|November 19, 2006||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Artificial Large-Scale Crop Exports Won’t Help Small Farmers
This article is presented with the permission of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). IATP promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.
Is a Green Revolution for Africa the Answer?
by Sophia Murphy
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation announced in September that they would jointly invest $150 million to launch a new Green Revolution to increase the productivity of African agriculture. But by focusing narrowly on technological solutions, the initiative risks repeating many of the same mistakes of the last Green Revolution, which left Africa behind.
Surely investment is urgently needed: Africa was once largely free of the scourge of hunger but its colonial legacy, decades of poor government, Cold War interventions by super-powers, and irresponsible borrowing and lending have left the continent the only one in the world where food production has lagged behind population growth. The UNs Food and Agriculture Organization reports that one in three people in sub-Saharan Africa does not get enough to eat. More money is definitely part of the answer.
The Gates/Rockefeller initiative proposes to fund development of disease- and drought-resistant seeds for staple African crops, enhance distribution networks for seed and fertilizer, and provide university-level training for African crop scientists. In other words, they hope to re-launch the last Green Revolution.
The answer, it seems, is a technical fix: better seed, better distribution of inputs that seed requires, and better science to develop accompanying technologies.
But its important to remember that the achievements of the last Green Revolution came at enormous cost. At the core of last Green Revolutions thinking was the substitution of capital for labor. The focus on high-yielding seeds and imported inputs fostered monocultures, concentrated land holdings, and excluded smaller landowners. But most fundamentally the Green Revolution ignored the issue of market power: the companies who sell the inputs, and buy, process, distribute and retail the food produced were vastly more powerful than the farmers and in turn, extracted much of the economic benefit.
And of course, the global agriculture economy has changed in many ways since the last Green Revolution in the 1960s and 70s. Trade agreements and the World Trade Organization have stripped away important tools countries used to increase their agricultural productivity. Such tools include: tariffs to manage supply and protect remunerative prices for farmers, unrestricted government investment in output (including production incentives), and state marketing boards to provide outreach and services to the whole country (not just regions located near big cities or ports.) Stripped of these tools, countries in Africa have routinely seen their farmers undercut by low-cost imports over the last decade, while remote areas have been cut off from national and global markets alike.
Another major change in the agricultural economy is the emergence of patented seeds, including genetically modified seeds. Nearly all food produced for domestic consumption in Africa comes from farmer varieties and farm-saved varieties. But the new revolution of genetic modification forbids this traditional practice of saving seeds by claiming the technology inside the seed is the proprietary ownership of the developer. And of course, the seed developer also owns the pesticide that works with the seed. Africas complicated seed laws have long been a target of U.S.-based seed companies, with the American Seed Trade Association active in trying to harmonize seed regulations on the continent. How the Gates/Rockefeller initiative deals with seed ownership and the rights of farmers will go a long way towards charting the efforts success.
In the broader context of hunger in Africa, a host of key drivers that have nothing to do with increasing food production must not be overlooked. The United States, the former colonial powers of Europe, and the former Soviet Union, have all at different times supported dictators with appalling human rights records. Proxy wars for the super-powers, greed for Africas mineral resources, and colonial land distribution patterns have caused enormous harm. If new technologies are superimposed on a situation where government structures are largely unaccountable and land ownership is concentrated, poverty and accompanying hunger will not shift, no matter how much food is grown.
A September New York Times story makes the point all too sharply: more than 17,000 Indian farmers killed themselves in 2003, unable to pay their debts because their crops are failing. The problems are complex but one of the key issues illustrated in the Times article involves genetically engineered cotton seed from Monsanto, which has made great inroads into the Indian market. While twice the price of the competition, Monsantos seed looks attractive because it reduces the amount of pesticide needed for the plants to flourish.
But it means borrowing more money, at cruel rates of interest, and increases the farmers vulnerability should the rains fail or anything else interfere with the harvest. This system works well for Monsanto, receiving a royalty payment on every seed, and the moneylenders, who charge extortionate rates, but not so well for the farmers.
Hunger is not just about supply, but also about distribution and access. Food security is above all about livelihoods. Increasing food production will not reduce hunger unless the producers — small-scale farmers and even more so, landless workers — thereby generate more income.
For the African leaders whose countries are plagued with starvation and widespread food shortages it will be hard to imagine refusing an offer of resources like those available through the Gates/Rockefeller initiative. Let us hope then, the money will be invested wisely.
Sophia Murphy is a Senior Advisor on Trade for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
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