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A Truly African Green Revolution
Erica Barnett, 6 Aug 07
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In a move that seems certain to spark controversy in agricultural and biotechnology circles, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan of Ghana just announced that the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which he now heads, will not use genetically modified (GMO) seeds to fight the war on hunger in Africa; instead, AGRA will focus on creating new seed varieties from familiar local seeds using conventional breeding methods. AGRA's commitment to local methods and materials is akin to the concept of food sovereignty, the idea that nations should be able to feed themselves, using native resources and techniques.

AGRA was established last year with a $150 million infusion from the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations. Its mission is to revitalize small-scale farming and improve the lives of African farmers (most of whom are women) while improving crop yields to alleviate the poverty that afflicts much of Africa. In addition to developing seeds, AGRA’s ambitious action plan includes fortifying soils depleted by poor agricultural practices; improve access to water and water efficiency; creating better agricultural markets; developing local agricultural education networks; utilizing African farming techniques; and encouraging government policies that help small-scale farmers.

According to its web site, although AGRA does not "advocate for or against genetic engineering," they "know that conventional methods of plant breeding can produce significant benefits in the near term at relatively low cost. Until now, however, conventional plant breeding has not received sufficient attention or investment in Africa, leaving untapped the inherent genetic potential available in African crops."

There is debate, even among those at Worldchanging about the risks and potential of genetically modified crops. Personally, I think current genetic engineering practices are insufficiently studied at best and potentially risky at worst, and that genetically modified crops are more beneficial to factory-farm agribusinesses than indigenous farmers. I'm also concerned about the potential health effects of GMO crops; although they haven't been demonstrated to be biochemically or nutritionally different than conventional, non-GMO crops, the truth is that we just don't know what the long-term health impacts of GMOs, if any, are. That's reason enough for concern.

Focusing on conventional breeding and agricultural practices may not work to increase farm productivity and reduce hunger in Africa. Then again, it very well might. The point, according to AGRA, is that it hasn't been tried. The Green Revolution, so successful at providing food to famine-stricken nations around the world, failed in Africa; as crop production around the world increased, production in Africa actually declined, in part because the tools and techniques of that revolution--high-yield crops, monoculture, pesticides, fertilizer, and mechanized farm machines--were poorly suited to the soil, climate, and economic conditions of Africa.

The problems facing Africa are tremendous: according to AGRA, the number of Africans living below the poverty line of $1 a day increased by 50 percent over the last 15 years, and an estimated 30 percent of the population routinely suffers from hunger. Combating these problems will take billions of dollars and decades. AGRA's approach--to launch, as Annan put it in a recent speech, "a uniquely African Green Revolution"--seems like a good start.

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Comments

I think that both the author, Erica Barnett, and the subject, Kofi Annan are making a huge mistake.

Of course conventional breeding can make a big difference as it has world wide for decades. No rational person would say that there should not be a concerted effort to do good conventional breeding targeting African agricultural needs.

The insanity is to say that biotechnology should not be part of the effort. For even the skeptics, the huge historical success of biotech in increasing yields while reducing chemical inputs should be convincing. We are talking about more than a decade of experience on more than a billion acres without "unanticipated problems".

How long can you claim that "the sky might fall" before you look ridiculous?

Its one thing to block a biotech crop in well-fed European nations. Its a morally different issue in most of Africa.

Steve Savage, Ph.D.


Posted by: Steve Savage on 6 Aug 07

Reducing chemical inputs? I thought the genes added to GM crops were basically herbicide resistance and Bt. That is, the first is only useful if you're investing in chemical inputs. And the second avoids pesticide spraying by making the crop produce it.

I don't know much about Africa, but it seems pretty well documented that in India farmers need higher subsidies with these crops than with local varieties.


Posted by: Daniel Bergey on 7 Aug 07

Daniel is completely correct, despite huge subsidies for bad science, no one has been able to make a sound financial case for GMOs outside of North America and there are growing questions of its long term financial feasibility there as well.

Not only does it raise some serious health concerns but it can create dependencies on a variety of expensive chemicals, and in many cases make the crop more susceptible to other attacks.

The reason that these crops are so widely promoted is that they are very profitable for the companies that sell them. To some degree it is also an issue of trust and companies like Monsanto that have brought us DDT, Agent Orange, Bovine Growth Hormone, and Nutrasweet (all sworn to not affect human health) are clearly running a good-will deficit.

Quite frankly it would be a huge disservice to Africa for men in trusted positions like Annan to shackle their charge's agricultural future to the likes of companies like this.


Posted by: Don on 7 Aug 07

Those who truly believe that simply finding ways of producing greater quantities of food in sub-Saharan Africa will solve the starvation problems have probably never really studied the food production and distribution systems on the ground. This includes many proponents of GMOs.

