[permaculture] Africa: Green Revolution or Rainbow Evolution? Carol B. Thompson | July 17, 2007

Wesley Roe and Santa Barbara Permaculture Network lakinroe at silcom.com
Wed Jul 18 01:11:34 EDT 2007

Africa: Green Revolution or Rainbow Evolution?

Carol B. Thompson | July 17, 2007

Editor: John Feffer	

Foreign Policy In Focus	www.fpif.org

Kofi Annan has just agreed to head the Alliance 
for a Green Revolution in Africa, funded by the 
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

The goals of these foundations are ambitious. 
“Our initial estimate is that over ten years, the 
program for Africa’s seed systems (PASS) should 
produce 400 improved crop varieties resulting in 
a 50 percent increase in the land area planted 
with improved varieties across 20 African 
countries,” reads the initiative’s press release. 
“We have also initially estimated that this level 
of performance will contribute to eliminating 
hunger for 30-40 million people and sustainably 
move 15-20 million people out of poverty.”

But can Africa afford this proposed “green 
revolution” in terms of human health and 
environmental sustainability? The foundation 
goals require resources that the continent does 
not have while derogating the incredible wealth 
it does possess. Although scientists, 
agriculturalists and African governments all 
agree that the continent has not remotely reached 
its agricultural potential, their advocated 
policies for food sovereignty drastically diverge 
from the high-tech, high-cost approach promoted by Gates and Rockefeller.

In 2002, while UN secretary general, Kofi Annan 
asked, “How can a green revolution be achieved in 
Africa?” After more than a year of study, the 
appointed expert panel of scientists (from 
Brazil, China, Mexico, South Africa and 
elsewhere) replied that a green revolution would 
not provide food security because of the diverse 
types of farming systems across the continent. 
There is “no single magic technological 
for radically improving African 
agriculture,” the expert panel reported in its 
strategic recommendations. “African agriculture 
is more likely to experience numerous 'rainbow 
evolutions' that differ in nature and extent 
among the many systems, rather than one Green 
Revolution as in Asia.” Now Annan has agreed to 
head the kind of project his advisors told him would not work.
Behind the Green Revolution

The green revolution of the 1970s promoted 
increased yields, based on a model of industrial 
agriculture defined as a monoculture of one or 
two crops, which requires massive amounts of both 
fertilizer and pesticide as well as the purchase 
of seed. Although this approach to food 
production might feed more people in the short 
term, it also quickly destroys the earth through 
extensive soil degradation and water pollution 
from pesticides and fertilizers. It ruined 
small-scale farmers in Asia and Latin America, 
who could not afford to purchase the fertilizers, 
pesticides, and water necessary for the hybrid 
seed or apply these inputs in the exact 
proportions and at the exact times. To pay their 
debts, the farmers had to sell their land.

Increasing yields to provide food for the hungry 
remains the central justification for a green 
revolution. But as the expert panel above 
analyzed in great detail, increased yields of one 
or two strains of one or two crops (“monoculture 
within monoculture,” as stated by a Tanzanian 
botanist) will not solve Africa’s food problems. 
Africa’s diverse ecological systems, and even 
more diverse farming systems, require multiple 
initiatives, from intercropping on to 
permaculture, from respecting and using 
traditional ecological knowledge to training and 
equipping more African geneticists. The UN Food 
and Agriculture Organization, for example, now 
promotes farmers’ breeding seeds (in situ) as a 
better conservation measure than collecting seed 
for refrigeration in a few large seed banks (ex 
situ). The very best food seed breeders in 
Africa, the “keepers of seed,” are women who 
often farm less than one hectare of land.

The key to ending hunger is sustaining Africa’s 
food biodiversity, not reducing it to industrial 
monoculture. Currently, food for African 
consumption comes from about 2,000 different 
plants, while the U.S. food base derives mainly 
from 12 plants. Any further narrowing of the food 
base makes us all vulnerable because it increases 
crop susceptibility to pathogens, reduces the 
variety of nutrients needed for human health, and 
minimizes the parent genetic material available for future breeding.

Seeds are a key element in the equation. One 
figure not often quoted among the depressing 
statistics from the continent is that African 
farmers still retain control over this major 
farming input: of the seed used for food crops, 
80% is saved seed. Farmers do not have to buy 
seed every season, with cash they do not have. 
They possess a greater wealth -- their indigenous 
seeds, freely shared and developed over 
centuries. The proposed green revolution would 
shift the food base away from this treasure of 
seed. Instead, African farmers would have to 
purchase seed each season, thus putting cash into 
the hands of the corporations providing the seed. 
Is there a way of developing new varieties 
without further enriching Monsanto or DuPont by 
removing genetic wealth from African farmers?

