Going hungry or going green? A critical look at the ‘Green Revolution’ project in Africa

Since the development of “miracle wheat” in 1954 by Norman Borlaug, the way in which international organisations support and invest in agriculture has changed dramatically. The narrative goes that Africa supposedly “missed out” on the first Green Revolution, thus explaining its lack of large-scale agricultural sectors before the 21st century. 

The Gates Foundation, through The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), sought to solve this problem and help at least 30 million African farmers address hunger and poverty through the use of technology and science. Almost two decades since Agra was founded, it has come under increasing scrutiny for having failed to provide evidence of its impact across the continent.

The term “Green Revolution” was developed in the United States and is essentially an alternative to the peasant or “red” revolutions witnessed in China and Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s. The original Green Revolution is the period in which the development of modern industrial agriculture emerged, particularly through large-scale financial assistance by US-led philanthropy. 

Agricultural science aimed to improve overall yields as well as maintain productivity throughout different seasons and weather conditions. The first seeds of this new agricultural science were planted in 1941 in Mexico and resulted in the successful development of genetically engineered wheat, and so the Green Revolution emerged.

Dramatic increases in the use of fertilisers, pesticides and hybrid seeds meant the US agricultural business sector strengthened considerably and its interests were deliberately aligned with the government which continued to support surplus productivity.

Despite this global revolution in agricultural science and food production, global hunger figures have continued to hover between 720 and 811 million people over the past decade. Now, as we move into a post-pandemic world, the World Food Programme (WFP) projects an impending food crisis with conflict and related insecurity as the main drivers, coupled with Covid-related economic shocks, domestic food price inflation, extreme weather events and weather-related disasters. 

The number of people in acutely food insecure countries reached 193 million in 2021, a shocking increase of 40 million people since 2020. The issue of hunger and malnutrition remains the most significant risk to healthy sustainable livelihoods, development and political stability worldwide.

The discourse around solving food insecurity by global financial and developmental institutions remains embedded in the idea that productivity rather than accessibility will address the issue of hunger. 

The Comprehensive Framework for Action (CFA) is the primary document upon which current food security discourses and consensus is based. The framework emphasises: the need to integrate local farmers into global commodity market chains, increase emergency food assistance, increase food availability, trade and tax liberalisation and the management of macroeconomic implications. 

Although the food security concept and CFA document attempt to include accessibility, it excludes crucial social-ecological elements surrounding food insecurity, which subsequently determine the success or failure of food security projects. Social-ecological elements refer, for example, to climate and water availability as well as forms of social and financial capital or governance-related institutions related to markets and infrastructure. 

Food security discourse remains in strong support of development and food aid, which has almost certainly undermined the stability of local agricultural markets in Africa, which cannot compete with the subsidised grains entering from the US. Furthermore, it has potentially contributed to an increase in noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes and obesity through changes in diet and food choices.

The post-1980s corporate food regime characterises the current food system governing production and consumption. The rise of powerful agri-food monopolies (including fertiliser and GMO seed manufacturing corporations) has significantly altered the way policies are constructed within the global food system because, for big agri-food companies, “capital” accumulation remains more important thn sustainable use of resources. 

The food crisis is intrinsically linked to the structure of the “corporate food regime”, which drives a modernisation process that is neither economically nor environmentally sustainable.

The Gates Foundation has been at the forefront of funding research in seed technologies as well as coordinating agricultural policies for the African continent. The approach taken by the Gates Foundation continues the expansion of the corporate food regime due to the belief that the large-scale private sector, neoliberal economics and the Green Revolution ideology will effectively solve the issue of hunger in Africa. 

Seed technology enhances the capabilities of nature’s genetics to increase the chance of successful and productive yields. For example, Monsanto’s Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, partly funded by the Gates Foundation ($85-million) is an example of how seed technology attempts to resolve hunger and productivity issues caused by drought.

The aim, however, is to shift maize breeding and ownership to companies like Monsanto due to the lack of strong biotechnology businesses within Africa. Moreover, drought tolerance in plants is a complex phenomenon and evidence from the South African National Biodiversity Institute revealed that WEMA crops were not completely pest resistant and were unlikely to benefit farmers under extreme conditions.

Africa remains the world’s main source of biodiversity and agricultural knowledge (GRAIN 2007). This is due to centuries-old farming practices, seed saving and sharing that has generated a wealth of genetically diverse eco-systems that seed companies depend on for the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as well as new crop varieties.

Agra was founded to address the productivity problem and double yields and incomes for at least 30 million smallholder farmers across 13 African countries. The organisation also aimed to halve food insecurity among these farmers by 2020. Agra spent $1-billion over the course of 15 years in an attempt to achieve these ambitious goals. According to recent assessments by civil society and academic institutions, there is little to show for the money spent. 

Timothy Wise, at Tufts University in the US, assessed Agra’s impact on agricultural productivity in these targeted countries. Their comprehensive report titled “False Promises” revealed little evidence of significant increases in incomes, food security and productivity. Instead, the Agra model drove soil erosion and acidification due to land use focused on monoculture crops and synthetic fertiliser. 

Furthermore, in cases like Malawi where a crop variety (Pigeon Pea) was introduced without consulting local farmers, or understanding local markets, farmers were left complaining about irregular and unreliable sales. Moreover, the use of genetically engineered seeds comes at a high price for small-scale farmers due to the necessity of certain agrochemical inputs. In Zambia, the high input cost challenged farmers considerably when the price of maize was too low after harvesting. This forced many to sell their livestock to cover their debt.

Solving the problem of hunger and malnutrition is clearly not straightforward and Agra’s  failures point to the limitations of input-intensive agricultural systems. Global food movements have emerged around the world through food justice and food sovereignty campaigns (La Via Campesina) that advocate for an alternative approach to the control and production of food systems. 

Both movements advocate for diversified agroecological food systems that diversify farming landscapes, increase biodiversity and stimulate interactions between different species, as part of a holistic approach to build healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods. 

If the Gates Foundation and Agra are to remain relevant in the fight to end hunger across the African continent, they must re-examine their strategies to ensure the future of agriculture on the continent is not compromised by ecologically unsustainable practices. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Monique Bennett
Monique Bennett is a senior researcher in the Governance Insights and Analytics programme at Good Governance Africa.

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