Africa needs an alternative agricultural system – lessons from India

The Green Revolution will fail again

It’s often stated that the development and adoption of high yielding varieties and the accompanying use of agrochemicals- the so called “Green Revolution”- was the biggest progress in agriculture in the 20th century. To ascertain if this widely held view is accurate, one needs to answer key questions which measure any successful agricultural system in order to arrive at a solid and comprehensive conclusion of what the green revolution truly meant for farmers who were at the center of it all.

So, how do you evaluate the success of an agricultural system? Is the success measured by yields and production levels which are essential for addressing the food security needs of a nation? Are farmers in Africa and elsewhere involved in the industrial approach presented by the green revolution better off financially? Does it generate sufficient employment in the hinterlands? Do consumers get safe, nutritious food? Is the environment safe? Are the chosen farming methods sustainable and climate resilient?

The answers to these and many more pressing questions are a consistent and resounding NO!

A primary reasons for the negation in my response is that the context under which the green revolution was pioneered has been extremely western centric. In the west the patterns of land holding, cropping cycles and local food consumption are vastly different from the African continent. For instance, in Europe only 2.5% of the total agricultural land comprise of small farms (less than 2 hectares) whilst the bulk of the agricultural land in Africa are operated by small farmers. In East Africa small holder farmers contribute to more than 75% of the total food production.

Moreover, one of the most talked about example of the success of the Green Revolution has been India. In the 60s and 70s, Western and Southern India were at the forefront of the Green Revolution. The successes in improved yields and increased farmer incomes were short-lived because the past 25 years have seen a reversal of this trend. Farms are witnessing declining yields; soil health has deteriorated to the extent of being classified “dead”, farming communities in states like Punjab- once the grain bowl of India- are seeing some of the highest prevalence rates for cancer in the country, many high yielding crop varieties are failing due to the impacts of climate change and farmer incomes have declined considerably.

To compound the issue, India is today witness to the largest spate of farmer suicides in human history mainly attributed to impoverishment and indebtedness. It is also significant to note that the Green Revolution in India hinged on changing consumption patterns with wheat production prioritized over millet/ coarse cereals and pulses- so much so that today India is a net importer of pulses and has even inked massive state sponsored contract farming deals in African countries like Mozambique to supplement domestic production.

Also contrary to the idea of the Green Revolution being the only way to feed a burgeoning population, Rural India still has a disproportionately high number of the malnourished and food insecure in the world. This is in spite of record agricultural production indicating agricultural productivity, population levels and food availability cannot be compared directly but need to be seen through a prism which factors in aspects like prices, incomes generated and consumption patterns based on the capability approach articulated by Nobel Laureate and Economist Amartya Sen.

Everything that could go wrong is going wrong and the Eastern Indian states, which like most of Africa luckily missed the boat on the first Green Revolution of the 60s and 70s, have flatly said no to the replication of a similar agricultural model. The state of the Indian Green Revolution has been well documented by the Indian Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture in its latest report released in 2016 with most major problems being highlighted, although I must add that the criticism is still muted since the agri- corporations are still quite deeply entrenched in the establishment.

The push for chemicals in agriculture and the promotion of monocultures including large scale industrial agriculture on the African continent are perfect grounds for a ticking time bomb. If adopted, we are likely to witness an increase in farmer impoverishment, extensive environmental degradation and compound the problems for an already fragile health care system much worse than the situation in India.

So contrary to popular perception, the green revolution has ironically turned out to be one of the most unfortunate developments in the agricultural industry when one assesses it gains and pains. We shouldn’t do the same things and expect different results. It is time Africa stopped sacrificing its people and interests before the altar of corporate and donor interests and adopted agricultural policies and a framework based on agro- ecology which truly empowers and enriches its farmers and citizens. Trying to turn the clock back twenty years down the line just isn’t an option when human lives are at stake.

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