How Green is Your Revolution?

By Glenn Ashton · 19 Oct 2010

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Picture: World Economic Forum
Picture: World Economic Forum

Conventional wisdom insists that our burgeoning global population requires ever increasing quantities of food to feed its numbers. We need to ask two questions of this received wisdom. Firstly, is it true that we need to produce more food? Secondly, are the proposed methods of increasing food production suitable, adequate or acceptable?

In order to provide improved food security for the significant proportion (anywhere between 1 and 3 billion people, depending on whose figures you believe) of people who have inadequate access to, or ability to grow sufficient food, a new green revolution has been proposed.

In Africa this has been named the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). AGRA has been endorsed by the African Union (AU) but is primarily driven by external ideologies and interests, including the Gates and Rockefeller foundations, and more recently by the UK Government. AGRA has been strongly criticised, both within and from outside Africa. Critics insist that, yet again, externally driven ideologies have the potential to repeat the same mistakes as the initial industrial agricultural model of green revolution.

The green revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s, version 1.0, increased agricultural yields across the fields of the developed north through introducing improved seed varieties, combined with the widespread application of chemicals like fertilisers and pesticides. These inputs were allied with intensive mechanisation and irrigation. 

Version 1.0 had serious negative impacts in both the north and the developing south. In Africa, yields initially improved then fell again as significant hidden social, environmental and economic costs were revealed over the fullness of time. In the north these impacts and costs were largely externalised; the costs of water pollution, oceanic dead zones and soil loss were not borne by producers but by society at large.

This is how developed countries could entertain intensive industrial scale agriculture, treating natural resources like soil and water as mere production inputs. Yet in the south, small-scale producers were far more exposed to the true costs involved in pursuing this path. The impacts of chemical and water exploitation tangibly impacted natural resources and biodiversity.

Green revolution version 1.0 had little long term impact in Africa, beside places like South Africa where farmers were able to pursue industrialised, first world models of agriculture. Where subsistence and small scale farming was practiced the effects of the green revolution were at best limited and at worst, eroded traditional seed and crop diversity, undermining long-term traditional survival strategies.

Reasons for this failure revolved around the lack of consultation in promoting the model and the associated high external costs that proved unsustainable for developing nations or farmers.

The question then is, what is different about AGRA and does it differ substantively from version 1.0? Both purport to assist African farmers but AGRA is directed at assisting subsistence farmers more than commercial farmers. Both have the provision of improved seed and access to agricultural chemicals – fertilisers and pesticides alike – at their core. 

There is one key difference in that AGRA examines ways of improving market access, distribution and logistics as well as storage, which are all key challenges to successful African agriculture. While the intentions appear good, the model of delivery is flawed.

Perhaps the greatest similarity is that external agents and interests drive both version 1.0 and AGRA. The 20th century Green Revolution was driven primarily by national aid agencies and United Nations agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), pursuing a post-colonial thrust closely allied to cold war ideologies. 

The USA and ex-colonial powers had major interest in pushing their industrial agricultural model. The consequence was increased indebtedness, both at individual and nation levels, as payments for fertilisers and infrastructural costs were demanded of fledgling democracies. Unaffordable World Bank and IMF strictures heralded an inevitable failure of the system that were neatly diverted and blamed on external agencies, thus gaining financial leverage by initiating the neo-colonial model.

AGRA is a rather different beast to version 1.0. While there are purported links to indigenous African institutions such as the African Union, and luminaries like Kofi Annan have been drafted in as flag bearers, the money behind the throne is mainly independent, with free market ideological strings attached. The major funders, the Gates and Rockefeller foundations, additionally project overtly technocentric ideological tendencies.

While the intentions of these major donors may be benevolent and altruistic there is no real democratic oversight. There are also additional vested interests at play. For instance the Gates Foundation has been strongly criticised for its close ties to the Monsanto Corporation, the worlds biggest seed company and the leading seller of genetically modified (GM) seed and associated chemical pesticides. 

The Gates Foundation has declared stock investments worth over US$ 23 million in Monsanto. The senior program officer of the AGRA agricultural development programme, Rob Horsch was formerly Monsanto’s vice-president of international development partnerships.  

When asked whether the Gates Foundation supports GM technology, Joe DeVries, responsible for the AGRA seed program responded, "read our lips. We are not promoting or funding research for GMOs (genetically modified organisms.)”

Despite this blatant denial an organisation called AGRA Watch found that the Gates Foundation has spent over US$100 million on grants to organizations that have relationships with Monsanto. Over 80% of early AGRA funding in Kenya went to GM projects. 

