The following article was originally published on The Elephant on December 3, 2021.
By all accounts, food and agriculture were barely on the agenda at this month’s UN Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland. They should have been. Food production, distribution, consumption, and waste contribute an estimated one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. In production, the majority comes from unsustainable livestock production with another large share coming from unsustainable production and use of synthetic fertilizers. But a significant share also comes from “land use change”, a neutral term for the destructive expansion of agriculture onto new land.
That sort of “extensification” of agriculture can have serious environmental consequences – deforestation, soil erosion, unsustainable water use, etc. Those in turn have important implications for climate change, as a recent UN report highlighted. Land use changes due to agricultural expansion increase carbon emissions from land clearing, eliminate carbon dioxide-absorbing plants such as rainforests, and create greenhouse gases with incoming modern farming methods. According to the UN, they account for about 30 per cent of agriculture-related emissions.
The simplifying neo-Malthusian perspective attributes extensification to growing populations exerting pressure on scarce natural resources. Increasing farmers’ productivity on existing lands in regions such as Africa where yields are relatively low is the mainstream solution. The goal is to foster “sustainable intensification” – growing more food on the same land. With commercial inputs such as commercial seeds and synthetic fertilizers, farmers can intensify their exploitation of existing agricultural land, raising productivity and easing pressures from growing populations to bring new lands into cultivation.
The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) was founded 15 years ago to address the productivity problem. With generous funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations, the alliance set out to reduce chronic hunger and poverty by increasing yields in key food crops through the expanded use of commercial seeds and fertilizers. This is the “technology package” credited with raising agricultural productivity in what came to be known as the first Green Revolution in India and other parts of Asia and Latin America in the 1970s.
Africa’s Green Revolution has largely failed to promote either sustainability or intensification. Evidence suggests that the initiatives, which include high levels of government subsidies for farmers to use Green Revolution inputs, are both failing to raise productivity and contributing to the unsustainable expansion of farming onto new lands.
My research shows that excessive incentives to maize and a few commercial crops have persuaded farmers to shift land out of other nutritious crops while expanding production onto new lands. The result is higher maize production but without significant productivity increases. Meanwhile, we see rising levels of malnourishment and undernourishment as poor farmers fail to benefit from rising productivity but see their families’ diet diversity decline as the diversity of food crops in their fields declines.
Climate change and the unaddressed pandemic emergency are contributing to a deep hunger crisis in Africa. The worst dangers of famine are in areas of conflict such as Ethiopia, but hunger is more widespread. The United Nations has recorded a 50 percent increase in the number of severely undernourished people in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2006. Underlying that deprivation is a model of agricultural development that is encouraging unsustainable land use and undermining crop and diet diversity.
These alarming outcomes have prompted African food producing organizations to call on donors to end their support for AGRA and other Green Revolution programmes. They call for a shift to agroecological initiatives that have been shown to generate sustainable productivity improvements across a range of food crops, addressing the need for more food and more nutritious diets while easing pressures on unsustainable land use.
Redoubling climate damage
Neither evidence nor entreaties have persuaded Green Revolution leaders that their strategies may be misguided. In October, Mr Hailemariam Desalegn, former Prime Minister of Ethiopia and current Chair of the Board of AGRA, acknowledged the problem. “Over the last two decades, the African continent has registered the most rapid rate of agricultural production growth of any region of the world,” he wrote in an opinion column for African Arguments. “Unfortunately, most of this growth has been through the expansion of agricultural land, not an increase in productivity. With our population expected to double by the middle of the century, our farmers need to continue growing more, while using fewer resources.” He went on to argue that the intensive use of Green Revolution seeds and fertilizers could achieve that. He has urged governments and donors to redouble Green Revolution efforts.
Climate change and the unaddressed pandemic emergency are contributing to a deep hunger crisis in Africa.
The evidence suggests otherwise. In 2020, I carried out a comprehensive assessment of the impacts of Green Revolution programmes in AGRA’s 13 focus countries. AGRA refused to share its own impact data, so I used national-level data on crop production, productivity, and area expansion to determine whether AGRA was meeting its stated goal of doubling productivity for 30 million small-scale farming households by 2020. Because 30 million represent the vast majority of farms in AGRA’s programme area, national-level data from 2006-2018 would reveal whether such a productivity revolution was occurring. I also assessed progress toward AGRA’s stated goals of doubling incomes for those same farmers and cutting food insecurity by half by 2020.
I found the Green Revolution was failing on its own terms. Productivity growth was slow, even for heavily supported and subsidized crops such as maize. More traditional staple crops such as millet and sorghum showed stagnation or decline. My estimate of productivity increases for a basket of staple crops in AGRA’s 13 focus countries showed just 18 per cent yield growth over 12 years, a rate barely higher than the preceding 12 years. Not surprisingly, poverty remained endemic, particularly in rural areas. And rather than cutting food insecurity by half, the number of undernourished people increased 31 per cent in those 13 countries.
The data also revealed that Green Revolution initiatives were not only failing to achieve sustainable intensification, they were promoting the opposite. As the graph shows, between 2006 and 2018 maize productivity rose by only 29 per cent while the area planted to maize increased by 45 per cent in AGRA’s 13 focus countries. Overall, production increased 87 per cent, but mainly because of extensification rather than intensification. Meanwhile, land planted to other staples such as millet and sorghum declined or stagnated, as did yields. My composite staple yield index showed just 18 per cent yield growth. (All data cited here, unless otherwise indicated, are from the United Nations, cited in my Tufts University Working Paper.)