The conditions for a Green Revolution in Africa are not, and have never been, in place
The recent death of Norman Borlaug the ‘grandfather’ of the Green Revolution makes this a good time to reflect on food and farming in the 21st Century and the Malthusian Time Bomb that he sought to defuse.
It is often suggested that Borlaug succeeded in achieving significant yield increases in crops in Asia through a combination of dwarf varieties, inputs in the form of inorganic fertlisers and irrigation.
However, the Green Revolution was institutional as well as agronomic, with the state providing the infrastructural support needed for making this transformation successful.
The conditions for a Green Revolution in Africa are not, and have never been, in place. Recent interventions such as the Millennium Development Project, Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa or even the up-to-now successful input subsidy in Malawi are unlikely to be sustainable.
The flaw in these interventions is the narrow perspective adopted: agricultural sustainability cannot be reduced to questions of production alone. Neither is agricultural sustainability simply the wise and careful stewardship of the land. Both views remove farming from its social, economic, political and historical determinants. Rather, it would be better to recognise the need for social transformation that embeds agriculture as stewardship in webs of social relationships that link production, consumption, questions of equity and environmental justice.
Think in systems
Agricultural ecology, or agroecology, provides a shorthand for this complex understanding of the biological, socio-economic and cultural elements that embody an agricultural ecosystem. Hence agroecology introduces agricultural systems that mimic the natural ecosystems they have replaced, and maintains the link between the cultivation of the land and the culture of the people who farm it. In direct contrast to the universalising message of the New Green Revolution, agroecology is particular, contextual and nuanced. It strikes a balance between production, stability and resilience through diversification rather than intensification.
The traditional agricultural systems that industrial agriculture has replaced were characterised by diversified strategies. Farmers would plant a number of different crops in the same field - for example, maize, sorghum and millet could be intercropped with cowpeas and pumpkins in its drier upper limits. Meanwhile the retention of useful natural tree species or the cultivation of others combines annual and perennial crops in this rich mosaic.
These agricultural systems make the fullest possible use of agroecological niches and conserve the resource base on which agriculture depends, ensuring production in the long term. Each crop has different times of planting, growth habit and maturity date, thus extending the growing season and reducing peak labour demands by lengthening the period of harvest. The outcome is to lower the risk of crop failure and hunger, and to offer a more diverse and healthy diet.
Growing for growth
Given current population pressures, agroecology needs to look forwards to other ways of maintaining and enhancing soil fertility. We, at Find Your Feet, support farmers to conserve their soils by rotating their crops, applying compost, taking measures against soil erosion and introducing leguminous crops. We also encourage farmers to save seed that is adapted to local conditions. This is in contrast to the present over-reliance on high yielding modern seed varieties - normally hybrid maize - and fertilisers. Our on-farm trials in Malawi have demonstrated that, under field conditions, there is no real benefit in using hybrid maize over open-pollinated varieties given the fact that the main constraints to maize production are soil fertility and soil moisture.
In doing so we are not suggesting panaceas but alternatives that require knowledge and perspicacity. We believe that there are specific solutions to specific farming problems, not a one-size-fits-all agriculture that is often proposed by the advocates of high input industrial agriculture. Some solutions may be technical, requiring a drought resistant crop, others, social and political, such as the need for agrarian reform.
The relevance of looking at agriculture from an agroecological standpoint is not confined to the developing world. Here in Europe/UK, the industrial model of agriculture has led to a rural crisis. The emphasis on farming as business has lead to fewer, larger farms and a declining rural economy, with consequent depopulation of rural areas. Agroecology recognises agriculture’s multifunctionality - its role in creating and/or maintaining the landscape as well as producing food, providing employment, and conserving biodiversity.
In the face of impending and dramatic climate change, we need to do more to build resilience into our farming systems. This can best be achieved by looking to agroecology as the way forward because it will rebuild the countryside and the webs of social and ecological relationships on which it depends. We acknowledge Borlaug’s contribution to increasing agricultural yields but question the path he took to do so – the neglect of the environment in the singular concern for productivity gains was short-sighted in the extreme. It is a legacy that we must address if we are to resolve the environmental crisis of today.
Dan Taylor is the director of Find Your Feet