The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa... A platform funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Objective: increase agricultural productivity and farmers' income. The result ? A failure on all fronts, denounces Timothy Wise, author of the book Eating Tomorrow: the diversity of cultures is declining and the number of undernourished people is increasing. Interview.
Timothy Wise… First, some questions about you, your background. Who are you, in which university do you teach and what are your specialties?
I am senior advisor on the Future of Food at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and a Senior Research Fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute, where I was a staff researcher for nearly 20 years. My academic background is in development economics and public policy, and I worked previously as an economic journalist and a development professional, directing the U.S.-based aid agency Grassroots International. My book, "Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food", was published last year by The New Press.
Why did you decide to do a study about Agra? What was the trigger?
Half of the research for "Eating Tomorrow" was in Southern Africa, where I was struck by policymakers’ stubborn commitment to promoting “Africa’s Green Revolution” – the use of commercial seeds and chemical fertilizers – in spite of the obvious mismatch with peasant farmers, their land, and their food cultures. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa seemed to be driving the funding and the narrative. It promised big things: to double yields and incomes for 30 million small-scale farming households while cutting food insecurity in half by 2020. Here we were in 2020; I wanted to see what evidence there was that they were succeeding.
Before getting to the heart of the matter, let's set the scene. What are the biggest challenges of the African continent in terms of agricultural production?
Most of Sub-Saharan Africa is still rural and dependent on agriculture, with the majority of families making at least part of their living from the land. Productivity is relatively low, soils have been depleted over the years, and peasants have been pushed off the best lands and onto poor soils. The farmers who grow most of Africa’s food are, paradoxically, among the largest group of undernourished people on the continent. They need support restoring the fertility of their soils, increasing the productivity of their farms, and making their farms more resilient to climate change, which is already making their lives more precarious.
To your knowledge, why was the Gates Foundation initially involved in such a project? Why this fight and not another?
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had established programs in public health and education. They received a large donation from financier Warren Buffett in 2006, which allowed them to launch their development program. As a technology capitalist, Bill Gates sees technology and markets as the solutions to poverty and inequality. The Green Revolution technology package of commercial seeds and fertilizers seemed like the kind of technology that could solve Africa’s hunger problems. Future innovations, such as genetically modified crops, held the promise, for the Gates Foundation, to dramatically improve African agriculture.
What were the theoretical objectives of the Gates Foundation in launching Agra? On which part of the African continent? In which countries?
The stated goal originally was to double incomes for 20 million smallholder households while cutting food insecurity in half, and the foundation began in 18 countries it thought showed promise. Later the goals became more ambitious – doubling yields and incomes for 30 million smallholder households while halving food insecurity by 2020. And the number of countries were reduced to the 13 that we studied in our report: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. (Niger and Zambia were recently eliminated but Zambia is now in the process of rejoining AGRA.)
What financial resources has the Gates Foundation put on the table? Who are its partners, its networks?
The Gates Foundation is far and away AGRA’s largest funder, providing roughly two-thirds of the roughly $1 billion the organization has received. The Rockefeller Foundation, the funder of the first Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, has been a partner from the start. Most of the rest of the support has come from international donors, the largest coming from the U.S. government (about $90 million). Some comes from private companies. AGRA promotes the Green Revolution by working with African governments, which gain funding they desperately need.
According to your study, this green revolution has failed. Can you mention, in a nutshell, three elements that allow you to draw such a conclusion?
AGRA shows no sign of being able to achieve any of its goals. Based on national statistics, yields in AGRA’s 13 countries have risen only 18% since 2006, not the promised 100% (doubling). Crop diversity is declining as AGRA promotes maize and other starchy crops at the expense of other more nutritious and climate-resilient crops grown by African farmers. And the number of undernourished people has not been reduced by half, it has increased by 31%. Failure on all counts.
According to the summaries of your study that I have read, the income of smallholders has not increased at all, is that right? Yet that was one of the goals of Agra...
AGRA refused to provide any data on its impacts, so it is very difficult to draw conclusions about incomes. There are no good, consistent measures of farmer incomes at the national level. Case studies done for our report, in Mali, Tanzania, Zambia, and Kenya, showed little benefit to farmers’ incomes or food security. Some even reported a decline, as the cost of the inputs put them into debt and yields did not go up enough to pay those loans. Others reported declining nutrition with declining crop diversity.
Another problem is the expansion of crops such as maize, with a negative impact on the displacement of existing crops. Can you explain that to us, please?
