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Opinion

Africa needs a brown (not green) food revolution

Africa's long-term food security will come from nurturing the soil, not manipulating expensive seeds.

By Shannon Horst / July 6, 2010



Albuquerque, N.M.

Once again, as the West attempts to help Africa, it's on the brink of causing more damage.

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The Gates and other foundations, leading agro-industrial firms, and some African policymakers are championing a "Green Revolution II" to ensure food security. But despite the fanfare and good intentions, this misguided approach will probably do more harm than good.

The approach they are advocating, (modeled after the post-World War II Green Revolution that used technology to boost farm yields) is grounded in manipulating seeds and increasing synthetic fertilizers to improve production. It is the very approach that has been pushed on Africa over the past 50 years.

But Africa is no more food secure than it was at the start of the 20th century. That won't change just because aid groups put more money, more science, or more business savvy behind the same old approach.

There are at least three reasons why.

Scientists are looking in the wrong direction

First, scientists are focusing on how to grow bigger, more, and disease- and pest-resistant plants. Their approach views the soil surrounding plants as a "problem" to overcome, rather than the very habitat in which they can thrive. The entire focus is on how to manipulate the plants rather than how to produce both healthy plants and healthy soil.

Astonishing.

Healthy food comes from healthy soil. Healthy soil is crucial to a nation's water supply, to capturing and sinking carbon, and to the very foundation of any agriculture sector and the nation that depends on it. And history shows clearly that a civilization that destroys its ability to produce its own food in healthy soil eventually collapses.

A second Green Revolution would further destroy Africa's soil and water in the long run and exacerbate the problems: food insecurity, bare land, soil erosion, increased drought and then flooding when the rains finally do come; increased pests and invasive plants; and the collapse of the river systems and groundwater stores.

Where resources are destroyed, conflict over what resources remain ensues, and with it billions of dollars are thrown into emergency relief and peacekeeping. This isn't the intention of the agro-industrial model, but it is the unintended consequence when technology is used without attention to the soil and culture.

Africa is mostly grassland, not farmland

Second is the fact that some 70 percent of Africa's landscape is grassland – arid, semiarid, temperate, and some tropical. Kenya, for example, is 80 percent grassland. The practices and inputs required to use revolutionary seeds in these lands are destructive.

Africa's once vast, healthy savannas were produced by the hoofs and manure of vast herds of grazing animals and pack-hunting predators.

Turning those lands into crop fields will have the same effect it produced on the Great Plains of the United States – the collapse of the grasslands and the soil, river systems, and the groundwater supplies that lie beneath them. Consider the recent depletion of the Ogallala aquifer that lies beneath a large portion of the Great Plains.

Most of Africa's rural populations are pastoralists or agropastoralists who do not farm. Turning them into "productive farmers," dependent on foreign seeds and other inputs, is not only destructive to their land, it is destructive to their culture.

Millions have already been spent by US and European aid organizations throughout Africa on unsuccessful farming programs. Pastoralists in the Horn of Africa consistently say that these programs have also been culturally destructive.

Focusing only on production is a no-win game

Finally, and most important, these approaches to increasing food security focus on production without considering the social, economic, and biological consequences. Increased food production, at the expense of soil, water, and a community's social fabric, is like taking one step forward only to take three steps back.

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