According to many critics, Western billionaires do not make the best farmers. Perhaps it is their inability (or unwillingness) to downsize grandiose plans from a Western-style agribusiness model to merely helping millions of subsistence farmers that dot the African landscape to succeed in providing nutritious diets for their families and communities.
That’s the conclusion of a major report from Germany entitled False Promises: The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the billion-dollar endeavor led by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations. Project coordinators Lena Bassermann and Jan Urhahn credit Timothy A. Wise, Senior Research Fellow at Tuft University’s Global Development and Environment Institute, for the research that supported many of their conclusions.
Indian development economist Jayati Ghosh praised the False Promises report in a scathing condemnation of the Green Revolution published in October. Ghosh, citing a July UN Food and Agricultural Organization report that showed a 10 percent increase in global hunger since 2014, argued that the global food system was already badly broken before the 2020 COVID pandemic.
Bassermann and Urhahn asserted that the AGRA model of input-intensive agriculture has failed to reach large numbers of small-scale food producers effectively. They urged governments to abandon political and financial support for AGRA and instead begin funding programs that help small-scale producers.
Coauthor Jan Urhahn, writing in the far-left Jacobin magazine, said that Africans should eschew the Green Revolution and practice “agroecology,” which makes conscious use of nature and natural processes to promote the kinds of soil-building practices that he argued become impossible when Green Revolution technologies are used.
Since its founding in 2006, AGRA has invested in programs that support the use of high-yielding commercial seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and chemical pesticides (all of which must be purchased by farmers) and the use of monocropping to increase yields per acre. AGRA issued grants of more than $500 million to promote this vision of a “modernized” African agriculture.
As Malaysian economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram explained, AGRA had promised that countries using their methods would double productivity and incomes for 30 million small-scale farming households and cut food insecurity in half by 2020. To entice farmers to literally “buy” into the program, at least ten African governments matched the AGRA grants with sizable outlays via “Form of Input Subsidy Programs” (FISPs).
These FISP grants helped farmers pay for hybrid seeds and synthetic fertilizers – and monocropping – that AGRA has promoted. But False Promises condemns AGRA for allowing some 30,000 “agro-preneurs” to decide what crops farmers should grow and thus endangering the rights of small-scale food producers to self-determination and food sovereignty.
False Promises further claims that AGRA has yet to present reliable estimates of the number of small-scale food producer households reached, improvements in their yields, household net incomes or food security, or its progress in achieving its own ambitious goals. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, they claim, has been equally silent. This lack of accountability and oversight, the report contended, is ASTOUNDING for a program that for so long has driven Africa’s agricultural development policies.
AGRA President Agnes Kalibata, a principal target of AGRA critics, in a recent article painted a very different picture. Kalibata, a former minister of agriculture in Rwanda, sounded like her critics in asserting that, “Most of the big mistakes in development have happened when external actors have foisted their ideas and ideologies on the continent.”
African farmers, she continued, “deserve the same opportunities enjoyed by farmers in Europe and North America. They do not want to be stuck with 40-year-old seed varieties.” She boasted of 90 percent adoption rates for new seeds in Nigeria and Burkina Faso. AGRA, she noted, has helped establish over 110 African seed companies that provide 700,000 metric tons of seeds to 20 million out of Africa’s 45 million farmers.
But Kalibata had no answers for the lack of progress other than to state that, “Inclusive agriculture transformation is not a quick fix.” Her prescription for transforming African agriculture using the AGRA model requires another $25 to $35 billion a year of investments.
The Gates-Rockefeller team has sought through AGRA to inject modern agribusiness practices into Africa that had previously been eschewed by environmentalists. Their problem was that their methods were not well suited to ensure that their promises would be kept – and, perhaps, that they promised too much too soon. Perhaps they failed to plan for both agribusiness and small-scale family farming. Perhaps, though, AGRA’s leaders can learn from their mistakes.
The Western billionaires who founded AGRA and set its course would have done well to learn from history. In 2009, Pater Hazell commemorated the passing of Green Revolution architect and Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug in an article examining how Borlaug’s vision turned Asian farming economies around.
Hazell defended the Green Revolution against claims that indigenous technologies in combination with “good practices” would have done a better job of feeding Asia (just as False Promises says would be better for Africa). He asserted that in the early 1960s famine was looming across much of Asia and that Asian farmers were ill-equipped to meet that challenge.
The introduction of Borlaug’s high-yield wheat and rice, however, led to a doubling of cereal production from 1970 to 1995. Thus, despite a 60 percent increase in population, cereal and calorie availability per person increased by 30 percent as wheat and rice prices dropped. Hazell also said that most small farms successfully adopted Green Revolution technologies, though at a slower pace than larger scale producers.
But Hazell was also quick to point out weaknesses in the Asian approach that could well be applied to Africa today. In Asia, equitable distribution of land, together with government support of small-scale operations, was essential to small farmer gains, as inequalities worsened in regions where this support did not exist. The focus on monoculture led to the loss of many traditional plant varieties, and in some places poor irrigation and drainage practices ruined prime farmland.
African nations, Hazell admitted, were facing other obstacles to rapid Green Revolution success, notably the lack of rural infrastructure (highways, electric grids) that saddle African farmers with high costs for transportation and marketing, as well as for seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides. Thus, Hazell concluded, Africa would err by simply copying the Asian model of high-input, high-output farming. The Gates-Rockefeller team, False Promises claims, did not heed Hazell’s warning, and thereby betrayed small farmers in their push toward an agribusiness model.
Despite the widespread catcalls to ditch the entire AGRA initiative, there is still a decade for African nations to meet the UN’s sustainable development goals for agriculture. Kalibata has promised an African-centered approach to the Green Revolution, one that focuses on the farmer while scaling up inputs to reach maximum yields.
Fifty years ago, many feared that the American family farm would soon be history as a result of growing agribusiness consolidation. Today, family farms (including wineries), augmented by a growing farmers’ market subculture, are in many places thriving alongside agribusiness giants.
It is possible to implement an agriculture program that provides sufficient resources for both large-scale agrobusinesses and small-scale, diversified family farms. It is the either-or approach that endangers Africa’s future.