African Green Revolution ignoring downsides of intensive farming

By staff writers
October 13, 2011

Lessons learned from Asia’s Green Revolution about the damage intensive farming can cause are being ignored in the race to help Africa feed itself, Christian Aid warns in a report published today.

Sustainable farming techniques are being sidelined in favour of a quick-fix solution - modern seed varieties (MVs) that produce better yields if treated with synthetic fertiliser and pesticides.

Such inputs are expensive and the seeds need frequent replacement. In Asia, the use of MVs in a head-long rush for bumper harvests has been shown to accelerate soil degradation, destroy crop diversity and encourage farmers to go into debt.

As Africa seeks to banish hunger, sustainable alternatives that can boost production, incomes and food security, help conserve soil and water and build resilience to climate change, remain badly under-resourced.

The new report, Healthy Harvests: The Benefits of Sustainable Agriculture in Africa and Asia, says that while there is no denying the achievement of Asia’s Green Revolution in lifting yields and reducing hunger, improvements began to stall in the 1990s amid problems that should give African governments "more than a pause for thought."

These include widespread soil degradation, increased vulnerability to pests, farmer debts, a decline in traditional farming knowledge, increased inequality in rural communities, loss of biodiversity and increased greenhouse gas emissions from industrial agriculture.

In recent years, interested parties including the World Bank, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), USAID, the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations and African governments have promoted a Green Revolution for Africa that they claim would avoid such negative impacts.

While the efforts of such backers have helped focus the attention of policymakers and donors on the need to strengthen food security through agriculture in Africa, the solutions they advocate have tended to focus too narrowly around promoting synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, which were behind many of Asia’s problems.

"Governments and donors need to significantly re-balance their current focus on quick-fix, external-input-intensive ‘solutions’ towards a much greater support for sustainable agro-ecological approaches," says the report.

Particular concern is raised about a number of initiatives funded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) founded in 2006 by the Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates’ Foundations, and supported by DFID.

Working in 12 African countries, it funds important projects promoting improved seeds, soil health, market access for farmers and finance and policy work. It also aims to increase productivity by improving farmers’ access to mainly hybrid seeds - part of the MV range - and inputs such as chemical fertilisers.

AGRA’s key activities in this regard have included funding African agricultural scientists to develop hybrid seeds and improved crop varieties, and funding networks of rural agro-dealers to expand small farmers’ access to seeds, pesticides and fertilisers.

The report says that AGRA funded agro-dealers in eight countries are selling "ever more quantities of chemicals to farmers and increasing their reliance on inputs".

In Malawi, where AGRA operates, ‘the principal beneficiaries of these efforts are the key suppliers of the inputs, mainly Monsanto,’ it says.

At the same time, training in Malawi of the agro-dealers in product knowledge – a key part of the AGRA programme – has been partly undertaken by the input suppliers, leading Christian Aid to question whether they have merely used the training to promote their own products.

The report says 70 per cent of the world’s nearly one billion hungry are smallholder farmers and the rural landless who have been long locked into a cycle of low productivity, lack of assets and services and weak market power.

Today, they also face the effects of climate change, land degradation and ground water depletion.

The report gives examples of successful sustainable agriculture techniques that can help, including diversification which involves cultivating a wide range of crops, introducing mixed systems of crops, livestock and aquaculture; and increasing biodiversity.

Healthy Harvests: The Benefits of Sustainable Agriculture in Africa and Asia is launched tonight at the House of Lords at a joint meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Agriculture and Food, Christian Aid and the African Smallholder Farmers Group. It marks the UN’s World Food Day on Sunday, October 16. You can read the report here


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