Africa needs its own Green Revolution
IPN Opinion article
Business Day, South Africa
WHEN the Green Revolution swept Asia after the mid-1960s with its high-yield seeds, fertilisers and other chemical inputs, and irrigation systems, hundreds of millions of people were saved from starvation. Africa cries out for such a revolution. The adoption of modern agricultural technology would go a long way towards helping the 200-million Africans who are malnourished.
Unfortunately, a coalition of environmental nongovernmental organisations , politicians and advocacy groups are conspiring to keep this nothing more than a pipe dream.
The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa was established by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with the objective of improving agriculture in Africa, but its head, former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, said last week: 'We in the alliance will not incorporate GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in our programmes. We shall work with farmers using traditional seeds known to them.' And Greenpeace claims that 'chemical pesticides, fertilisers and hybrid seeds have destroyed wildlife and crop diversity, poisoned people and ruined the soil.'
It is true that much environmental damage occurred in the same period as the Green Revolution. But it had entirely different causes. Consider water resources. When farmers irrigate wastefully it is because the managers of public systems charge practically nothing for water. Moreover, these managers often provide subsidised electricity to farmers to run their pumps. The result: depleted underground aquifers and dry streams. Bad policy also contributes to the misuse of chemicals. In India, nitrogen is subsidised; other fertilisers are not. This leads to unbalanced fertilisation, which diminishes crop output.
Modern agricultural practices have environmental benefits. Chemicals and genetically modified varieties enhance yields, enabling more food to be produced on less land. As a result, wild habitats are saved. Had the Green Revolution not come along when it did, we would now be discussing tropical deforestation in Asia exclusively in the past tense. Without yield growth, the continent's farmers would have cultivated every square metre of ground in a futile struggle to keep up with exploding food demand, driven by expanding populations and higher incomes. No more forests would be left to cut down.
New technologies are bringing other environmental benefits. Genetically modified varieties resist insects, thereby reducing the amount of pesticide required. Herbicide-resistant crops diminish the need for ploughing, a significant cause of soil erosion.
These technologies are now commonplace in southern Asia. But farming practices have changed little in Africa since the 1960s, and crop yields remain abysmal. Since human numbers are rising fast in many parts of the continent, agriculture is putting pressure on forests and other habitats. A Green Revolution could solve this problem.
Opponents of agricultural technology claim that small farmers lose when improved ways are found to produce food. While it is true that farmers who are slow to adopt cost-saving technology find themselves at a competitive disadvantage, small farmers during the Asian Green Revolution generally switched to improved varieties of rice and wheat and new agricultural practices at the same pace as other growers.
Nor is it true that multinational corporations are the only winners from new technologies. The reality is that the poor benefit more than anyone else, mainly because agricultural development makes food cheaper.
In any sector of the economy, including agriculture, technological change always increases the supply, which lowers prices. If consumption is not very responsive to price changes, as is the case in most food markets, the main impact of supply growth is a sharp decline in prices. Consumers are thus the main beneficiaries of agricultural development.
The biggest winner from cheaper food prices is the poorest segment of the rural population: landless people in the countryside, who subsist mainly by working occasionally on other people's farms. Small producers also gain, since most of them are net buyers of food. As food grows cheaper for these groups and the urban poor, diets improve and the threat of hunger and disease recedes.
Taking into account these and other benefits of agricultural development, the greatest myth propagated by antitechnology groups is that they represent the best interests of the African poor. Much of the world long ago moved away from traditional farming practices, and is significantly better off as a result. It's high time for Africa to have its own Green Revolution.
Dr Southgate is a professor of agricultural economics at Ohio State University and member of the Sustainable Development Network, an international coalition of think-tanks