Green renaissance, not revolution

As Africa’s food problems are becoming more acute, the calls for a green revolution are increasing. But such ideas are often based on misconceptions. A green renaissance with a focus on food security would make more sense.

By Hans-Heinrich Bass

African agriculture is finally back in the spotlight of international development debate. The reason is not just the most recent famine. There are lasting structural problems in the sector. In striking contrast to all other parts of the world, average output per acre has been stagnating in Africa for decades. Indeed, Africa’s fast-growing population means that output per capita is actually falling. Inadequate facilities for storage and transport aggravate the problems, causing massive losses on the way “from field to fork”.

It is often heard that Africa still has vast areas that are fertile but unfarmed, so the use of high-yield seed, pesticides and synthetic fertiliser could trigger an African green revolution. If linked to new highways and served by upgraded ports, these land resources would turn into an actual competitive advantage. African farmers would then not only still the hunger of their own continent but could also contribute to satisfying world market demand for soy and cereals for the production of meat and agro-fuels.

An important element in this strategy are multinational companies and government funds from emerging economies, which are leasing large areas of arable land in Africa in anticipation of high world market prices. Adherents of the idea of a green revolution argue that these investors will also transfer the technology and expertise needed for an up-to-date agro-industry. African contract farmers would then be integrated into global supply chains and become familiar with modern information technology and up-to-date finance practices.

Pronounced proponents of this view include the McKinsey Global Institute, the OECD’s Development Centre and the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank subsidiary that supports the private sector. Some African governments share this view. It is, however, based on a number of misconceptions.

Three misconceptions

The first misconception relates to the availability of land. Anyone familiar only with farming systems in Europe or North America is easily misled to thinking that much African land is not being used. As a matter of fact, however, such land may serve a great variety of different purposes that are not obvious at first glance. In mixed land use systems in semi-arid areas, for example, farmers normally leave arable land fallow for several years. The gathering of leaves and fruits from trees and shrubs and interlaced grazing cycles of nomadic herders complement the land use in a sustain­able manner. Not land, water is the bottleneck-resource.

The under-utilisation of vast open spaces in Africa is a myth. Many smallholder farmers in semi-arid areas have begun to reduce fallow seasons and keep nomads’ livestock off their fields. Land conflicts are becoming more frequent. When upturning virgin soil ever larger pieces of land have to be cleared to make up for low fertility. The poor soil quality of new plots is an important reason for low productivity.

Even in the forest regions, the appearance of lush African fertility is deceiving. Almost all nutrients are in the living biomass; infertile rock is close to the surface. Even if one disregards climate change, it would be impossible to use such land for intensive farming for long. Where intensive farming is possible, how­ever, it is already being done, for instance in the Kenyan highlands or in densely populated Rwanda with its many small plots. The truth is that Africa does not have abundant vacant land.

The second misconception is that an increase in food production will, by itself, overcome hunger. History teaches us that green revolutions mostly benefit large landowners. They are the ones who can recoup the investment in irrigation and machinery. Accordingly, land ownership becomes concentrated, and smallholders get displaced. When harvests fail, their yields do not suffice for survival anymore, and since they have no other opportunities for generating income, they cannot purchase food either. The highways turn into open veins: Trucks take the harvests of the big farms to the cities, and the hungry stay behind – unless the creepingly dispossessed people flee to refugee camps and urban slums.

The third misconception concerns the net benefits of leasing land to international investors. In reality, the downsides outweigh the advantages. All too often, modern commercial farming renders traditional land use impossible. In Mali, for example, two huge areas are now used to produce rice for export to Libya and sugarcane for the national market. The irrigation channels have become insurmountable obstacles that cut across the routes of nomadic herders. Irrigation often also leads to the desiccation of soil within a wide radius. On the other hand, the new jobs for farm labourers are mostly seasonal and poorly paid. Management and professional tasks tend to stay in the hands of experts from the investors’ home country, and seed and even agrochemicals are imported from Asia’s emerging economies.

Whether an African economy really benefits from investments in large-scale irrigation is also moot. According to World Bank data, the costs of a conventional large-scale irrigation project are three times higher in Africa than in Asia. The reasons are the particularities of African soils and their fast salinisation due to evaporation. Only up-to-date irrigation technology, which requires much capital and maintenance, can bring the African project costs closer to the Asian benchmark. Capital, of course, is a crucial constraint in Africa.

Over the centuries, African farmers developed agriculture systems that meet the challenges of water shortage, barren soils, and extreme weather conditions. Their strategies to minimise risks and to mutually ensure security evolved over generations. Nomads’ herds, for example, used to be a mixture of drought-resistant species and fast-reproducing ones. When farmers cleared fields, they tended to spare trees because they are relevant for medicinal substances, forage and articles of merchandise. Some farmers still optimise the use of major rivers’ flood plains by planting and relocating various crops according to their specific water requirements.

Unfortunately, these sophisticated and appropriate land-use systems are under pressure today (see box below). It could make sense to base innovative approaches on them.

Better alternatives

Despite some historic examples of anthropogenic destruction of livelihoods by over- and misuse, African farmers in general understood their soils and the subtle interaction of crops and animals very well. This treasure is worth preserving.

What is needed, is a green renaissance – not harking back to an alleged golden age, but re-interpreting traditional practices in the light of present-day conditions. Today, international agricultural research focuses on wheat and rice, but virtually ignores African plants. To date, the role the traditional crops could play is recognised only by a few research institutes in Switzerland, Taiwan and Germany, which are performing pioneering work in this field. The World Bank’s Indigenous Knowledge Initiative is also worth mentioning.

The yields achieved by modern organic farming in the tropics can be as high as those of conventionally modernised agriculture. That was confirmed by various studies, including those conducted in Uganda and Tanzania by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Organic farming is of course more sustainable. It requires and contaminates less water, maintains soil fertility and does not depend on expensive inputs such as synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. The international community should recognise and reward such positive impacts in terms of environmental protection, and so should national governments. African countries’ tax and subsidy policies tend to keep prices low in urban food markets. The idea is to prevent urban unrest. However, it would be much more important to tackle poverty in rural
areas, where the need tends to be greatest and drives people into urban slums.

Food security needs to be at the heart of any support for the agricultural sector, whether it takes the form of advice for small farmers or funding for infrastructure. Food crops are more important than cash crops, rural roads are more important than highways, local and regional markets are more important than the world market. Neither poverty nor hunger will be eliminated by economic growth alone. These challenges need to be addressed directly.

Since animal husbandry must be environmentally sustainable, African herders have to understand that quality matters more than quantity. Veterinary services and compulsory vaccination programmes could contribute to raising awareness. The herders, how­ever, are not the only ones that matter – so do city-dwellers who invest in herds. Unfortunately, sheer herd size is still widely regarded as an expression of wealth. It is crucial, therefore, to create more meaningful investment opportunities.

Finally, what is needed are small rural industries close to agriculture – especially in food processing. As the example of China shows, small rural industries boost regional productivity thanks to a better division of labour. They can – and must – generate income for land­less families and reduce the pressure to migrate. Where produce is processed straight after harvest, losses are minimised, which in turn improves food security.

In this respect, traditional methods of drying ve­getables or fish are more important than cold chain optimisation for the supply of urban supermarkets. Following a gradual improvement in quality and a niche specialisation, African producers could then also learn how to supply international markets. But the second step must not be taken before the first one.

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