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A Distinctly African “Green Revolution”

May 26, 2011

…the average farm in China was five times as productive as a farm in sub-Saharan Africa, the average Indian farm twice as productive. Part of this is to do with size and economies of scale, but other factors are at play as well. Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa lack good quality seeds, and the soil they till is often degraded from overuse or lack of irrigation. Even when they do produce a decent surplus, the roads are often so bad it is hard to get the crop to market.

This from the Guardian Poverty Matters Blog is a paraphrase attributed to Matthews Burwell, president of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which appears to be the main organization, in collaboration with the Rockefeller foundation, beating the drums for greater investment in African agriculture (as well as some NGO’s such as Oxfam International and Bread for the World). Indeed the question is, why when most of the rest of the world has seen rapid agricultural productivity growth in the last 50 years, has sub-Saharan African agriculture fallen so far behind. Many reasons can be pointed to, including high soil and geographic diversity making technological spillover hard, poor infrastructure and marketing capability, and government corruption, but perhaps low investment due to lack of political will is the greatest of them all.

Robert Paarlberg, in his book Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept out of Africa, makes a fairly convincing case that the severe under-investment in agricultural technology such as fertilizers, tractors, modern irrigation techniques, better seeds, and GMOs, stems directly from recent  Western attitudes towards agriculture. He points out that productivity in the U.S. and Europe has risen dramatically in the past century, in some cases by a factor of 3 or 4. More recently however, due to the relatively low price of food and the much lower percentage of people employed in agriculture, consumers have stopped caring so much about greater productivity and have started caring more about the cultural and environmental impacts of highly industrialized farming and the potential dangers of biotechnology. He acknowledges many of these concerns are valid for those who already have highly productive agriculture and don’t worry about getting enough to eat. But he bemoans the fact that these attitudes have highly influenced the debate on agricultural development in Africa among both Western aid donors and Africans themselves. Productivity has remained stagnant, and pales in comparison to the rest of the world.

In the United states in 2005, farmers planting maize harvested an average of 9.3 tons per hectare of land; in Kenya, maize farmers harvested only 1.6 tons per hectare and in Malawi only .8 tons…In the industrial world as a whole, fertilizer use now averages 117 kg per hectare of arable land; in sub-Saharan Africa average fertilizer use is only 9 kg per hectare…In the United Kingdom there are 883 tractors per 1,000 agricultural workers, whereas in sub-Saharan Africa there are now two per 1,000.

He points out the drastic decrease in the percentage of aid and lending going towards developing country agriculture. During the 1980’s and 1990’s the percentage of U.S. aid going towards agriculture fell from 25 percent to 1 percent, bilateral European aid fell by two-thirds, and World Bank lending fell from 30 percent to 8 percent. He argues that this hurt Africa the most and had little impact on Asian and Latin American agriculture, which had already experienced a big boost and no longer relied on external assistance.  He blames much of this on the highly effective lobbying of environmental and organic promoting NGO’s, including Food First, International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM), and most of all Greenpeace.

In Africa…most local farmers had not yet seen the benefits a technology upgrade might bring, and dependence on international NGOs for service delivery remained high, so campaigns against science based farming had a significant impact…NGO warnings against agricultural science are consistently broadcast into Africa today through the special agencies of the United Nations system and through global conferences sponsored by the UN.

He scoffs at proclamations such as those made by Doug Parr, the chief scientist at Greenpeace, that African farmers should “develop self-confidence in their traditional knowledge so that they do not immediately switch to chemicals once they can afford them” and that “there is no direct relationship between the amount of food a country produces and the number of hungry people who live there”. Paarlber attempts to dispel the romantic notion of “traditional” African agriculture.

The typical African farmer today is a women (60-80 percent of farm labor in Africa is provided by women) who works most of the daylight hours preparing meals and rasing children in addition to tending crops. She cannot read or write and lives in a dwelling made of sticks, mud, and thatch, with no plumbing or electricity….She keeps some goats, grows some vegetables in a garden area close to her home, and tends small plots of land a short walk away, where she plants food crops such as yams, maize, beans, sorghum, millet, or cassava, and perhaps also some cotton for cash income. In the years when the rains are good and these crops do well, she will be able to meet her families immediate needs and have a small surplus to be sold or bartered locally. Her fields have no irrigation, so if the seasonal rains fail, the crops will also fail. She uses little or no chemical fertilizer because it is expensive, because she lacks access to credit for purchases prior to the harvest, and because using fertiliser will be a waste of money if the rains fail. Her children often join her in the fields, either strapped to her back as infants or, once they can walk, kept busy tending goats, shooing birds, and pulling weeds. African women farmers are hardworking, skillful, and highly resourceful. precisely because they are poor they cannot afford to waste any time, labor, or materials. Yet because their minimal tools, seeds. and input supplies are so limiting, even the most persistent efforts bring little reward…In Africa…farmers today are not engaged in specialized factory farming. They are planting heirloom varieties in polycultures rather than scientifically improved varieties in monoculture. They have a food system that is traditional, local, nonindustrial, and very slow. Using few purchased inputs, they are defacto organic. And as a consequence they remain poor and poorly fed.

I largely agree with Paarlberg on his advocacy for greater investment in agricultural development. I recognize the environmental and health hazards of heavy fertilizer and pesticide use, I recognize the ecological dangers of monocropping, I recognize the cultural attraction to small family farms and locally sourced food, and I recognize the potential dangers of biotechnology and the privatization of food (read: Monsanto). We must move to more sustainable and ecologically integrated forms of production but there must be some kind of balance between these ideals and the reality of minuscule “organic” productivity in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Increasing the productivity and marketing capability of small rural farmers in Africa  is one of the best ways to bring about pro-poor economic growth and ensure food security on the continent. This doesn’t have to follow the same course as the rest of the world, there are many examples of productive and sustainable agricultural techniques. But in any case the point is that Africa needs a distinctly African “green revolution”, and this can only come about through an increased support of research and investment.

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