Africa needs a brown (not green) food revolution

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

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

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.


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.

What Africa needs is a revolution that mobilizes people to focus on local inputs and practices that produce food that grows in healthy soil (maybe a "brown revolution") and that enhances the social and economic fabric of the community and nation. Guess what? That brown revolution is possible and sustainable right now.

For Africa (and all grassland regions of the world), the work of Rhodesian-born Allan Savory should be top priority. Mr. Savory and a team of Zimbabwean staff at the Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe have achieved promising results using livestock they already had as their No. 1 tool.

They have also achieved successful results over the past five years without spending one dime on expensive research into seeds, genetically modified organisms, root manipulation, climate change adaptation, herbicides, fertilizers, or pesticides, and without special planting or harvesting equipment.

Instead, they focus funds on educating local people in practices that blend some older pastoral knowledge and techniques of animal herding with new understanding of how grazing animals, soils, plants, and organisms coevolved and function in a healthy state.

Savory's approach also means building soils, using the seeds and simple tools already available to them, and enhancing the community's social fabric. Consider the impressive results so far on lands Savory's team owns just south of Victoria Falls:

•More grass than the livestock and wildlife can consume each year on 6,500 acres.

•Increased carrying capacity of that land.

•Increased yields by three to five times on crop fields in local villages.

•A fully restored river system. The Dim­ba­ngombe River in Zimbabwe, seasonally dry for 30 years, now flows perennially and supports fish and crocodiles. More water is flowing through the valley than has ever been known to flow before.

•Increased herds of buffalo, elephants, and other large and small native game.

So profound has this work been that Savory and the Zimbabwe team have just received the Buckminster Fuller Challenge Award for "a solution to one of the world's most pressing problems." They have proved, on the ground, that desertification can be reversed while producing increased income and building social good. Private-land owners around the world who have adopted Savory's ideas have experienced similar results.

If we are truly serious about helping Africa, we will not go the route currently being promoted under the Green Revolution II – no matter what appearance of sincerity, talented corporate management, or amount of money there is behind it. Does this mean we should not support technological innovation? Of course not.

But what we must do is find and support those technologies that not only solve a problem or achieve an objective, but also maintain or enhance the social, financial, and biological fabric of the whole system over the long term.

Shannon Horst, CEO of The Savory Institute, has worked in agriculture in Africa, the US, and other regions for 20 years. She was the Africa desk editor at the Monitor from 1984 to 1985.

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