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Sunday, October 14, 2012

Securing Africa’s Food Future

Alarmed by the growing poverty and hunger in Africa the international community has mounted a vigorous campaign to transform Africa’s agriculture in ways could produce a Green Revolution for Africa. Development experts and donor agencies have made the case for ramping up global capital flows to revitalize Africa’s agriculture through increased use of mineral fertilizers, high yield seeds, putting more land under irrigation and increased use of pesticides. 

The attraction of the Asia’s Green Revolution is that it contributed to significant poverty reduction and halted the tide of hunger, which threatened to engulf millions of people in Asia. In some countries, the application of mineral fertilizers, the use of irrigation, pesticides and high yielding varieties has saved the conversion of millions of hectares of valuable ecosystems into agricultural land.

In its conception, a Green Revolution for Africa is essentially a redux of Asia’s Green Revolution. This is especially problematic given that Asia’s Green Revolution is beginning to unravel.

In rural Punjab farmers have fallen into debt because they are unable to keep up with the rising cost of inputs – fertilizers, irrigation pumps and regular fresh supplies of seed ­– which are the hallmark of the Green Revolution.  Moreover, Indian farmers unable to repay loans and faced with spiraling interest often see suicide as the only solution.

According to the Asian Development Bank, 38% of irrigated area in Pakistan is now waterlogged and 14% of the land surface is too saline for agricultural use. More than 3 million hectares of land in the Indus Plains of Pakistan is rigged with tube-wells and drains at the cost of millions of dollars but the reclamation is only partially successful.

The proponents of the Green Revolution have argued that the unintended negative consequences we now see in Asia and in the OECD and Latin America were caused not by technology but by fundamental failure in policy and institutions. The jury is still out.

Intended or unintended, the impact of high input industrial style agriculture has had huge impacts on water quality and quantity, soil quality and greenhouse gasses. The slowdown in yield growth that has been observed since the mid-1980s can be attributed, in part, to the degradation of the natural resource base and the inoperable undermining of ecosystem services, which are vital to agriculture.

As a PhD student, I learned the fundamental ecological principles that undergird soil productivity. I did not learn this from esoteric simulation models or laboratory experiments of a professor of agro-ecology. I learned from the decades of experimentation and the dogged experience of farmers on the edge of Kakamega Forest in Western Kenya.

Put against these time tested, biologically informed African smallholder farmer intuitions the agro-industrial methods of modern agriculture must appear dangerously naïve. Modern technologies can no more manufacture a gram of soil with a tank of chemicals than we can engineer a rainforest or produce a single pollinator bee or an earthworm.

Our best hope for sustainable agriculture requires above all, the maintenance of biological diversity and complexity in agricultural landscapes. Rather than perpetuate the myth of resource-poor smallholder farmers, it is time to understand farmers for what they are; solid professionals with knowledge and skills rooted in time and space. Their ability to farm with nature provides the opportunity for understanding the ecological foundations of agriculture. It is only through such understanding of the ecology of agricultural systems that doors will open to new management options that can deliver global food systems that are environmentally, socially and economically viable.

The concept of sustainable agricultural intensification and environmental stewardship is gaining currency in scientific, policy and institutional circles as a goal for both public and private action. Moreover, after Rio+20, the concept of a Green Economy is gaining increasing currency in sustainability lexicon. The Green Economy is an alternative vision for growth, which unlike GDP promotes a triple bottom line: sustaining economic, social and environmental wellbeing.

A Green Revolution for Africa must learn from the failures of Asia’s Green Revolution and its western agro-industrial foundations. A Green Revolution for Africa must not be measured on narrow criteria, such as profitability or yields. It should be evaluated on how well it addresses environmental sustainability and household food security, especially access to food and food quality.  

More importantly, a Green Revolution for Africa must:
1.     Enhance biomass recycling, optimize nutrient availability and balance nutrient flows;
2.     Secure favorable soil conditions for plant growth by enhancing soil biotic activity, managing organic matter and soil moisture;
3.     Enhance beneficial biological interactions and promote key ecological process through diversified farming landscapes comprising multiple species of crops, grasses and trees;  
4.     Recognize and reward farmers for providing ecosystem services (good water quality; protection biodiversity; prevention of erosion and sedimentation, carbon dioxide sequestration).

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