But more concerning than these revealing details is the reality that this green revolution, dressed in all its politically correct finery, is simply a Trojan horse to again introduce technologically inappropriate solutions, which threaten to undermine proven and established programmes that have already benefited local subsistence farmers. Ultimately this is the same old story of American aid that both directly and indirectly aims to benefit US interests while using straw dogs to distract from its downside. For instance the paean is repeated that Africans would be ungrateful to refuse such largesse from philanthropists of this stature. 

It is notable how AGRA is creating a chain of vendors to provide bought inputs to farmers. This attempt to establish a value chain from vested interests such as Monsanto and other agro-chemical and seed companies simply opens up bridgeheads on the continent that repeat the expansionist aims of selling imported inputs to small scale farmers, much like version 1.0. 

Again, earlier failures stand to be repeated by not providing suitable support systems such as extension officers, agricultural peer-to-peer networks and other tried and tested models for real development of poorly resourced farmers. Instead, resources are dictated by and directed toward technological ideologies.  

It is remarkable that the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, a lengthy study of the requirements to establish food security in developing nations, clearly indicated that GM and other techno-quick fixes were not the solution to present challenges and that community resources lay at the heart of the problem. It is shocking that such independent expertise is ignored.

But perhaps we should enquire whether we need a new green revolution at all. It is not widely known that Sub-Saharan Africa is responsible for exporting vast amounts of fresh produce to the developed world. The region is rich in food and agricultural production but only, it seems, for remote consumers able to afford these locally scarce goods that are mainly air freighted to developed nations so they can enjoy exotic fruit, flowers and vegetables all year round. 

Do we really need to produce so much more food to feed a globally burgeoning population at all? Given that most of our food production presently feeds animals for meat production for affluent nations, perhaps it would be more useful for self appointed philanthropists to examine some of the more systemic problems facing our global food supply. It is questionable that technologically narrow visions premised on curing populations perceived as starving, needy and unable to help themselves can hold sway through the power of misleading public relations announcements trumping logic.

It may also be useful for Africa, instead of blindly adopting AGRA and other externally driven ideological initiatives, to consider its own attitudes to livestock production and the traditional perspective that family and community wealth must be vested in domestic animals. Given population pressures in Africa, coupled to unsustainably high numbers animals per grazing area, perhaps we should consider that this reliance on extensive livestock holdings as a proportion of wealth may be outdated, especially in light of climate change and instability.

Green is today assumed to denote something beneficial, capable of correcting previous exploitative behaviour and of healing our scarred landscapes. By this count even the etymological implications of AGRA are opened to question. Besides these grammatical and contextual questions there are moral, ethical, practical, political and economic questions we must ask of AGRA, of those who are behind it.

There may be aspects of AGRA that are useful and beneficial but this does make it incumbent upon Africa to accept the entire package without our own conditionalities. Refusing unwanted assistance is not being ungrateful. Conversely, it is patronising to dictate policy from distant locales and perspectives. Africans do not need to mumble platitudes while quietly sipping poisoned chalice, feigning politeness.

Africans are not impecunious beggars, forced to accept aid from any source or on whoever’s terms it may be premised. There is nothing more undemocratic than private money attached to hidden agendas and ideologies. Africans must cast off the mantle in which they are portrayed as a continent of starving, emaciated, desperate people prepared to accept the crumbs of global exploitation. Africans can, and must set their own agendas for their own green revolution, one that is truly green. And if we accept assistance we must do so on our own terms.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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19 Oct

Green Farms

The debate about the new green industry and green jobs should start on the farm. Agroecology is the new agricultural frontier. This is where our agriculture policies needs to be focused on. We cannot continue to learn from existing farmers and continue to pollute soil, air and water in the name of development. The external costs are mounting and the sooner we adapt, the sooner we can become food secure and secure our food sovereignty.

Our country need to take a bold step and fund research, development and extension services in agroecology. Like green energy, agroecology is the future. Our country has the talent, resources and capacity to be a world leader in sustainable agricultural production, but we continue in our current destructive path. And we want to export this to the north. Let

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20 Oct

Green Monster!

Could not agree more with the sentiments in this article! Too often we as Africans are 'wrongly' portrayed as a people who like to live on hand-outs! Also we are more often than not only the passive bystanders to things that hugely impact on our livelihoods, only to be consulted once the big corporates have spread their

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21 Oct


Generally consumers are unaware of how our agricultural production affects the environment, our health and the conditions of farm workers who produce the food we eat. In South Africa, agriculture has been a white man

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