With anywhere from 40% to 80% of total agricultural produce never reaching the consumers (depending on whose numbers you are looking at) due to post-harvest losses, spoilage, spillage, etc., it is clear that simply increasing the quantity of food produced would only result in a marginal increase in amount of food available, much of which will never actually reach those most in need. This would be a poor use of resources and should be a very un-attractive attempt at a solution unless you are in the business of selling agricultural inputs, such as seed, fertilizer, pesticides, loans, etc.

I understand that making food more plentiful would be a more visible and sexy “solution” and would certainly be a lot easier than trying to improve food security by improving infrastructure, educating farmers in the use of post-harvest methods and technologies to reduce spoilage, and many other approaches. Obviously, these are not the quick fixes that we in the West can easily relate to, not to mention make money from, but if the efficiency of the existing system is not addressed, simply throwing more production at one end only strains an already broken system and will be a miserable waste.

Imagine this scenario: a truck-full of produce rotting on the side of the road because the truck sank axle deep in the mud, the truck was offloaded in an unsuccessful attempt to extricate it, leaving the produce in the hot African sun and rain.… It wouldn’t matter if the produce were some high yield GM crop – it would not be getting to the consumer. Unfortunately, this is an everyday occurrence sub-Saharan Africa. More plentiful food would be nice, but is not the answer to what is really a complex, but not intractable, food security problem.


Posted by: Dauda Ladipo on 7 Aug 07

It is the utter height of hypocrisy to bring morals into a discussion of GMOs when governments and companies have prevented full disclosure on use and effects of these products for years.

Mr. Steve PhD makes the mistake so common to intellectuals everywhere - if it is modern and hasn't shown problems to date it must be good. The first green revolution failed Africa completely, there is no reason to assume a second along the same lines would not as well.

No one is saying, Steve, that AGRA will completely monopolize food production in Africa - 150 million doesn't go quite that far. So have no fear, your precious GMO crops will certainly be part of the overall effort. There is simply no reason for AGRA and the Gates Foundation to invest in them. And THAT is the issue at stake.

Mr. Steve the scientist - always stating the "sky isn't falling" right up until the point when it does. Ever hear the saying "an ounce of prevention prevents a pound of cure?" Well GMOs are a kilo of cure...it's time Africa took a gram of prevention.


Posted by: Eric E on 7 Aug 07

It is the utter height of hypocrisy to bring morals into a discussion of GMOs when governments and companies have prevented full disclosure on use and effects of these products for years.

Mr. Steve PhD makes the mistake so common to intellectuals everywhere - if it is modern and hasn't shown problems to date it must be good. The first green revolution failed Africa completely, there is no reason to assume a second along the same lines would not as well.

No one is saying, Steve, that AGRA will completely monopolize food production in Africa - 150 million doesn't go quite that far. So have no fear, your precious GMO crops will certainly be part of the overall effort. There is simply no reason for AGRA and the Gates Foundation to invest in them. And THAT is the issue at stake.

Mr. Steve the scientist - always stating the "sky isn't falling" right up until the point when it does. Ever hear the saying "an ounce of prevention prevents a pound of cure?" Well GMOs are a kilo of cure...it's time Africa took a gram of prevention.


Posted by: Eric E on 7 Aug 07

Farmers need sovereignty over seed all the people need
sovereignty over their food and food shed. It should be a basic right. Forested lands and permanent grasslands hold their own in terms of fertility.The multi level/layer bio-diverse farming style does this also and is capable of producing more calories and nutrition acre for acre than conventional farming.Honey bees make food and all these creatures are in a symbiotic relationship and are happier with human and animal energy farming.It takes a farmer to know.


Posted by: gary anderson on 8 Aug 07

Your definition of food sovereignty -- which I realize is not central to your argument -- completely ignores the fact that all countries everywhere depend on one another for their "native resources and techniques".

How native is native? Should Italians give up tomatoes because they aren't native? The history of agriculture is a history of people taking crops, livestock and techniques with them as they moved around the world, before there were countries to be sovereign and long after.

Whatever else food sovereignty may bring, it should not include the idea of exclusively "native" anything -- unless you want people everywhere to starve.


Posted by: Jeremy Cherfas on 9 Aug 07

If you really want to help Africa; 1)get rid of these kleptocrats and Juntas now ruling the continent. 2) Build roads and communication infrastructure linking remote parts of Africa to each other. This will ease the movement of goods and services including foodstuff and this problem of hunger will be solved for good. As we speak, there are tons of food rotting by a roadside in Mbanga Cameroon while there are thousands going today without a meal in Darfur Sudan.


Posted by: Nuvala Nguket on 10 Aug 07

I hope and pray that this doesn't become another example of money donated with good intention of helping the poor (mostly women) of Africa that ends up in the wrong hands. I wholeheartly believe that if this money is used to education the women of Africa on poverty relieving practices, the end result will be a good one.


Posted by: Karen on 20 Aug 07



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