Africa: Green Revolution or Rainbow Evolution?

Source: Foreign Policy in Focus

Kofi Annan has just agreed to head the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

The goals of these foundations are ambitious. "Our initial estimate is that over ten years, the program for Africa’s seed systems (PASS) should produce 400 improved crop varieties resulting in a 50 percent increase in the land area planted with improved varieties across 20 African countries," reads the initiative’s press release. "We have also initially estimated that this level of performance will contribute to eliminating hunger for 30-40 million people and sustainably move 15-20 million people out of poverty."

But can Africa afford this proposed "green revolution" in terms of human health and environmental sustainability? The foundation goals require resources that the continent does not have while derogating the incredible wealth it does possess. Although scientists, agriculturalists and African governments all agree that the continent has not remotely reached its agricultural potential, their advocated policies for food sovereignty drastically diverge from the high-tech, high-cost approach promoted by Gates and Rockefeller.

In 2002, while UN secretary general, Kofi Annan asked, "How can a green revolution be achieved in Africa?" After more than a year of study, the appointed expert panel of scientists (from Brazil, China, Mexico, South Africa and elsewhere) replied that a green revolution would not provide food security because of the diverse types of farming systems across the continent. There is "no single magic technological bullet…for radically improving African agriculture," the expert panel reported in its strategic recommendations. "African agriculture is more likely to experience numerous ‘rainbow evolutions’ that differ in nature and extent among the many systems, rather than one Green Revolution as in Asia." Now Annan has agreed to head the kind of project his advisors told him would not work.

Behind the Green Revolution

The green revolution of the 1970s promoted increased yields, based on a model of industrial agriculture defined as a monoculture of one or two crops, which requires massive amounts of both fertilizer and pesticide as well as the purchase of seed. Although this approach to food production might feed more people in the short term, it also quickly destroys the earth through extensive soil degradation and water pollution from pesticides and fertilizers. It ruined small-scale farmers in Asia and Latin America, who could not afford to purchase the fertilizers, pesticides, and water necessary for the hybrid seed or apply these inputs in the exact proportions and at the exact times. To pay their debts, the farmers had to sell their land.

Increasing yields to provide food for the hungry remains the central justification for a green revolution. But as the expert panel above analyzed in great detail, increased yields of one or two strains of one or two crops ("monoculture within monoculture," as stated by a Tanzanian botanist) will not solve Africa’s food problems. Africa’s diverse ecological systems, and even more diverse farming systems, require multiple initiatives, from intercropping on to permaculture, from respecting and using traditional ecological knowledge to training and equipping more African geneticists. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization, for example, now promotes farmers’ breeding seeds (in situ) as a better conservation measure than collecting seed for refrigeration in a few large seed banks (ex situ). The very best food seed breeders in Africa, the "keepers of seed," are women who often farm less than one hectare of land.

The key to ending hunger is sustaining Africa’s food biodiversity, not reducing it to industrial monoculture. Currently, food for African consumption comes from about 2,000 different plants, while the U.S. food base derives mainly from 12 plants. Any further narrowing of the food base makes us all vulnerable because it increases crop susceptibility to pathogens, reduces the variety of nutrients needed for human health, and minimizes the parent genetic material available for future breeding.

Seeds are a key element in the equation. One figure not often quoted among the depressing statistics from the continent is that African farmers still retain control over this major farming input: of the seed used for food crops, 80% is saved seed. Farmers do not have to buy seed every season, with cash they do not have. They possess a greater wealth — their indigenous seeds, freely shared and developed over centuries. The proposed green revolution would shift the food base away from this treasure of seed. Instead, African farmers would have to purchase seed each season, thus putting cash into the hands of the corporations providing the seed. Is there a way of developing new varieties without further enriching Monsanto or DuPont by removing genetic wealth from African farmers?

Corporate development of new seed varieties, as promoted by the foundations, raises other questions. Will the new varieties be patented or protected by farmers’ rights? Who will own and control the seed? One major reason for the decline of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is the global South’s resistance to patenting life forms. In 1999, the African Union, representing all African governments, asked that its unanimous resolution rejecting any patenting on life be put on the agenda at the Seattle WTO meeting. The United States refused the request.

