Rising global hunger in recent years has prompted calls for a broad reckoning over what is wrong with global food systems. Our changing climate has added urgency to the crisis. Many experts warn that our current agricultural practices are undermining the resource base—soil, water, seeds, climate—on which future food production depends.
A growing number of farmers, scientists, and development experts now advocate a shift from high-input, chemical-intensive agriculture to low-input ecological farming. They are supported by an impressive array of new research documenting both the risks of continuing to follow our current practices and the potential benefits of a transition to more sustainable farming informed by collaborations between farmers and scientists.
The new initiatives have been met with a chorus of derision from an unsurprising group of commentators, many associated with agribusiness interests. Agribusinesspersonn Kip Tom, then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), last year accused former FAO director Graziano da Silva of being in cahoots with a “cabal” of environmentalists bent on rejecting “20th century agricultural technologies—including advanced biotech seed varieties, modern pesticides and fertilizer.”
As I argue in a new paper, “Old Fertilizer in New Bottles,” such accusations flip the innovation narrative on its head in two crucial ways. First, they are willfully ignorant of the scientific advances in agroecology and the growing consensus that business as usual is no longer an option. Second, they present those 20th century agricultural technologies as effective innovations for the future when in fact they are innovations of the past, with a checkered record of success. These are now failing anew under the banner of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
The PR assault on agroecology
The adage widely attributed to Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi says, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” If those are the four stages of social change, the movement for agroecology seems to have reached Stage Three.
That fight is loud in the media. A drumbeat of inflammatory headlines on recent articles drives home the messaging that anyone opposing the advance of agricultural technologies is condemning poor farmers to backwardness and poverty: ”Financiers of Poverty Malnutrition and Death;” “Luddite Eco-imperialists Claim to be Virtuous;” “Keeping Africa on the Brink of Starvation.”
Kenyan public relations consultant James Njoroge struck all the familiar chords in an October 2020 opinion article, accusing agroecology proponents of “cloaking themselves in the woke environmental and pro-peasant farmer rhetoric of the organic-only agroecology movement…to keep African farmers from using safe pesticides, fertilizers, hybrid seeds, and genetically modified crops….” He went on to accuse them of ‘idealizing peasant labor and retrograde subsistence farming” and rejecting “the Green Revolution’s successes,” bankrolled by Northern non-governmental organizations he called “the face of a ‘green’ neocolonialism.”
Other African commentaries have been generated indirectly by the Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS), a controversial institute funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to “depolarize the GMO debates” by training invited fellows in “advanced agricultural biotechnology communications.” Ugandan CAS graduate Nassib Mugwanya did his part, writing, “After Agroecology: Why Traditional Agricultural Practices Can’t Transform African Agriculture.”
For such critics, the future is innovation and innovation is their proprietary technology, the kinds of commercial high-yield seeds and inorganic fertilizers associated with the Green Revolution.
The Green Revolution isn’t what it used to be…but maybe it never was
Africa’s new Green Revolution was launched in 2006 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation with the stated goals of using those old innovations to double yields and incomes for 30 million farming households in 13 African countries by 2020 while halving food insecurity. As it reached that 2020 deadline, AGRA had spent $1 billion. The effort had been heavily supported by African governments, which spent up to $1 billion every year subsidizing farmers’ purchases of Green Revolution inputs.
Despite the investments, there are no signs of any productivity revolution in AGRA countries. As we documented in last year’s report, False Promises, yields for staple crops didn’t double (a 100 percent increase), they increased just 18 percent over 12 years. Even the heavy subsidies to maize produced paltry yield gains of just 29 percent. Incomes stagnated as well, and food insecurity worsened: there was a 30 percent increase in the number of undernourished people in AGRA’s 13 countries.
No one should be surprised. As recent historical accounts show, those Green Revolution innovations actually produced underwhelming results in India in the 1960s and 1970s. Only wheat yields increased faster than they had before the introduction of the much-mythologized first Green Revolution. As with AGRA, overall stable crop yields stagnated. The input most responsible for raising wheat yields was not high-yield seeds or synthetic fertilizer, it was irrigation, a feature sorely lacking in Africa’s Green Revolution. Just 4 percent of agricultural land in Sub Saharan Africa is irrigated compared to 54 percent of India’s land in wheat. In India, the environmental toll was severe, with declining soil fertility and rising water pollution and depletion. Meanwhile, small-scale farmers saw costs rise, yields stagnate, and debts mount, trends we documented in our study of AGRA.