Roy Steiner

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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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Don’t be too quick to dismiss organic farming for Africa | 

By Lisa Stiffler, special correspondent

CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture

A bean farmer tends her crop in DR Congo

One of the world’s leading advocates of the need for agricultural reform in Africa, speaking in Seattle earlier this week, said organic farming methods are already being used by poor farmers and they aren’t working. Organic farming cannot alone meet our planet’s food needs was the message.

Organic farming has lots of benefits: It doesn’t require expensive and possibly toxic pesticides; it emphasizes natural practices to build richer soils over a heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers; and it grows food that’s arguably healthier.

But when you consider that one in seven people worldwide will go to bed tonight hungry, it does seem fair to ask: Can organic deliver the goods for the developing world?

New research says yes – but not everywhere and not for everything.

WSU

“This is not an argument that organic can or cannot feed the world,” said John Reganold, regents professor of Soil Science and Agroecology at Washington State University in Pullman. “No one system can feed the world.”

A recent study in the journal Nature sought to answer the question of whether organic farming could match the output of conventional agriculture. The researchers, who did not include Reganold, compiled 316 comparisons of crops grown both ways and found that in developed nations, organic practices returned 20 percent less produce. The spread increases to 25 percent when data from developing nations are included.

But in a follow-up letter published in Nature this week, Reganold notes that the difference in yields between organic and conventional farming varies greatly between crops.  For some fruits there was only a 3 percent yield difference in the farming practices, but the spread was more than 33 percent for certain vegetables.

The answer, then, to the organic-versus-conventional debate is clear as mud.

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