Africa needs diversity, not a green revolution

It is essential that the renewed interest in and funding for African agriculture and food security exhibited at the recent World Food Summit be acted upon quickly to avoid past failures. A heavy reliance on technology and western farming systems is not appropriate for addressing food security for poor, small-scale, resource-limited farmers.

The call for a green revolution for Africa’s 54 countries ignores the vast physical, political, and cultural differences found across the African continent. No technology or single philosophical approach can simultaneously correct soil fertility, replace organic matter or substitute for human knowledge across a continent the size of China, India and Russia combined. A singular focus on technology implies that agricultural production is a universally adaptable formula responsive to human innovation. It is not.

Technology has an important role to play in reducing malnutrition, improving crop yields and enhancing food security. At the same time, we cannot conclude that it is a silver bullet to a complex problem. Doing so has already decreased research for and investment in low-input solutions, including alternatives to inorganic chemical fertilisers. When technology is treated as an agricultural panacea, we force farmers to adapt to existing research and systems rather than the more appropriate course which is responsive to and driven by farmers’ current systems, utilising local knowledge and combing these elements with appropriate technology for specific situations. We must acknowledge that precision agriculture in one place may include the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology and in another, it may require a string and stick to plant by hand.

Cropping systems

Africa is a vast and diverse continent; the Inter Academy Council (IAC) reported that it has 17 distinct cropping systems with extreme variations in soil, climate, diseases and pests. As many as 70 per cent of farms are small, fragmented plots of land with limited infrastructure; 95 per cent of African crops are rain-fed with limitations for large-scale non-commercial expansion of sustainable irrigation. Farmers in these conditions have little or no access to markets; their survival is dependent on crop diversity. These 80 million small-scale farmers are by far the largest group of farmers found across Africa.

They are net buyers of food, often experiencing hunger periods between harvests, and they require highly specific solutions that must be must be tailored, often on a village or individual basis. Using a template designed for other parts of the world is a mistake.
As evidenced by their limited agricultural budgets, few African countries champion farming as a means for poverty alleviation. Governments have also failed to deal effectively with land tenure issues. Without land ownership, there is little incentive for farmers to invest in improvements for long-term productivity gains. Unfair land policies are particularly hard on women, who comprise 70 per cent of Africa’s farmers.

Africa is not conducive to the type of green revolution that occurred in the 20th century. The green revolution in India and South East Asia emphasised monoculture wheat fields and rice paddies based on the intensive use of fossil fuel inputs and irrigation to achieve maximum yields. A large portion of Africa requires stable yields, adapted to low-input systems that maintain multiple crops. Most African farmers rely on crop rotations, intercropping and heterogeneous cropping to survive extreme conditions. Systems that drive uniformity have a negative impact on both traditional values and the environment; they can exacerbate hunger and malnutrition by reducing crop diversity.

There are solutions. The IAC recommends “regionally-mediated rather than continent-wide strategies”. After four years of research by 400 scientists, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) came to similar conclusions, noting that a focus on small-scale sustainable agriculture, locally adapted seeds and ecological farming is the most beneficial way to address hunger, poverty and agricultural production in developing countries. These approaches require intensive training and a broad based extension service. Because they provide less opportunity for multinational corporations to make a profit, African governments are often forced to choose between two choices: accepting western ideas or refusing support and contending with their own inadequate resources.
Many resource-poor farmers can benefit from small interventions, including training in seed spacing, seed depth and row spacing; improved open-pollinated and hybrid seeds; basic land management; cover crops; terracing; inter-cropping; and minimum tillage techniques to help replace organic matter and rebuild soil structure.

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