Since the 2007-8 food crisis, when spikes in prices for global commodity crops raised the specter of food shortages, Africa has seen a surge in funding to help local food producers grow more of the region’s food. African governments raised spending on agricultural development, supported by international donors who recognized, for the first time in decades, that developing countries needed to grow more of their own food and that their small-scale farmers could be a crucial part of that effort rather than a drag on economic development.2 For several years, high international crop prices drew private investment into agriculture. Global philanthropies, newly endowed with billions of dollars in technology profits, led the charge. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation established a well-funded program on international development and partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation in 2006 to launch the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). AGRA eventually set the ambitious goals of doubling crop productivity and incomes for 30 million small-scale farming households while halving food insecurity in 20 African countries by 2020.3
That Green Revolution project is failing. My research has shown that as the Green Revolution project reaches its 2020 deadline, crop productivity has grown slowly, poverty remains high, and the number of hungry people in the 13 countries that have received priority funding has risen 30% since 2006. Few small-scale farmers have benefited. Some have been thrown into debt as they try to pay for the high costs of the commercial seeds and synthetic fertilizer that Green Revolution proponents sell them. This disappointing track record comes in spite of $1 billion in funding for AGRA and $1 billion per year in subsidies from African governments to encourage their farmers to buy these high-priced inputs.
African governments have a choice to make, a choice that will determine the continent’s food future. For the last 14 years, governments and donors have bet heavily, and almost exclusively, on the Green Revolution formula of commercial inputs, fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and agro-chemicals. That gamble has failed to generate agricultural productivity, even as the continent has seen a strong period of economic growth. Rural poverty remains high. Hunger is rampant, with the United Nations warning that Africa could see a 73% surge in undernourishment by 2030 if policies don’t change.4
Africans can choose a different path, one offered by innovative small-scale farmers all over the continent. Many reject the Green Revolution as the failing policies of past, pointing to long-term damage to farming communities and the environment in India, target of the first Green Revolution fifty years ago. They have demonstrated that agroecology, with its innovative combination of ecological science and farmers’ knowledge and practices, can restore degraded soils, make farms more resilient to climate change, improve food security and nutrition by growing and consuming a diversity of crops, all at a fraction of the cost — to farmers and to African governments — of the Green Revolution approach.5
To the Green Revolution, they say: Time’s up. You’ve had your chance to show what difference you can make. As we face climate change and rising hunger from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time to take a different path. The future is agroecology.