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10.7.04

Feeding Africa

No Quick Fix To Africa's Food Problems

If United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan had expected a simple answer when he asked scientists two years ago what they could do about the food crisis in Africa, he will have been disappointed when he received their reply last week. The implication behind the way that Annan's question was phrased — how can a 'green revolution' be achieved in Africa? — is that the solution might be found in a set of relatively straightforward scientific and technical innovations in plant breeding. After all, it was the development of new, high-yielding strains of rice and wheat that lay behind the original 'green revolution' that was achieved in Asia and Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps Africa could benefit in a similar way?

... One of the main virtues of the IAC report is the extent to which it underlines that, unlike Asia and Latin America, there are no technical fixes to Africa's food problems (a particularly refreshing conclusion at a time when proponents of genetically-modified foods are claiming to offer one). Rather, it emphasises that creating a situation in which the continent is able to provide enough food for its population requires action at many levels.

Some of these are scientific; new, high-yielding crop varieties are certainly needed, and GM foods are likely to have their place, alongside new varieties produced by more conventional breeding techniques. Others range from the need to stem the brain drain of the best and brightest graduates in agricultural sciences, to the political measures required to ensure an adequate 'enabling environment'.

... It also means ensuring that the potential benefits of agricultural science are genuinely moulded to the needs of local farmers (hence the insistence in the report that farmers organisations become directly involved in research priority setting). Which in turn means concentrated efforts at using modern communications technology to provide information on the range of choices that are available; M. S. Swaminathan, the 'father' of the Green Revolution in India, and one of the co-chairs of the IAC panel, speaks of the way that such technology can be used for the important task of 'demystification' of modern science and technology (for example, in the techniques of tissue culture).


I was a bit worried by the subhead blurb on this article, which claimed that the report found that Africa needed a "cultural revolution" and "belief in science-based innovation." I was prepared to read old stereotypes about how Africa is mired in tribalism and superstition, and how big science on the model of the green revolution is the key. And maybe the report does say that -- I haven't read it yet. But the body of the article went some way toward alleviating my fears. It gives some attention to the need for political and economic reforms in Africa and elsewhere, though I have little faith that the UN can do much on that front (the virtue of emphasizing technical fixes is that you don't offend anyone powerful). It also points out the need to be sensitive to the diversity of ecological and social conditions in different parts of the continent, working with local farmers to improve things rather than bringing them a pre-concocted package of technology. In a best-case scenario we would see international aid agencies pushing adaptive management, in which research and practice are closely knit together, and giving local people real power in order to make the process effective, sustainable, and responsive to self-defined local needs.

The lesson of adaptive management in food security is not, however, something to be learned from the special diversity of Africa's environments and people. It's something to be learned from the mixed record of the green revolution in Latin America and Asia, two equally diverse continents. The article presents the green revolution as an unmitigated success. In certain respects it was, staving off starvation for millions of people. But political ecologists have documented numerous ways that the green revolution fell short. It damaged the environment by promoting monocropping and heavy chemical use, increased the level of risk and uncertainty faced by farmers by exposing them to the vicissitudes of the global market, socially and economically disempowered them by making them beholden to agro corporations, and disrupted social systems that provided for a range of people's needs.

If it's combined with the larger-scale reforms needed to enable it, an adaptive management approach could offer the benefits of agricultural science to Africa (and other parts of the world) without destroying what's useful in current local practice. The original green revolution meant well, but we can do better.

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