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The Green Revolution’s not that bad – Is it?

September 22, 2011

Cassava plant, Machakos District, Kenya. Source: The Gates Foundation

From the 1940s to the 1970s, the Green Revolution was heralded as the key to ending world hunger. In fact, it did a lot of good in Mexico and India through the use of hybridized seeds. However, the excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers has had adverse effects on crop variety, market values, and has led small scale farmers to lose their jobs.  In addition, over time the growth rate in food supply fell. Popularity in the Green Revolution also fell as these issues became evident.

Since then, organizations such as the Gates Foundation and the Consortium Group on International Agricultural Research Centers (CGIAR) have attempted to revitalize the Green Revolution in favor of a “new Green Revolution.” Newer is better, yes? According the Bill Gates, the difference between the old Green Revolution and the new is that it is “guided by small-holder farmers, adapted to local circumstances, and sustainable for the economy and the environment.”

The Gates Foundation is a hefty funder ($264 million) of the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), and its Program for Africa Seeds System (PASS) in Kenya. AGRA is an African-led partnership which reaches out to small farmers to promote more productive and sustainable farming methods. The program puts emphasis on regional constraints and adaptability.  PASS not only provides hybridized seeds to farmers but has sponsored 90 students through advanced education on agricultural practices.

Source: BBC News

Critics have disputed that focusing exclusively on replenishing food supply ignores the underlying causes of hunger. In the Horn of Africa specifically, while the drought played a central role in initiating the famine in Somalia, security concerns have made it extremely difficult to provide humanitarian support in the region. A Mississippi farmer who has traveled to different parts of Africa comments that the Horn of Africa is facing multiple crises in addition to the famine – including financial, climate, energy and water. He adds that “business as usual will not solve our hunger crisis.

In an article for the New York Times, Rob Horsch explains that despite the Gates Foundations emphasis on local farmers, its use of hybridized seeds through AGRA is harmful to small scale farmers. This perpetuates the monopoly seed companies like Monsanto and Syngenta have on profits. In response to this backlash, AGRA stresses that their version of the Green Revolution does not make the same mistakes of the past. The Alliance emphasizes the use of high-yielding seeds with far less pesticides and fertilizers which harm the environment and cost too much for small farmers to afford.

How this can be applied to the recent famine in Somalia remains to be seen. Loyd Le Page, CEO of CGIAR, comments that,

Modest investments in agricultural research that allow the world’s most vulnerable people to take charge of their food security are far less expensive than constantly parachuting in with food aid and humanitarian assistance. Yet donors and governments continue to fall short of their promise to boost investments in the farm sector.

While the drought has had horrible consequences in the region, it is not a new phenomenon. Droughts are common in the region and in order to ease the effects of the inevitable next drought, organizations like CGIAR and the Gates Foundation stress the need for sweeping reform in agricultural practices. It is difficult to see how this can be implemented with the present security crisis in the region, as these programs cannot be implemented unless there is someone in the field to handout these seeds and working with farmers.

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