Will the "Green Revolution" Ever Hit Africa?

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.

Market-Based Reforms

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.”

Improving Yields

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.”

Joe Snith

Your article left out any mention of what may be the most important change that needs to happen if African farmers are to prosper: America, Europe and Japan must stop their predatory agricultural subsidies.

Eric M. Jones

Okay, here's the plan Bill Gates (etc.):

The Romans had a policy of planting their culture forcefully in other countries. This was done by building towns and inter-marriage, as well as forcefully sending locals to Rome for schooling and acculturation.

How about if we (Americans for example) just buy a few square Roman kilometers in an African country. Within the boundaries of this place, WE grow things and run things like WE would do it, just to see (and demonstrate) how it could work. We wold have open house days where we could show off (if merited).

We could invite other countries to do the same in the US.

We could also use the property to vaccinate, provide medical help and teach.

This looking at a problem from far off seems impossible.

Scott Jenkins

How is that an article on a "Green Revolution" in Africa failed to mention the Green Belt movement in Kenya, which started in 1977?



agree with Joe Smith- the market is tilted towards agribusiness- the result would be export-driven land use which is of no use to the poor- in fact, there's no need to speculate- if Africa opened their markets to agribusiness, the result would be the South American model- both systems need democratic reform for community sustainability


Good insights, though would be richer still with overlay of climate change impacts to regions where droughts are expected to become ever more common and severe. thanks.


@2: Demonstrating too much success will inspire a Robert Mugabe wannabe to send his cronies in to take over the land. As always, the Atillas of the world view production as a natural resource that can be exploited like a forest, never acknowledging that it is the rule of law and property rights that gives individuals the security and incentive to produce in the first place.


You mention the issues with poor soil quality and irrigation, but most of the effort being placed by large donors is not to improve those basic aspects of farming. They are shooing for the shortcut with engineered seeds (GM or not) that require specific fertilizers and which grow in improvished soil. If instead the programs build out the water systems, improved the soil through organic means and encouraged the improvement of native seed quality, the picture would be quite different. African and Indian subcontinent countries can farm scientifically, but should do so by knowing and using the science not just importing the products from a rich country. "Agricultural Science" has become not much more than a way to sell the products for large western companies these days, but it could be far more than that to these places. If only the actual science was driving it and not just the commercial interests, we would all be better off.



I agree with Logan.

From what I've seen of GM crops, they aren't engineered to resist pests - they are engineered to be more pesticide tolerant, so more pesticide may be used on the crops (See hjere Monsanto's "RoundUp Ready Soy). Additionally, GM crops don't produce seed for planting next year - they kill their embryos so the next season's seed must be bought from the seed company again. Smart for the GM company, but not smart for the farmer.

That's not to say we shouldn't share technological advances in farming - just that we should look for sustainable solutions.

Alex M

I thought this was a very interesting piece that covered a robust range of issues. I believe that the discussion of American and European agricultural subsidies, while a pertinent issue, has limited bearing on the topic as presented by the author. This piece seems to focus more on improvement in subsistence farming and yields for domestic consumption as opposed to export driven production. If subsidies represented the make or break issue, then African states would accept GMO seeds since they would rationally determine that the European export market does not justify sacrificing higher yields for domestic consumption.

I thought that the most revealing and powerful point was the mention of the WB Development Report that determined the four-fold increase in income among the poor for agricultural GDP growth vs growth in other sectors. If the Millenium Development Goals are to be accomplished, it seems that improving agricultural productivity is far and away the most important issue to tackle. This flies in the face of development theorists that stress the importance of diversification, and subsequent improvements in terms of trade, as a means to alleviate poverty through sustainable GDP growth.


Margie Miller

There are a few points in your post that I would like to respond to.

