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.
Agroecology as innovation
There is little new in Africa’s Green Revolution, which has not stopped its proponents from selling the past as innovation under AGRA. Meanwhile, the real innovation is happening in farmers’ fields as they work with scientists to increase the production of a diversity of food crops, reduce costs, and build climate resilience by adopting agroecological practices. Those approaches are documented in a new U.N. report from its High Level Panel of Experts. They are getting far better results. One University of Essex study surveyed nearly 300 large ecological agriculture projects across more than 50 poor countries and documented an average 79 percent increase in productivity with decreasing costs and rising incomes.
Now, scientists work with farmers to develop effective ecological responses to infestations by damaging pests like the fall armyworm and the desert locust. While agroecology critics deny climate change is exacerbating the plagues and decry farmer responses in terms that border on racism, scientists at institutes such as the Nairobi-based International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) study the pests and seek systemic solutions that go beyond the application of toxic pesticides. ICIPE researchers, for example, have developed locust-control measures, including a pheromone that can limit the insects’ transformation into the swarms that devastate crops. Other measures include biopesticides that are safer and more effective because they do not kill beneficial pests and microbes that are natural enemies of the locusts.
Food system reform cannot be led by business, as usual
The United Nations called for a World Food Systems Summit, now scheduled for September 2021, because the world is far off track in its commitments to meet the 2030 targets committed to in the Sustainable Development Goals. Ending hunger is goal number two. Despite the widespread recognition that business as usual is not an option, business, as usual, is trying to lead the summit. The World Economic Forum, a global partnership of some of the world’s most powerful corporations, is the U.N.’s formal partner in launching the summit.
As the U.N.’s own Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Michael Fakhri, warned in a letter to Summit Special Envoy Agnes Kalibata—who is also the president of AGRA—agroecology is being marginalized when it needs to be front and center as we look boldly at a future made all the more uncertain by the pandemic and by climate change.
Selling the past as innovation, while attacking agroecology as backward, is a dangerous form of misinformation, one we should recognize for what it is: an attempt by powerful agribusinesses and their allies to prevent the kinds of food-systems reform we urgently need.
Photo courtesy of Timothy Wise