green revolution


Q&A with an architect of the Gates-funded ‘green revolution’ for Africa | 

Flickr, agrforum

Kofi Annan and Melinda Gates at 2012 African Green Revolution Forum, Tanzania

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.

Gates Foundation

Roy Steiner

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.

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Calestous Juma says Africa CAN feed itself, and the world, by harnessing new science | 

Calestous Juma is a funny guy.

Tom Paulson

Calestous Juma, center, jokes with one of his leading critics, Phil Bereano, at left

The Harvard University professor of international development is author of The New Harvest, a book (free online) in which he makes his case for how agricultural reforms offer the most promise for positively transforming African economies.

Juma spoke Tuesday at the University of Washington’s Kane Hall at an event sponsored by the World Affairs Council. Outside the event, protesters from the local organization AGRA Watch handed out leaflets challenging his views — which also were challenged in a Q&A after his talk.

There’s a good reason this jovial and charming Kenyan provokes controversy.

Juma, though entertaining, doesn’t mince words — “Africa is already doing organic farming … and it isn’t working very well.” He describes himself as a bit of ‘techno-optimist,’ a believer like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the fundamental power of science and technology to transform agriculture in poor countries, especially sub-Saharan Africa.

“Agricultural reform is the key to economic development in Africa, and it is already happening,” Juma said. Many African nations lead the world in economic growth rates and new approaches to old problems are transforming the continent. “Technologies destroy ideologies.”

But it is Juma’s enthusiastic support for science and technology as the key to agri-reform — indeed, to development in general — that makes him a target for those who contend such a strategy ignores, or at least glosses over, a lot of the political, economic and social reasons why so many people remain in poverty.

One of Juma’s critics, retired UW professor of technology policy Phil Bereano, asked why Juma doesn’t describe in his book all of the political work he does behind the scene with African leaders to get them to make agricultural reform a priority.

Bereano: “The reality is that these technological choices are skewed by power …. Why do you leave this out of your presentations?”

Juma: “Yes, power matters … I wrote this book as a memo to African leaders …. If these guys are not engaged, nothing will happen.”

And if he focused his book trying to provide his own perspective on African politics rather than the promise of agricultural reform, Juma said, he would have been much less effective. In short, he explained, he had to leave the power politics out of the book in order to be heard within the corridors of power.

“Nothing is perfect,” Juma had said earlier. There’s plenty to debate and lots of conflicting ideologies, he said, but he is trying to stay focused on the practicalities of finding the best solutions to Africa feeding itself — and, if things go as well as he imagines, helping to feed to world.

For more of Juma’s thoughts, and responses to his critics, listen to the audio interview above.


Eco-farming best for poor, UN expert says, not Gates Foundation approach | 

Flickr, Global Crop Diversity Trust

One of the Gates Foundation’s primary goals is to improve the lives of smallholder farmers in Africa by helping improve agricultural productivity.

On Tuesday, the United Nations issued a report that appeared to challenge the Seattle philanthropy’s approach.

The Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation have launched what they are calling a new Green Revolution for Africa. It is a multi-pronged strategy that tends to favor scientific and technological solutions and that some see as too heavily dependent upon Western-style, industrialized farming techniques.

This week, the UN issued a report urging “eco-farming” as the best strategy for improving farming in the developed world. In it, the author appears to challenge the wisdom of the Gates Foundation’s approach in agricultural development. Continue reading

Gates Foundation partners with Brits to boost food production | 

In case you missed it, food has played a big part in the uprising now rocking and re-shaping the Middle East.

Flickr, World Bank

Planting in Kenya

That’s not why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has decided to put up $70 million in partnership with the UK’s lead aid agency (aka DFID, Department for International Development), which is donating $32 million, to support agricultural research aimed at improving food production in Africa and Asia.

But it’s worth noting that food insecurity leads to political instability, which leads to economic instability … and so on.

If you still can’t figure out why you should care about people in Africa going hungry, consider that you probably also used to think Egyptian politics didn’t really affect you. They do, and they will. Pay attention.

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Activists challenge Gates Foundation’s agricultural development strategy | 

AGRA Watch

AGRA Watch logo

Seattle-based AGRA Watch, an activist organization that believes the Gates Foundation’s approach to agricultural reform in Africa is environmentally, economically and ethically unsound, today released a protest letter signed by more than 100 organizations, food experts and scientists opposed to the strategy.

The letter was released to coincide with street protests in Cancun held by groups angry with the nature of the climate talks going on there this week. (Note: KPLU’s Liam Moriarty is there, and reports here.)

“The Gates Foundation is promoting a Western, industrialized agricultural approach that serves corporate interests, not the needs of poor farmers worldwide, a strategy that will also do serious damage to the environment,” said Phil Bereano, a member of AGRA Watch and a retired UW professor of technology policy.

Agricultural reform is a key mission of the Gates Foundation, which helped launch an organization based in Africa devoted to this called AGRA, the Allliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Continue reading