1. I question the implication that having only 2% of a country's population farming, and having 6% of our farms be responsible for 58% of our agricultural sales represents an ideal food production system.
2. Smallholder African farmers are not failing to produce enough food to feed their families because they don't have access to GMOs, or don't own large industrial farms. One major problem has been that conditional loans from international financial institutions to these countries have deprived these farmers of access to inputs, credit, extension services, etc. One cannot discuss the decrease in per capita production in Africa between 1980 and 2000 without mentioning these factors.
3. In India, the Green Revolution model has led to depletion of groundwater. "Artificial fertilizers change the chemistry of the biologically impoverished soils, leaving farmers dependent on their continual application." There is an increasing need for pesticides, and increased dependence on fossil fuel. This system is simply unsustainable. The revolution boosted production of cash crops, actually decreasing total food production. Government officials in India agree the model is currently headed toward disaster. (See "India's Farming Revolution Heading for Collapse" and "Different Shades of Green in Africa"). The idea of a "sustainable" Green Revolution is practically an oxymoron. In fact, this is an agricultural model that the world is currently moving away from, and it makes little sense to encourage Africa to strive to institute this system at this point in time.
4. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), the world's largest research project into how to feed the world, concluded that locally based sustainable farming systems were required and
that they were unlikely to include GM seeds or expensive, high cost, high input systems. (See http://www.agassessment.org/ for more info). As the title of the report suggested, there is a plethora of science-based agricultural models that do not make use of GMOs and are not the industrial agriculture model. The article makes it sound like conditions in Africa are too primitive for organic farming. The IAASTD concludes that these type of methods are exactly what is needed in places like Africa.
5. The effects of GMOs on health and the environment have not been adequately tested - and it tends to be important to test the safety of technologies before jumping into using them. The need to maintain genetic seed biodiversity is also an absolutely valid concern and should not be dismissed. Your article states that GMO seeds can be better for the environment, due to a lower necessity for pesticides and higher yields. First of all, we are now seeing increased pesticide application with GMO crops because new kinds of pests have evolved. Second, there is no proof of higher yields. While this claim is constantly made, there is no solid evidence. On the other hand, we do know about other kinds of sustainable farming which consistently increase yields, and are cheaper as well.

GMOs can lower losses to pests, drought, weeds, etc. But there are many proven Agroecological practices that can do this just as well at a fraction of the cost, without indebting farmers and concentrating power of the food system even further in the hands of a couple of unaccountable multinational monopolies.
6. GMO seeds also do not increase farmers' independence. Farmers are not allowed to re-use the seeds - and can be sued if they do - so Paarlberg's note that the seeds reproduce themselves is somewhat meaningless.
7. A 22-year study led by David Pimentel, a professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, that was published in 2005, found that organic farms produced just as much corn and soybeans as conventional farms. While they required more labor, the cost was more than offset by savings in commercial nitrogen, insecticides and herbicides. In Africa, where labor is cheap and capital scarce, the benefits would be magnified.


Jose P

We generally think that technology and "the market" lack any sort of values or moral. However when you realize that most agricultural technology developed was designed to satisfy the needs of large, rich landowners, small farmers get to lose. Technology can be a good thing only if it is designed and implemented acknowledging cultural norms and local realities.

Altought the green revolution brought significative increases in productivity, the social and environmental costs have been devastated. Take for example, the case of over 100 thousand Indian farmers committing suicides, in the last 1.5 decades, because of indebtedness. It is undeniable that free market strategies, expensive technology, and climate change are important factors for this. On the other hand, in provinces like Punjab -the stronghold of the green revolution in India- soil and water resources are being depleted.

If the basic problem is bringing food to the table, there is no question that subsistence agriculture needs to be supported and improved. However the effort here described is creating a fake and temporary market that would promote commercial crops. It is very likely that cash crops will replace subsistence crops. The final result will be more hunger. Plenty of experiences have demonstrated that by focusing on women -who have the most important role for the feeding of the family-, and subsistence agriculture, nutrition rates increases. What will happen when this WFP leaves Africa? what will happen when the prices drop? What will happen if there is no more subsidies to buy the expensive and more scarce productive inputs?

I truly believe that the best way in which developed countries can help solve the situation in Africa is not by pumping lots of money and expensive as well as dangerous technology. The best ways is -as someone here commented before- through promoting the sustainable recovery of soil fertility, and the promotion and improvement of local seeds and knowledge. A truly concerted debate needs to happen about how to solve this problem, and people from Africa, not outsiders, need to take the lead and the decisions.



Maria -

I just wanted to clairfy a bit about GM Technology. You are absolutely right that a lot of the technology is engineered to be pesticide tolerant.

