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Fasten Your Seatbelt for the Next Green Revolution

July 2007

Are you ready? Or are you still tallying up the costs to the commons from the first Green Revolution? I invite you to listen in on a fascinating debate between farmer advocates and the money behind the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

The Green Revolution describes a technical package of pesticides, fertilizers, seeds and research institutions introduced in many parts of the world in the 50s, 60s and 70s to increase crop yields. In some quarters, the Green Revolution has drawn considerable praise for increasing productivity. In other quarters it has been sharply criticized for its high social, environmental and economic costs. Critics point to the fact that in a poster child of the revolution’s purported success, India, during 2003 alone there were 17,107 documented cases of indebted small farmers committing suicide – often by drinking the new pesticides themselves. 

Shaking off disapproval for their lead role in the first revolution, the Rockefeller Foundation is in the vanguard once again, this time in partnership with the Gates Foundation. The $150 million Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is just now being rolled out with Kofi Annan at its helm.

AGRA was sharply debated at the annual conference of Grantmakers Without Borders (GWOB) , by a formidable cast:

  • Roy Steiner, Senior Program Officer Agricultural Development, Gates Foundation;
  • Gary Toenniessen, Interim President, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, Rockefeller Foundation,
  • Eric Holt-Jimenez, Executive Director of Food First; and
  • Mamadou Goita, Executive Director of Institut de Recherche et de Promotion des Alternatives en Développement (IRPAD), Mali.

The debate was moderated by Jeff Campbell, Senior Program Officer for Community & Resource Development, Ford Foundation. It was an intimate working meeting between would-be adversaries and potential allies. Between fabulous body language and the verbal sparring, it was truly a nail-biter.

There was no disagreement on the symptoms of the problem. The failures of Africa’s food system are obvious: AGRA’s website reports: “Over the last 15 years, the number of Africans living below the poverty line ($1/day) has increased by 50 percent, and it is estimated that one-third of the continent’s population (200 million people) suffers from hunger. In the past five years alone, the number of underweight children in Africa has risen by about 12 percent.”

Much more contentious was the diagnosis of what’s causing the problem and the prescription for how to fix it.

Is AGRA looking for problems to fit solutions?

Gary Toenniessen identified the problem this way:  poor soils; insufficient fertilizer; scarcity of higher yielding, disease resistant seeds; inadequate research institutions and technical assistance to farmers. African institutions have failed small farmers. The Rockefeller and Gates prescription: $150 million of funding for an injection of technology and know-how.

About the prescription, Mamadou Goita said, “They’re looking for problems for their solutions.”  He pointed out that although Africa’s farmers face considerable challenges, homegrown solutions are abundant and frequently successful.

Eric Holt-Jimenez posed this question:  What are the assumptions of AGRA?
What is its working paradigm?  That African ecosystems are deficient and small farmers are lacking in skill and knowledge.  A deficit model.  The AGRA solution is then logically a package of additives.  Add fertilizer, seeds, markets, technical assistance.

Underlying AGRA and so much industrial agriculture, Goita and Holt-Jimenez argued, is that improvements require new science and technology.  Mr. Goita suggested a different tack.  The departure point for the initiative ought to be the opposite, one of taking account of the old, the existing assets.  That would mean reinforcing the work and experimentation of indigenous farmer organizations.  Since that experimentation tends to be in the field of agroecology rather than chemical agriculture, it makes sense to start there.

According to Wikipedia, Agroecology is the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design, development, and management of sustainable agricultural systems.  It arose from the recognition that Green Revolution-era agroecosystems were highly dependent upon inputs such as pesticides, capital-intensive machinery, and specific seed varieties engineered or bred in the global North.

Many small farmer organizations have adopted agroecology as a stepping stone to food sovereignty. At the Nyeleni 2007 Forum for Food Sovereignty held in Mali this past February, food sovereignty was defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation.”

Food sovereignty is described in straightforward language in a recent pamphlet published by Grassroots International and the National Family Farm Coalition.   

A declaration from the World Social Forum affirmed that just food systems ought to be based on food sovereignty and agroecology, “This push for a so-called “green revolution” or “gene revolution” is being done once again under the guise of solving hunger in Africa….” it held.  The declartion continued:

We pledge to intensify our work for food sovereignty by conserving our own seed and enhancing our traditional organic systems of agriculture, in order to meet the uncertainties and challenges that will be faced by present and future generations. Agricultural innovation must be farmer-led, responding to local needs and sustainability. We celebrate Africa’s wealth and heritage of seed, knowledge and innovation. We will resist these misguided, top-down but heavily-funded initiatives from the North, which show little or no understanding or respect for our complex systems. We ask that we be allowed to define our own path forward.

For its clash with agroecology, Mamadou Goita suggested resistance to AGRA.  But, he said, “When you resist, you must propose also.  We have proposals.” He reiterated work underway in seed improvements to improve yields and soil fertility and to repair soil damaged by chemical cotton. 

Gary Toenniessen expressed support for Mr. Goita’s projects, but said that it was difficult to obtain widespread adoption of techniques without chemical fertilizer.  Why?  Because all those techniques involve significant extra labor, and the return to farmers is not high enough.  He hypothesized that the techniques described by Mamadou Goita, with the addition of chemical fertilizers, will be widely adopted.

