To most people in the developed world, agricultural science is a bit of an afterthought. We go to the grocery store and decide between small, vibrantly red cherry tomatoes and charmingly misshapen heirloom tomatoes. We buy big, juicy oranges and know that when we peel them the juice will run over our fingers and the sticky scent will linger. We can choose between 10 different kinds of apples, no matter the season. At no point during our shopping do most of us stop to think about the technology used to produce this bounty.
Despite the nostalgia many Americans feel for the image of a farm in the country with a red barn, only 2% of Americans are still classified as farmers by the government’s fairly lenient standards. Large industrial farms (producing more than $250,000 in annual sales), though representing only 6% of farms, are responsible for 58% of America’s agricultural sales.
The picture in Africa could not be more different. Approximately two-thirds of Africa’s population labors on small, dusty farms, frequently failing to produce enough food to feed their families. Europe, North America, and Asia got their “Green Revolutions” and the ensuing productivity growth allowed small farmers to send their kids off to school in the big cities. Africa completely missed the boat.
After India began planting higher-quality seeds in 1964, production nearly doubled in the following six years. In contrast, per-capita production in Africa actually decreased between 1980 and 2000 and the continent’s small farmers remain mired in poverty, a particular tragedy given the dependence of most Africans on agriculture. A recent World Bank Development Report concluded, “For the poorest people, GDP growth originating in agriculture is about four times more effective in raising incomes of extremely poor people than GDP growth originating outside the sector.”
Robert Paarlberg, author of Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out Of Africa, traces the history of agricultural investment by African governments and international aid groups and the drop in agricultural aid beginning in the 1980’s. Strong agricultural productivity in the rest of the world, increasing opposition towards science-based farming, and a new focus on fiscal responsibility in developing countries all conspired to drive down agricultural development aid. Official agricultural aid to developing countries fell by 64% between 1980 and 2003.
Paarlberg believes the trend away from science-based farming is due simply to the decreasing need for it in developed countries. He writes:
“This postmodern resistance to agricultural science felt now in both North America and Europe makes considerable sense in rich countries, where science has already brought so much productivity to farming that little more seems needed. It becomes dangerous, however, when exported to countries in Africa where farmers remain trapped in poverty because they are starved for science.”
Agriculture, however, is finally back on the agenda. In 2006, The Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced the Alliance for a Green Revolution Africa (AGRA), and Kofi Annan signed on as its chairman in 2007. In early May of this year, the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General called for a doubling of food yields in Africa through a sustainable green revolution. In the United States, Senators Lugar and Casey introduced the Global Food Security Act of 2009, which would refocus U.S. aid on agricultural investment and development.
Agriculture in Africa has been stubbornly resistant to the demands of the markets and the Gates Foundation has targeted this in its programming. The Foundation has programs aimed at establishing networks of seed dealers and distributing market and weather information on the radio.
Most significantly, the Gates Foundation has launched the Purchase for Progress program, a joint initiative with the World Food Program. The program allows African farmers to enter into forward contracts with the WFP to provide food for the organization’s aid efforts. The hope is that a predictable market will encourage governments and farmers to invest more heavily in inputs like irrigation and fertilizer. In an interview with The New York Times last year Rajiv Shah, the director of Agricultural Development at the Foundation said, “What has been one of the main missing pieces of development has been a supply of cash to help farmers with incentives to produce. If they know the W.F.P. is going to buy from them dependably, and in effect with forward contracts, then that incentive is there.”
The Gates Foundation’s other agricultural efforts, which are focused on improving crop yields through higher-quality seeds, irrigation, fertilizer and training, have provoked some controversy. Opponents of these efforts point to the environmental damage that nitrogen fertilizers do and to the Gates Foundation’s connections with big business agricultural companies like Monsanto and DuPont. They argue for sustainable, organic farming methods and worry about genetic seed biodiversity and dependence on foreign companies for seeds and other inputs.
While organic farming is all the rage in the developed world, the primitive conditions most small, African farmers labor under are far from romantic. With no mechanized machinery and few oxen, farmers clear and work the land by hand. Overworked soil, lack of fertilizer, and low-quality seeds results in painfully low yields.
Perhaps most crucially, a complete lack of irrigation systems in most African countries means that farmers are highly vulnerable to weather conditions. On a recent trip to northern Uganda, I talked with a group of men and women who had planted their first harvest since the region’s destructive civil war. They told me they had recently been forced to abandon their crops – and primary method of income generation – because of lack of rain this year.
The Debate over Genetically Modified Seeds
The debate over genetically modified seeds is particularly fierce. Many people of developed countries, with comfortably full stomachs, see no reason to support scientific tampering with the food supply. In fact, several European countries have refused to approve GMO seed varieties despite the prodding of the World Trade Organization, a policy which inhibits the use of GMO seeds in African countries hoping to export crops to Europe. In Africa, where drought and insect-resistant seeds could radically change lives, only South Africa has approved the seeds for planting.
During a major drought in 2002, countries like Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi agreed to accept only milled GMO maize, eliminating the possibility that the seeds could be replanted and contaminate nearby crops intended for European export. Zambia, where 30% of the population was at risk of starvation, actually refused to accept any food aid in the form of genetically modified seeds.
To Paarlberg, a longtime advocate of GMO seeds, the opposition is nonsensical. He believes that GMO seeds can both be better for the environment, due to a lower necessity for pesticides and higher yields, and can preserve the independence of farmers. “GMO seeds give farmers technology inside the seed itself that makes them less dependent on other purchased inputs such as chemicals,” he told me. “And the seeds reproduce themselves.”
At this point, it’s unclear if AGRA will fund genetically modified seeds as part of its agricultural initiatives although the organization certainly hasn’t ruled it out. The Foundation has already invested in plants genetically engineered for increased nutritional value as part of its public health programs, signifying an openness to the concept.
Regardless of the methods chosen, something will have to be done about increasing food production among small farmers in Africa or the environment will suffer. Joseph DeVries, a plant geneticist who oversees AGRA’s seed research, told a New York Times reporter that the world has two choices: “Either we will increase agricultural yields on the lands now under cultivation, or the combination of low yields and population increase will force smallholders to cut down virgin forest lands and cultivate them. There are no other realistic possibilities.”