Time to change course, not double down on failing Green Revolution

Data clearly show that there has been no productivity revolution in AGRA’s focus countries.

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It is welcome to see the response by the chair of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa’s board, former Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, to concerns raised recently by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) and others about the impacts of AGRA and other Green Revolution investments on African food producers.

The conciliatory tone is welcome, as is the open admission of some of the program’s disappointing results and the need to incorporate agroecology into AGRA’s revised strategy, expected soon.

What is still missing from the discussion, however, is evidence of AGRA’s positive impacts. AFSA members, including the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya, wrote to AGRA a year ago after my research found no evidence that AGRA was meeting its stated goals of doubling yields and incomes for 30 million smallholder households while cutting food insecurity in half by 2020.

AGRA cut off that dialogue when the civil society groups insisted AGRA show evidence of success in achieving those urgent goals.

Unfortunately, Mr Desalegn is now responding with anecdotes rather than evidence. AGRA’s 2020 Annual Report, which I analyzed in detail here, did much the same, offering hastily assembled data mined in misleading ways to show favorable results.

Data clearly show that there has been no productivity revolution in AGRA’s focus countries. Yields have risen no faster than before AGRA’s arrival on the scene, backed by billions of more dollars from African governments in subsidies for commercial seeds and fertilizers.

Instead, poverty remains endemic; some Kenyan farmers found themselves worse off as crops failed and they were left with debts from their input purchase. Severe hunger increased by 30 percent in AGRA’s focus countries. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, severe hunger has not been cut in half, as AGRA set out to do, it has increased by nearly 50 percent.

Mr Desalegn acknowledges AGRA’s “mixed bag of success and lessons learned,” perhaps a tacit admission that the alliance has failed to meet expectations. But it is disingenuous to claim that AGRA is so small that it can’t be held accountable to its own lofty goals. As I explained in an article for The Conversation, AGRA set the goal to reach 30 million farmers, which is indeed the vast majority. So, if AGRA had doubled yields and incomes, that would indeed show up in national data.

More important, my analysis is not just an indictment of AGRA but of the Green Revolution project as a whole, backed by AGRA’s one billion dollars but also by billions more from donors and African governments. Fifteen years is long enough to expect measurable impacts from those investments. None are evident.

More worrisome, evidence shows many negative impacts from Green Revolution initiatives. Indeed, Mr Desalegn acknowledges that most AGRA-induced production growth “has been through the expansion of agricultural land, not an increase in productivity.” But he fails to recognize that Green Revolution incentives for maize and a few other supported crops have not only failed to dramatically increase maize yields – “sustainable intensification” – they have encouraged the expansion onto new lands.

The Green Revolution is not a solution to that problem, is it partly the source of it.

It is also one source of the malnutrition that AGRA supporters claim they want to address. All the incentives for maize, rice, and a few other supported crops have driven African agriculture toward monocultures. Land and investment have been withdrawn from hardy, climate resilient staples such as millet, which has suffered a 24% decline in production and a 21% drop in yields since AGRA began.

Again, the Green Revolution is not a solution to declining crop and diet diversity, it is one of their primary causes.

Mr Desalegn claims it is unfair to blame AGRA for rising hunger across Africa, in the face of climate change and the pandemic. In fact, the alarming rise in hunger is the most important indicator that the Green Revolution is taking Africa in the wrong direction, weakening local food systems and reducing resilience to climate change. For smallholder farmers, the best insurance policy is a field of diverse crops, some of which will survive the latest climate shock.

I was dismayed to read the final declaration from the Green Revolution Summit, which called on stakeholders to “redouble” their efforts to raise productivity. The Green Revolution approach has failed, not for lack of effort or financial support. African donors and governments need to rethink their strategies, not double down on expensive, failing policies.

AFSA and many others believe that agroecology is Africa’s future, offering low-cost, low-input approaches that restore rather than deplete soils and enhance climate resilience. Many governments are embracing this approach.

I appreciate Mr Desalegn’s acknowledgement of the potential for agroecology. As he writes, “Building more resilient food systems on the continent will require a mix of approaches from agroecology to the latest crop and soil science.”

As AFSA leaders pointed out in a published response to Mr Desalegn, “agroecology is the latest science.” The Green Revolution focus on fossil-fuel-based inputs such as inorganic fertilizer and on commercially bred seeds is in no way the best current science. I called it “selling the past as innovation.” And it is not serving Africa’s smallholders well.

That is why Africa’s largest network of food producers has written to AGRA’s donors demanding they change course, not “redouble” AGRA’s efforts with new funding for a barely revised strategy. As AFSA leaders wrote:

“AGRA donors cannot in good conscience continue to support Green Revolution failures over truly African-led agroecological approaches that can feed Africa, benefit smallholder farmers, and strengthen climate resilience.”

Timothy A. Wise
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Timothy A. Wise is senior advisor at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and a senior research fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute.

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