Who shapes AGRA?

Perhaps anticipating criticism of AGRA being a colonial enterprise, Gary Toenniessen offered that the alliance’s board and staff is African, accountable to Africans. The operation is being run out of Nairobi.

This proved to be a hot-button claim.  GWOB’s Executive Director, John Harvey, had set the stage for a conversation about accountability in a provocative introduction.  He described private foundations like Rockefeller and Gates as among the most unaccountable institutions in the world.  And this is particularly troubling because AGRA’s footprint is nothing like a $10,000 grant to a farmer’s organization for a tractor purchase; it’s a $150 million gorilla, more than many African nations spend on their agricultural programs.

Roy Steiner of Gates concurred with John Harvey, affirming that there is a great danger that grantmakers face – arrogance and certainty.  Learning can cease when one has money and power.  But the problem is acute, he went on, and if every life has equal value, something the Gates Foundation firmly believes, what can we do to ensure that equality?  Where to start? The solution must come from empowering African institutions and leaders.

Mamadou Goita responded that when the future of Africa is discussed, there tend to be no Africans present.  “It is important that I’m here,” he said. “Previous speakers have said that AGRA is African-led.  Where do we see that?  80% of Mali rural producers are organized and have said no to AGRA at the World Social Forum and the Forum for Food Sovereignty.” 

He said that organizations he works closely with, the National Coordination of Farmer Organizations of Mali (CNOP) — an affiliate of the Via Campesina — and the West African Network of Peasant Organisation and Agricultural Producers (ROPPA), are both sharply critical of the initiative.

Gary Toenniessen reiterated that the involvement of stakeholders at all levels is essential – from the nations’ presidents to the small farmers. Mr. Goita extended a public invitation to Mr. Steiner and Mr. Toenniessen to come to Mali to speak with small farmers about AGRA. Steiner accepted.

Is biotech lurking in the shadows?

The moderator, Jeff Campbell of the Ford Foundation, asked if AGRA might open the door to agribusiness in Africa.  It’s a lighter technology package than the first green revolution but it’s still a package of inputs. Will this move Africa towards an agribusiness model? Is genetic modification (GM) part of the seed process?
Roy Steiner tried to reassure:  AGRA is not investing in GM breeding.  Local African breeders have the knowledge and AGRA will support local seed companies and farmer organizations and cooperatives.  People now don’t have access to the seeds they want.
Eric Holt-Jimenez (Food First) sees AGRA as a keystone for transnational biotechnology corporations and noted Rockefeller’s close relationship with Monsanto.  Seed improvements can be done more effectively through African traditions like seed saving and sharing, he suggested and then asked, “Does it make sense to help AGRA become African or to help the existing African networks already working on these issues?”

Gary Toenniessen reassured that the Rockefeller Foundation is closing its work on genetically modified seeds in Africa.  They have been frustrated that corporations have captured past work on genetically modified seeds.  To do what we want to do through AGRA, he continued, “You don’t need rocket science to go from a one to two ton yield. You can get to two tons per hectare with traditional techniques.”

That was too much of a softball for Eric Holt-Jimenez to pass up:  So why then are you prescribing rocket science when we have agroecological solutions capable of doubling yields? he asked.  There are thousands of projects out there raising yields from 75 to 150%.  He suggested looking at Jules Pretty’s work – Regenerating Agriculture .

Gary Toenniessen countered that, in fact, the Rockefeller Foundation had supported much of the work described in the book but that those agroecological experiments were unsustainable. 

Phooey, Holt-Jimenez suggested, we must scale up those agroecological “islands of sustainability” by giving them the same societal support as now exists for biotech and traditional agriculture.

How do trade rules figure in?

Jeff Campbell then asked if global trade policy is suitably arranged to support small holders. Can AGRA succeed in the face of dumping and subsidies to large growers in the US and Europe?  Gary Toenniessen affirmed that indeed these are significant obstacles, especially dumping.  However, he said, don’t expect AGRA to invest in changing the farm bill.

The lack of action on trade rules was a point of criticism in a comprehensive report on AGRA published by the ETC Group entitled, “Food Sovereignty or Green Revolution 2.0?  This time the “silver bullet” has a gun.”

The ETC Group authors argue that “Africa’s agricultural problems stem from huge distortions in international economics and trade being exacerbated by the WTO and multinational agribusinesses. There are also severe internal problems in the failure of Africa’s governments to invest in rural areas and to support farmers. Science is not an antidote to bad policies. While appropriate science and technology have a role to play in achieving African food sovereignty, it is only one element in a much larger social strategy.” 

So there you have it folks, straight from the horses’ mouth. A polarized debate made more acute by contrasting views on who in society benefits from new technological applications.  But there were important points of agreement. 

I myself came away cautiously hopeful.  Mr. Steiner will soon visit Mali’s small farmer organizations and get himself an earful.  African civil society is stirring and insisting on meaningful participation in shaping AGRA.  The U.S. philanthropic community is now better informed and has no excuse not to hold its peers accountable for their mega-project.  In the end, will our commons dodge a bullet from AGRA?  Dunno, but in the meantime, don’t forget to give your lettuce and fruit a good scrubbing.

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