Maize is one of AGRA’s chosen crops. It is a staple in many AGRA countries, but AGRA’s support, and the subsidies to farmers to grow more maize, has produced only weak productivity growth in maize. But the subsidies have encouraged farmers to take land previously planted in pearl millet, sorghum, sweet potatoes, or cassava and plant it in maize. Millet production declined 24% since 2006 in AGRA countries.
According to Ethiopian geneticist Melaku Worede, “African varieties hold enormous unexplored potential and endangered by imported solutions”. He also says that these solutions could introduce new dependencies, especially for small farmers and lead them into a spiral of debts, while threatening the genetic diversity of crops vital to Africa. Do you share this point of view? If yes, why?
I do, his warnings have been prescient. As I saw in the field as I researched my book, crops traditional grown by peasants are becoming increasingly rare. Farmers have organized seed-saving groups to collect, save, and distribute seeds for native food crops that farmers may no longer be growing and cannot find in the market. That crop diversity will be critical to Africa’s food future, not just for nutritional diversity but because those crops are far more resilient in Africa’s changing climate. Exchanging that crop diversity for greater dependence on purchased inputs can put farmers in debt, as several of the case studies in our report showed.
Among other things, you also mention the absence of productivity, is that right?
Not a single AGRA country will reach its goal of doubling productivity, even for maize, its favored crop. Across AGRA countries maize yields went up only 29% in 12 years. To get a more comprehensive picture of productivity growth across a range of crops, I created the Staple Yield Index, which combines yield growth for a broader basket of key food crops. Yield growth was only 18% for AGRA’s 13 countries.
Even more challenging: you have not seen a reduction in poverty and hunger in rural areas despite many millions invested. Can you explain that, please?
AGRA’s assumptions were that commercial inputs would double yields, the increased production would be sold on the market, doubling farmer incomes, and food security would improve dramatically as a result. There is no evidence any of that is true. AGRA has not reached very many farmers, certainly not the 30 million it set out to reach. When it has, the inputs have not doubled yields. Even where yields increased, so did costs, so the net income to the farmer has barely increased. They have no more money to improve their food security, meanwhile their diet diversity has decreased as their crop diversity has declined with all the attention to maize.
Despite many requests, you say that Agra refuses to give any figures on its potential progress. Why, do you think?
I think AGRA and the Gates Foundation have always suffered from a lack of public accountability for the millions of dollars they spend. AGRA has never reported on its impacts on yields, incomes, and food security in any comprehensive way. I believe they have internal monitoring and evaluation studies that reveal how limited their impacts have been. At this point, I believe they are hiding the evidence of their failures.
On the ground, many farm groups have actively opposed Agra. They pointed to the negative environmental and social impacts of the first green revolution in Asia and Latin America. Do you agree with them?
I agree that the warnings from the first Green Revolution have largely gone unheeded in Africa. Much of India is moving away from its Green Revolution past, trying to address damage to soil and water, excessive exposures to pesticides, and declining incomes for small-scale farmers. Many are actively moving toward agroecology and organic farming, and African organizations are learning a great deal from their Indian counterparts as they advocate for their own agroecology programs.
Many actors and observers denounce the existing links between the foundation of Bill and Melinda Gates and the giants of biotechnology, Monsanto among others. The issue today is for funding research and studies on transgenic corn and genetically modified seeds. What is your view on the foundation? Does it serve a hidden interest, or is it rather a proven case of philantro-capitalism.
I don’t like to speculate on the motives of the Gates family. I think it is clear that they have a very strong bias toward technology and large corporations as the solutions to the world’s problems. They are also investors in some of those same technologies and companies, which creates conflicts of interest. They are giving grants to advance technologies they the foundation of the Gates family is invested in. Again, there is a real lack of accountability. One thing is clear: the obvious beneficiaries of AGRA and other Green Revolution promotion are the multinational firms that sell the inputs that they are promoting. Monsanto and the other companies have a privileged seat at the table when policies are being written. A former Monsanto executive drafted the initial seed policy reform in Malawi, which threatened to make it illegal for farmers to save, exchange, and sell their seeds. All so Monsanto could increase the sale if its maize seeds.
In the end, how can Africa meet the challenge of a new agriculture?
The Green Revolution offers the failed policies of the past. Our report show those policies are failing again in Africa. Agroecology offers the innovation that farmers need to face an uncertain future.