Corporate development of new seed varieties, as 
promoted by the foundations, raises other 
questions. Will the new varieties be patented or 
protected by farmers’ rights? Who will own and 
control the seed? One major reason for the 
decline of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is 
the global South’s resistance to patenting life 
forms. In 1999, the African Union, representing 
all African governments, asked that its unanimous 
resolution rejecting any patenting on life be put 
on the agenda at the Seattle WTO meeting. The 
United States refused the request.

Another source of African wealth derives from 
indigenous ecological knowledge, reflecting 
centuries of adaptation to the different 
ecological zones, which values interspersing 
different plants to enrich the soil and deter 
pests from food crops. Shade trees, often cut 
down to open the land for monoculture farming, 
are not necessarily in the way of a plowing 
tractor. African farmers have the knowledge to 
use these trees as wind breaks, medicine, 
habitats for biodiverse insect communities, and food for all.

This wealth of knowledge raises another question 
whether the African continent needs newly 
manufactured varieties of food crops, or is the 
problem the lack of scientific recognition and 
market valuing of what African farmers have 
cultivated for centuries? Does the color green in 
this Green Revolution favor crops known and owned by the global North?

Sorghum is one example of a crop lost to markets 
in the global North but not to Africa. On the 
continent, it is planted in more hectares than 
all other food crops combined. As nutritious as 
maize for carbohydrates, vitamin B6, and food 
energy, sorghum is more nutritious in protein, 
ash, pantothenic acid, calcium, copper, iron, 
phosphorus, isoleucine, and leucine. One of the 
most versatile foods in the world, sorghum can be 
boiled like rice, cracked like oats for porridge, 
baked like wheat into flatbreads, popped like 
popcorn for snacks, or brewed for nutritious beer.

Although indigenous knowledge designed these 
diverse and rich uses of sorghum, most 
contemporary scientists have ignored its genetic 
wealth. “Sorghum is a relatively undeveloped crop 
with a truly remarkable array of grain types, 
plant types, and adaptability,” concludes the 
National Research Council in the United States. 
“Most of its genetic wealth is so far untapped 
and even unsorted. Indeed, sorghum probably has 
more undeveloped genetic potential than any other 
major food crop in the world.”

Engaging African scientists to discover the 
potential genetic wealth of sorghum would assist 
African food security. In a first glimpse of 
foundation expenditures, however, we see funds 
directed to the Wambugu Consortium (founded by 
Pioneer Hi-Breed, part of DuPont) for experiments 
in genetically modified sorghum. By adding a 
gene, rather than mining the genetic wealth 
already there, the consortium can patent and sell 
the “new” variety at a premium price for DuPont.
Toward Sustainability

Given the well-documented destruction of the 
previous green revolution, what if we decided 
that Africa’s lack of use of fertilizer is a sign 
of sustainable development not of backwardness? 
Africa’s use of chemical fertilizers is extremely 
low: nine kilograms per hectare in Sub-Sahara 
Africa, compared to 135 kilograms per hectare in 
East and Southeast Asia, 100 kilograms in South 
Asia, and an average of 206 kilograms in 
industrialized countries. Originating from excess 
nitrogen production left over after World War II, 
the massive use of chemical fertilizers defined 
industrial agriculture in the 20th century. 
Surely for the 21st century, yields can be 
increased without such a high cost of African environmental degradation.

The African continent also uses different 
terminology from that of the green revolution. 
Instead of food security, African voices 
articulate the goal of food sovereignty. Food 
sovereignty expresses resistance to the notion 
that food security can be provided by reliance on 
global markets, where price and supply vagaries 
can be as capricious as African weather. 
Experiencing political manipulation of global 
markets by the more powerful, African governments 
seek to control decisions about food sources, 
considering such choices as vital to national sovereignty.

African governments work to defend local, 
small-scale farmers from highly subsidized 
farmers in the United States or Europe. In most 
of Africa -- with South Africa a notable 
exception -- the majority of the population still 
lives in rural areas and still derives their 
incomes from farming. Dislocation of farmers to 
consolidate land for high-tech, green revolution 
farming is as serious a threat as chemical pollution of the environment.

Should the green wealth of ecological and farming 
knowledge among local small-scale farmers be 
destroyed for the cash wealth of much fewer 
large-scale farmers buying all their inputs from foreign corporations?

Each African government will answer the above 
questions about a green revolution differently. 
The diversity of policies matches the diversity 
of the continent. Yet they all reject patenting 
of life forms and strive to attain food 
sovereignty. High-tech answers to Africa’s food 
crises are no answers at all if they pollute the 
environment with fertilizers and pesticides, 
destroy small-scale farming, and transform the 
genetic wealth of the continent into cash profits for a few corporations.

Carol B. Thompson is a professor of political 
economy at Northern Arizona University and a 
contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus 
(www.fpif.org). She can be reached at: carol.thompson at nau.edu

For More Information

For more detailed analyses, see Andrew Mushita 
and Carol B. Thompson, Biopiracy of Biodiversity 
(Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2007).

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