Another source of African wealth derives from indigenous ecological knowledge, reflecting centuries of adaptation to the different ecological zones, which values interspersing different plants to enrich the soil and deter pests from food crops. Shade trees, often cut down to open the land for monoculture farming, are not necessarily in the way of a plowing tractor. African farmers have the knowledge to use these trees as wind breaks, medicine, habitats for biodiverse insect communities, and food for all.

This wealth of knowledge raises another question whether the African continent needs newly manufactured varieties of food crops, or is the problem the lack of scientific recognition and market valuing of what African farmers have cultivated for centuries? Does the color green in this Green Revolution favor crops known and owned by the global North?

Sorghum is one example of a crop lost to markets in the global North but not to Africa. On the continent, it is planted in more hectares than all other food crops combined. As nutritious as maize for carbohydrates, vitamin B6, and food energy, sorghum is more nutritious in protein, ash, pantothenic acid, calcium, copper, iron, phosphorus, isoleucine, and leucine. One of the most versatile foods in the world, sorghum can be boiled like rice, cracked like oats for porridge, baked like wheat into flatbreads, popped like popcorn for snacks, or brewed for nutritious beer.

Although indigenous knowledge designed these diverse and rich uses of sorghum, most contemporary scientists have ignored its genetic wealth. "Sorghum is a relatively undeveloped crop with a truly remarkable array of grain types, plant types, and adaptability," concludes the National Research Council in the United States. "Most of its genetic wealth is so far untapped and even unsorted. Indeed, sorghum probably has more undeveloped genetic potential than any other major food crop in the world."

Engaging African scientists to discover the potential genetic wealth of sorghum would assist African food security. In a first glimpse of foundation expenditures, however, we see funds directed to the Wambugu Consortium (founded by Pioneer Hi-Breed, part of DuPont) for experiments in genetically modified sorghum. By adding a gene, rather than mining the genetic wealth already there, the consortium can patent and sell the "new" variety at a premium price for DuPont.

Toward Sustainability

Given the well-documented destruction of the previous green revolution, what if we decided that Africa’s lack of use of fertilizer is a sign of sustainable development not of backwardness? Africa’s use of chemical fertilizers is extremely low: nine kilograms per hectare in Sub-Sahara Africa, compared to 135 kilograms per hectare in East and Southeast Asia, 100 kilograms in South Asia, and an average of 206 kilograms in industrialized countries. Originating from excess nitrogen production left over after World War II, the massive use of chemical fertilizers defined industrial agriculture in the 20th century. Surely for the 21st century, yields can be increased without such a high cost of African environmental degradation.

The African continent also uses different terminology from that of the green revolution. Instead of food security, African voices articulate the goal of food sovereignty. Food sovereignty expresses resistance to the notion that food security can be provided by reliance on global markets, where price and supply vagaries can be as capricious as African weather. Experiencing political manipulation of global markets by the more powerful, African governments seek to control decisions about food sources, considering such choices as vital to national sovereignty.

African governments work to defend local, small-scale farmers from highly subsidized farmers in the United States or Europe. In most of Africa — with South Africa a notable exception — the majority of the population still lives in rural areas and still derives their incomes from farming. Dislocation of farmers to consolidate land for high-tech, green revolution farming is as serious a threat as chemical pollution of the environment.

Should the green wealth of ecological and farming knowledge among local small-scale farmers be destroyed for the cash wealth of much fewer large-scale farmers buying all their inputs from foreign corporations?

Each African government will answer the above questions about a green revolution differently. The diversity of policies matches the diversity of the continent. Yet they all reject patenting of life forms and strive to attain food sovereignty. High-tech answers to Africa’s food crises are no answers at all if they pollute the environment with fertilizers and pesticides, destroy small-scale farming, and transform the genetic wealth of the continent into cash profits for a few corporations.

Carol B. Thompson is a professor of political economy at Northern Arizona University and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus ( She can be reached at:


For More Information

For more detailed analyses, see Andrew Mushita and Carol B. Thompson, Biopiracy of Biodiversity (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2007).