As COVID-19 threatens farming communities across Africa already struggling with climate change, the continent is at a crossroads. Will its people and their governments continue trying to replicate industrial farming models promoted by developed countries? Or will they move boldly into the uncertain future, embracing ecological agriculture?
It is time to choose. Africa is projected to overtake South Asia by 2030 as the region with the greatest number of hungry people. An alarming 264 million people in Africa now suffer from “undernourishment,” the U.N. term for chronic hunger. If policies do not change, experts project that number to soar to 433 million in 2030.
The evidence is now convincing that the Green Revolution for Africa, with its heavily funded promotion of commercial seeds and synthetic fertilizers, has failed to bring progress for Africa's farmers. Productivity has improved marginally, and only for a few chosen crops such as maize. Others have withered in a drought of neglect from donor agencies and government leaders. Small-scale farming households, the intended beneficiaries of Green Revolution programs, seem scarcely better off. Poverty remains high, and severe food insecurity has increased nearly 50% in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2006.
Green Revolution proponents have had 15 years to demonstrate they can lead Africa into a food-secure future. With a pandemic disrupting what climate change does not, Africa needs to take a different path, one that focuses on ecological farm management using low-cost, low-input methods that rely on a diversity of crops to improve soils and diets.
Many farmers are already blazing that trail, and some governments are following with bold steps to change course.
Mali has shown success in reducing the incidence of hunger (from 14% to 5% since 2006). Progress came not because of Green Revolution programs but because the government and farmers’ organizations actively resisted its implementation. Land and seed laws guarantee farmers’ rights to choose their crops and farming practices, and government programs promote not just maize but a wide variety of food crops.
Mali is part of a growing regional effort in West Africa to promote agroecology. According to a recent report by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has developed an Agroecology Transition Support Program to promote the shift away from Green Revolution practices. The work is supported by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as part of its “Scaling Up Agroecology” program.
In Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal, farmers' organizations are working with their governments to promote agroecology, including the subsidization of biofertilizers and other natural inputs as alternatives to synthetic fertilizers.
In the drylands of West Africa, farmers in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ghana and Niger are leading “another kind of green revolution.” They are regenerating tree growth and diversifying production as part of agro-forestry initiatives increasingly supported by national governments. This restores soil fertility, increases water retention, and has been shown to increase yields 40%-100% within five years while increasing farmer incomes and food security. It runs counter to the Green Revolution approach of agricultural intensification.
Senegal, which cut the incidence of severe hunger from 17% to 9% since 2006, is one of the regional leaders. Papa Abdoulaye Seck, Senegal’s Ambassador to the FAO, summarized the reasons the government is so committed to the agroecological transition in a foreword to the IPES report:
“We have seen agroecological practices improve the fertility of soils degraded by drought and chemical input use. We have seen producers' incomes increase thanks to the diversification of their crop production and the establishment of new distribution channels. We have seen local knowledge enriched by modern science to develop techniques inspired by lived experience, with the capacity to reduce the impacts of climate change. And we have seen these results increase tenfold when they are supported by favorable policy frameworks, which place the protection of natural resources, customary land rights, and family farms at the heart of their action.”
Those “favorable policy frameworks” are exactly what African farmers need from their governments as climate change and COVID-19 threaten food security. It is time for African governments to step back from the failing Green Revolution and chart a new food system that respects local cultures and communities by promoting low-cost, low-input ecological agriculture.
Million Belay is coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa. Timothy A. Wise is researcher and writer with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and Tufts University, and the author of the recent book Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food. This article was adapted from an earlier version that appeared in IPS News in September 2020.