/yr budget in Africa. If these public funds were not invested in the Green Revolution, then where were they spent? If they were spent on the Green Revolution, then why does Africa need another one? Either the Green Revolution’s institutions don’t work, or the Green Revolution itself doesn’t work—or both. The Green Revolution did not “bypass” Africa. It failed. Because this new philanthropic effort ignores, misinterprets, and misrepresents the harsh lessons of the first Green Revolution’s multiple failures, it will likely worsen the problem.
That said, AGRA’s decentralized and participatory plant–breeding approach is a welcome change from the centralized, top-heavy research and extension methods that for three decades failed miserably in combating hunger and poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. Certainly, the focus on the tremendous productivity potential of the region’s 180 million smallholders is long overdue, and it is heartening to see the Gates Foundation—a newcomer to agricultural development—throw its considerable philanthropic weight to ending hunger.
Unfortunately, while the architects of this effort dutifully recite the Green Revolution’s oft-trumpeted claims to success in raising agricultural yields, there is little understanding of its colossal failure: it did not eliminate hunger. In some cases hunger actually increased with the introduction of the Green Revolution’s hybrids. True, the Indian sub-continent went from being a chronic food importer to a massive grain exporter, but this did not keep poor people from starving to death during the 1960 famines, nor did it keep 200 million Indians from going hungry in 1995 while the country exported $625 million worth of wheat and flour and 5 million metric tons of rice. Even as recently as 2001, starvation deaths were reported in more than a dozen Indians states, despite the fact that India ranks near the top of agricultural exporters in the global south. India’s current 38 million-ton grain surplus could easily feed its 320 million hungry people, but does not. Why? Because starving villagers are too poor to buy the food produced in their own countryside.
In both Mexico and India studies revealed that the Green Revolution’s expensive seed, fertilizer, pesticide and irrigation “packages” favored a minority of economically privileged farmers. These same packages ended up indebting the smallholder majority, many of whom were eventually pushed into landlessness and poverty. According to the Indian government, between 1993 and 2003, over 100,000 bankrupt Indian farmers committed suicide. Since India has averaged 16,000 farmer suicides a year—usually by drinking Green Revolution pesticides. In the Punjab, the Green Revolution “showcase”, the government admits to over 2,000 farmer suicides. It’s not that these farmers missed out on the Green Revolution. On the contrary, their destitution and desperation are the result of the Green Revolution.
On the environmental side, the costs of the well-documented litany of “externalities”; polluted rivers, streams and water tables, widespread soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, occupational pesticide poisoning and—yes—global warming, are somehow never counted in the Green Revolution’s triumphant balance sheet. In India, Green Revolution packages required heavy irrigation. The Indian government subsidized the digging of tens of thousands of tubewells to pump irrigation water to the surface. Over the last decades, tubewells have pumped many water tables dry, forcing vast areas to return to traditional, dryland farming or give up farming altogether. According to India’s hydrologists, nearly a fifth of the sub-continent is withdrawing more water than is being replaced by rain. In the Punjab—home of the Green Revolution—nearly 80% of groundwater is now “overexploited or critical.” This draw down may be irreversible. Because most of these grains are exported, the hydrological result of the Green Revolution packages is the sacrifice of India’s ancient aquifers to the voracity of the international grain trade.
AGRA’s claim that the introduction of chemical fertilizers to sub-Saharan Africa will improve the fertility of the region’s soils is thus not only disturbing, it flies in the face of science, experience and plain common sense. Soils in the tropics quickly lose their organic matter under Green Revolution fertilization regimes. Yields drop precipitously, requiring higher and higher chemical applications until fertilization costs outweigh yield benefits. By then the soil is biologically dead and must be painstakingly reclaimed by adding large amounts of organic matter in order to be productive. The Rockefeller Foundation’s notion that small rural shopkeepers will provide farmers with the agronomic technical assistance needed to maintain soil fertility is ludicrous. At best, they will do what they have always done: assist a handful of foreign companies to increase sales of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Given the end of cheap oil, and the inevitable explosion of fertilizer costs, what kind of future does the Green Revolution really offer to poor farmers?
Agricultural improvement with smallholders—who make up the majority of the world’s poor—so they can feed themselves and produce a small surplus is a necessary step in combating hunger. But sustainable rural development is not just about increasing yields and economic growth. The failures of the Green Revolution have taught us that rural development requires the redistribution of land and resources, a fair and stable market, and sound agroecological management in order to be sustainable. This is especially true for sub-Saharan Africa where, despite the fact that in countries like Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia and Mali, the area of unused good quality farmland is many times greater than the area actually farmed, average land holdings are less than an acre.
Why has the Rockefeller Foundation found it necessary to team up with Gates to revive the Green Revolution? Why have Bill and Melinda Gates decided to promote an outdated and tragically flawed agricultural development model? Why haven’t the many successful agroecological and farmer-led alternatives been considered? Shouldn’t farmers have a chance to weigh in this time on big philanthropy’s plans for their future?
One hopes that the U.S.’s conscientious philanthropists will explore the growing number successful agroecological options and economic alternatives for sustainable production and poverty alleviation that have grown in response to the failures of the Green Revolution. Across Latin America and Asia, farmer-to-farmer movements, farmer-led research teams, and farmer field schools have already discovered how to raise yields, distribute benefits, protect soils, conserve water and enhance agro-biodiversity on hundreds of thousands of smallholdings—in spite of the Green Revolution. Rather than promoting an outdated and tragically flawed agricultural development model, we would all do well to consult and learn from these farmers.
From Canada- Way off in darkest Cape Breton Island I heard Eric today on CBC. Thanks Eric! I am an old lady farmer, doggedly keeping my sheep and beef animals, a one-woman resistance against industrial ag and the take over of our food supply. I figure I haven't been paid for my product since the 70s. I won't go into the definition of 'they', but 'they' are just waiting for all us oldies to die, having done everything they can to cripple us for 30 years! The big boys farm club(Canadian Fed. of Agriculture)doesn't dare peep about paying the farmer, only the NFU does that.
You know, one of the scarey things to me is that this program for Africa is extra-governmental(or maybe just 'mental'?)and nowhere does it get voted on. Who ever voted for the Rock. Foundation, or Bill and Melinda Gates? They are making democracy irrelevant.Isn't anyone noticing?
Thanks, Eric, for speaking for us, Erika