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May/June 2011
Vol. 36, No. 3


Africa: Agricultural technology and food security

See also: Africa: Economics of agriculture, food security, NewsNotes March-April 2011

Today, no one would argue against the fact that in most African countries agriculture has been sorely ignored for decades and desperately needs investment. Extension services, agricultural education and subsidies for growing sensitive crops are a distant memory in countries that have drastically scaled back public spending in order to make debt payments or changed government policies to facilitate trade with countries of the North. This second article in a series exploring the underlying causes of food insecurity in Africa focuses on the kinds of technologies being proposed to help lift the African small holder farmer out of poverty.

A chorus of voices have claimed that the Green Revolution, which modernized agricultural production through technology in the U.S. and then in Latin America and much of Asia, skipped over Africa. But actually, the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, the drivers of the original Green Revolution, did target Africa in the 1970s. Research centers for agriculture and agro-forestry were established in a number of African counties. But African farmers did not buy nearly as many hybrid seeds, chemical pesticides and inorganic fertilizers as their counterparts in South and Southeast Asia, so many of these projects were abandoned. African farmers were poorer, basic infrastructure was mostly absent, and Africa's farming systems and conditions were much too diverse for the one-size-fits-all solutions that were offered.
Green Revolution supporters hold up India as the best example of the benefits of new seed technologies, but others would argue that the results are not nearly as positive as touted. While initially yields did increase, they shrank significantly in later years. Many poorer Indian farmers found impact of the Green Revolution disastrous. When hybrid seeds failed to reproduce, farmers had to buy new seeds every year in addition to the required chemical pesticides, fertilizers and insecticides. Millions of farmers fell into unsustainable debt and some were driven to suicide by drinking the very pesticides they had bought for their plants.

The history of these failed projects is all but forgotten today as the Gates Foundation with its Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the World Bank through its Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, and USAID with its Feed the Future Program proclaim the necessity of new technologies to fight food insecurity and poverty in Africa. As the second Green Revolution for Africa charges ahead with this sense of amnesia, the same social conditions like inequality, unjust land tenure, insufficient infrastructure and gender disparity are screaming for attention. Yet, new money pouring into Africa threatens to usher in not only the cookie cutter approach that worked poorly in Asian and Latin American countries but an entire gene revolution through the introduction of genetically modified organism (GMO) technology as well.

In essence, the discourse behind the African Green Revolution looks specifically at insufficient productivity as the cause of rural poverty. It then proposes technology in the form of high yielding varieties and farming techniques as the answer. Its promoters want to transform African agriculture into a dynamic sector with emphasis on export crops that assist in integrating small holder farmers into the greater global economy. Unfortunately, not taken into account are the political, social and economic factors that have led to the decay of African agriculture. Because they do not address any of these factors, the immediate technological fixes may end up abandoned as in the past, leaving people with fewer options and even more food insecure.

The 2008 report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), compiled by 400 scientists over a five year period, suggests that agriculture is important for more than just generating food. Farms guarantee livelihoods giving people a reason to stay and invest in rural communities. In many African countries between 60 and 80 percent of the population depends on farming for living. Small holder agriculture, both for subsistence and commercial purposes, is by far the dominant trend. With the majority of people involved in agriculture a sudden emergence of mono-cropped industrial agriculture brought on through the new Green Revolution threatens to push great numbers of people into the cities where industry is not developed enough to offer jobs.

Taking some of these social factors into account, IAASTD research points to a focus on ecological agricultural as well as traditional and local knowledge systems to promote food security, employment and sound environmental practices for current and future generations (see related article in NewsNotes July/August 2010). Technological assistance to increase access to water, credit, information, better transportation, post harvest storage systems and value added training, hand-in-hand with agro-ecological and traditional farming practices, could go along way to improve food security and boost rural livelihoods.

Rather than taking a precautionary stance to protect Africa's biodiversity, the African Union and its development wing, the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), have embraced the Green Revolution. The AU established a High Level Panel on Modern Biotechnology's Freedom to Innovate and is currently engaged in an effort to revise the carefully crafted African Model Law on Biosafety to make the biosafety provisions less stringent and set the stage for Africa to conform to the needs of the corporations pushing GMOs. This directly contradicts the group of African negotiators' position in developing the Cartagena Protocol (which was entered into force in 2003) to ensure strict biosafety precautions.

Across the continent, a number of African governments and civil society organizations are speaking out against the pressures from gene companies and the foundations and projects backing the adoption of these technologies. Examples of this resistance include Zambia, Sudan and Angola resisting the acceptance of GM food aid; the African Biodiversity Network in Addis Ababa defending community and farmers' rights to reject GMO seed; and Kenya's Small-Scale Farmers Forum leaders, representing crop farmers, pastoralists, and fisherfolk issuing a statement rejecting GMOs and demanding a 20-year moratorium on GMOs in Kenya.

If today we were to rewrite the Genesis account of the Tower of Babel, the story might very well involve seeds and fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, combines and other tools that allow humans to grow plants that reach for the heavens. If the clever people of Babel were trying to build a tower such that they could be on the same level as God, today our story might be about how humans have used their ingenuity to build "better" plants than those that have evolved from God's first creative act. Not unlike the clever people of Babel, scientists and technicians seek to "make a name for themselves," by developing and globalizing seeds with specific traits that they have deemed "perfect." They envision a world where every arable piece of land around the world is planted with these seeds, where all will marvel at (and pay dearly for) their innovation.

Today, the promises of this new Green Revolution encompass more than just increased yields. In an effort to make the public more accepting, seeds are promised to be drought resistant to fight climate change and vitamin enriched to combat malnourishment. But underneath these claims, some of the of the same actors who profited from the first Green Revolution see in Africa a similar opportunity, namely, to establish a dominant agricultural model based on agro-exports, free trade, and the use of chemical-intensive large-scale monocultures and GMOs.

As we know from Babel, the story does not end well. Those who constructed the tower sought unity, but were divided by language. Today we see corporate powers that want to unify the world under one trading system where even basic human needs, like food, are controlled by a handful of entities. This world view works in direct contradiction to the world that God created: abundant, bio-diverse, interdependent and ultimately mysterious. Around the world Maryknoll missioners have worked side by side with people using ancient techniques and local seeds to adapt to conditions of drought and excess water, producing well in difficult conditions. These efforts to work with nature rather than against it should be supported before technology, disconnected from social, political, gender and ecological conditions, is embraced.

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