[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 Africas 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 initiatives 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 Africas food problems.
Africas 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 Africas
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 Souths 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.
Given the well-documented destruction of the
previous green revolution, what if we decided
that Africas lack of use of fertilizer is a sign
of sustainable development not of backwardness?
Africas 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 Africas 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).
More information about the permaculture