While Bill Gates was in New York City to stump for polio eradication at last week’s ‘high-level’ side meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, Melinda Gates was attending another fairly high-level meeting in Arusha, Tanzania – the African Green Revolution Forum.
One of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s top priorities is to improve agricultural productivity and the lives of smallholder farmers in Africa, where crop yields have historically been much lower than elsewhere in the world contributing to much of the continent’s poverty. Most Africans are smallholder farmers, most farmers are women and most are poor.
With former United Nations Secretary General and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kofi Annan as its leading spokesman, the Gates Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation in 2006 launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.
It hasn’t been without controversy.
To begin with, the term “Green Revolution” comes with baggage. The first Green Revolution was an agricultural reform initiative led half a century ago by an amazing agricultural scientist named Norman Borlaug and pushed by the Rockefeller Foundation aimed at improving crop yields in poor countries.
That first Green Revolution in the 1950s and ’60s did improve yields dramatically in many regions of the world, saving lives and ending hunger. But it also promoted a Western-style, industrialized approach to agriculture that favored large-scale monoculture crops and the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This had the adverse effect of knocking many smallholder farmers off their land in favor of corporate farming, caused environmental problems and actually sometimes increased costs for farmers. The lesson: Improving crop yield isn’t everything.
Also, Africa got skipped over in the first Green Revolution.
So when the Gates Foundation announced a few years back that it was sponsoring a second Green Revolution for Africa, many took them as fighting words. Organizations like Seattle-based AGRA Watch is a leading critic of the Gates approach and has organized protests focused on the philanthropy’s partnerships with big agri-businesses like Monsanto.
Roy Steiner is deputy director for agriculture in the development program at the Gates Foundation. Roy, who as been there since before the philanthropy dug into the dirt, has degrees in all sort of things from all sorts of major universities. He has lived in Africa and worked on a number of projects, both agricultural and technological, and went to the meeting last week in Tanzania as well.
I asked Roy to explain where they are with this ‘green revolution’ for Africa, what it is the world’s biggest philanthropy is trying to do for poor farmers and why it remains controversial.
Q Why is the idea of launching a ‘green revolution’ for Africa so controversial?
RS: I think it’s more problematic in the north than in Africa. Many African leaders want a green revolution. They want to be able to feed their people and move away from food aid. The first green revolution did cause some significant social, economic and environmental problems and we don’t want to repeat those problems.