Africa's Green Revolution may be a long time coming

Africa needs the kind of Green Revolution that caused a huge leap in agricultural productivity in many parts of the world in the 20th century. But efforts to change how farmers work may take decades.

Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom/File
Bill Gates speaks after a meeting on global food security with US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (l) and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (c.) last spring at the Treasury Department in Washington, DC. Finance ministers from the United States, Canada, Spain, and South Korea, as well as the leadership of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, met to announce an initial contribution of $880 million for a new fund to tackle global hunger and poverty.

It's tough to keep your eye on the long view when the prospect of famine is at the door. But that's what organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, CARE, and the United Nation's World Food Programme are trying to do more and more.

The old adage seems to have truth in it: Give people a fish, they eat for a day. Teach them to fish, and they can feed themselves for a lifetime.

The Gates foundation is committed to spend $1.7 billion to alleviate the underlying conditions that create poverty and hunger in Africa, says an Associated Press story. But it may take two decades or more to bring its work to fruition.

"It takes years and years to shift the system," says Roy Steiner, deputy director of global development for the Gates foundation. "Giving food to people is certainly necessary when there's a crisis," he said. "But these people don't want to be depending on outside charity. And, frankly, who is going to pay for all of that food being given?"

The "fishing poles" that it and other relief agencies are trying to provide include more drought-tolerant seeds, better fertilizers, educating farmers on better farming techniques, and helping them get their crops to market more easily.

Agriculture has come under the spotlight as world population grows along with concerns about how changing climates may affect food production. A report released yesterday by the aid agency Oxfam, called Growing a Better Future, "warns that spiraling prices and endless cycles of regional food crises will create millions more hungry people unless we transform the way we grow and sell food." It predicts that the price of basic foods such as corn could more than double in the next 20 years.

What's needed in Africa is the kind of Green Revolution seen in other parts of the world in the 20th century. Whether genetic-modification of plants will be a key part of the answer in Africa remains to be seen (see "How science could spark a second Green Revolution").

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, led by African scientists, economists, and business leaders, helps small farmers, especially women, improve their farming methods. It's just one effort receiving aid from the Gates foundation.

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