But, this doesn't mean more pesticides. Non-GM crops often require a lot of different pesticides to control for different things and often they must be sprayed several times throughout the growing season. With RoundUp Ready Technology (among others) soybeans often only need to be sprayed with one pesticide (RoundUp) and often only once during the season, as opposed to with 5 different chemicals 3 different times.

In Canada, it is recognized that pesticides have been reduced by nearly %50 in the past 20 years. Check it out: agcare.org.

There are also some GM traits that do directly control the pests. Bt Corn is one example. It protects corn from the European Corn Borer.

There is also the misconception of GM crops not producing seed. You refer to what many call the 'Terminator Gene,' which does not allow the seed to germinate again.

Although that technology exists, it is not found in most GM crops. When it is found, it is often there to control disease.

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about GM crops, I just wanted to clear up these common ones.



Um, seriously? Can we use some more loaded language? Africa is "primitive"? It "missed the boat"? Really?

Maybe there are more pressing issues facing Africans and African farmers than the "green revolution"? It is easy for us to fret about these issues when we have the luxury of knowing we will always have food available to us. When that luxury does not exist, these issues become secondary, if not tertiary, and it is unfair to foist our own expectations on a continent and groups of people who are dealing with different life conditions. Get off your soap box and actually look around at the world.

Carl R

There is nothing here that free trade in money, ideas, and humans would not solve overnight.

I think it will be another century before Africa is an equal economic continent while high trade barriers and stratospheric human movement barriers are kept in place. The only reason it won't be two centuries is because the internet at least facilitates free movement of ideas.

There should be standardized global education levels (primary, secondary, bachelors, etc.) and people above a certain level, say bachelors degree, should be able to relocate at will anywhere in the G20 or participating developing nations. Let Adam Smith develop the opportunities of Africa.

With free movement of people and money, we could finally get away from the model of trying to teach the inmates in the prison camp from afar how to run their business, which has been tried for the last half century and largely failed.


There was a great assessment of the needs of Africa in the testimony of Dr. Gebisa Ejeta before Congress recently. (PDF: http://foreign.senate.gov/testimony/2009/EjetaTestimony090324a.pdf)

He stressed the need for science and for other crucial pieces of infrastructure. Withholding science and technology from Africa would be so wrong--really unethical I think. Like saying: well, sometimes antibiotics are misused, so we shouldn't give them antibiotics....


But when peak oil hits, weather patterns become more erratic and world trade slower only subsistence farmers will be able to survive.

Regardless of any perceived benefits of a "green" revolution without building (think multi-century) sustainability into a system its is doomed.


Well let's see, much of Africa is dirt poor and "going green" requires at least some money, so maybe that might have something to do with it.


With the Iranian Green Revolution happening right now--a potentially major geopolitical shift--how can you refer to anything else as the "Green Revolution"? Movement, perhaps. But this week? A Revolution?

Robert Pratt

Others have noted deficiencies in the article, but I believe that the scope of the topic being discussed makes it impossible to cover every angle in a limited piece, and thus is not the fault of Ms. Gunn.

Noted in the article was the ongoing impoverishment of African farmers. What was not noted was that generally speaking, droughts and other agricultural disasters do not affect the entire continent every year.

So, If there is a drought and food aid is required, government-subsidized food from the US and Europe is shipped to the affected region in vast quantities. This depresses prices for related local commodities so much that every farmer who manages to produce a saleable crop cannot do so profitably.

If we want to provide food aid, we should be buying grains in the African market, not shipping them from our fat over-subsidized farms here.

Please google 'Malawi farming' and follow the first link to see how Africa has the tools to feed itself, despite opposition from western countries and agri-businesses.

Africa can feed itself with very little help. Unfortunately, the guarantee of being paid for excess crop by the government to be shipped in the form of aid stands in the way of most countries.

Malawi, a dry, dusty country, produces almost 50% more food than it needs because of independent, forward-thinking policies by the government. It does not depend yearly for food shipments from us, as in the past, and its granaries are full.



To keep this short answer probably not. There are several reasons why African will more than likely not see a green revelotion any time soon.
1. Priority.
When suitable housing, food, clean water, and disease are under control, then maybe a green revolution could be thought of.
2. Money
Going "green" cost a lot of it. Though it is a necessary to sustain comfortable living on this planet, retro-fitting buildings and driving hybrids are not cheap enough for most people in the western world, let alone 2nd and 3rd world countries.