Why Africa Should Redefine the Green Revolution for People, Planet?

Mar 1 , 2024
By Shimelis Araya

The Green Revolution's achievements in combating hunger and poverty are undeniable, yet its environmental and nutritional impacts call for a nuanced understanding and approach. As Africa seeks to increase its agricultural productivity, it must learn from the past in balancing immediate food security needs with long-term sustainability goals, argues Shimelis Araya (PhD), araya.gedam@gmail.com, who studied agricultural and development economics at the Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany, and works for the Development Bank of Ethiopia (DBE).

I was prompted to write on why a Green Revolution remains crucial for developing countries like Ethiopia after reading an OP-ED by Jayati Ghosh, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which Addis Fortune published last week headlined, "The Toxic Legacy of the Green Revolution" [Volume 24, Number 1243, February 24, 2024].

The Green Revolution, a transformative agricultural movement that began in the 1960s, significantly increased global food production by introducing modern farming techniques, including using high-yield crop varieties, fertilisers, pesticides, and irrigation. The use of this innovation package saved hundreds of millions from starvation and reduced poverty in many Asian countries, demonstrating the power of agricultural technology to address urgent global challenges.

However, this approach to farming has sparked a debate about its long-term sustainability and impact on nutritional diversity and environmental sustainability.

Critics like Ghosh argue that the Green Revolution's reliance on chemical inputs and monoculture has led to environmental degradation, including soil depletion, water scarcity, and biodiversity loss. The focus on staple crops like rice and wheat has contributed to a lack of dietary diversity, potentially leading to nutritional deficiencies and health issues. In Africa, where efforts to replicate the Green Revolution's success have been promoted, concerns have been raised about the applicability of this model to the continent's diverse agricultural conditions and its ability to deliver nutritional benefits.

A few years ago, I read an article, "Ten reasons why another Green Revolution will not solve the problems of poverty and hunger in Africa" - which shaped my area of academic research. I dare to say some might be driven by self-interest. Let us be honest; a person who is starving due to lack of food cannot worry about environmental degradation and nutritional security. This can be a luxury for the hungry. We still have people dying of hunger, making the reversal of this fateful history a priority.

In the past decade, a debate has emerged over the efficacy and ethics of adopting a second Green Revolution to address the persistent issues of poverty and hunger in Africa. Critics argue that such an approach, focused on intensive agricultural modernisation, overlooks the immediate needs of the continent's most vulnerable populations. They contend that for individuals facing acute food shortages, the luxury of considering long-term environmental sustainability and nutritional security is a distant concern compared to the urgent need for sustenance.

Dismissing the Green Revolution's potential based on its environmental footprint and alleged insensitivity to local contexts may be short-sighted. I find most of Ghosh's arguments misleading, for they failed to consider the African situation.

Suppose Africans do not pay attention to the Green Revolution. Where can they find policy options and economic alternatives for sustainable agricultural production facing challenges such as climate change and a booming population? If not through a modernised agricultural revolution, how else can Africa secure its food for the future?

The debate around the Green Revolution is marked by a tension between the immediate imperative to feed the hungry and the long-term goals of environmental sustainability and nutritional security. Any strategy moving forward must be meticulously tailored to the African context, ensuring the continent's unique ecological, cultural, and economic landscapes are respected and preserved.

Sceptics of the Green Revolution's applicability to Africa often highlight the potential for environmental degradation and the risk of neglecting traditional agricultural practices. Yet, the pressing reality of climate change and demographic expansion demands innovative policy solutions and economic alternatives to bolster sustainable agrarian output.

The narrative surrounding the Green Revolution and its relevance to Africa is complex, punctuated by concerns over environmental stewardship, economic viability, and social equity. Yet, the foundational principle that innovation in agricultural practices can dramatically improve food security and economic prosperity remains unchallenged. As Africa stands at a crossroads, the lessons learned from Asia's agricultural transformation offer valuable insights.

Between the 1960s and 1990s, Asia saw a dramatic increase in agricultural production, doubling food output and significantly reducing poverty. This success was achieved through adopting improved crop varieties, increased use of fertilisers, and significant investments in agricultural research, irrigation, and infrastructure. The transformation of agriculture in Asia challenged the Malthusian theory that food production could not keep pace with population growth, showcasing the potential of technological innovation to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Africa faces a similar challenge today, with a booming population and pressing food security concerns. Since the 1990s, there have been calls to adapt the Green Revolution model to the African context. Initiatives such as the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) and the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) have emerged, aspiring to eliminate hunger and reduce poverty through agriculture-led development. African policymakers have committed to increasing public investments in agriculture, as evidenced by the Malabo Declaration's goal of allocating at least 10pc of national budgets to agriculture and rural development.

Implementing these policies has shown promising results in countries like Ethiopia, where the cultivation of maize and wheat has expanded through new crop varieties and improved agricultural practices. These efforts reflect a broader recognition of agriculture's critical role in African economies and the need for modernisation to achieve sustainable growth.

However, Africa's agricultural development history is marked by challenges, including the adverse effects of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) in the late 20th Century, which led to reduced public spending on agriculture. In contrast, farmers in Europe and the United States have benefited from government subsidies. Recognising the importance of public investment in agriculture, African policymakers have shifted towards increasing support for the sector.

While the Green Revolution's approach has been criticised for its environmental impact, it is essential to acknowledge that all economic activities have some environmental footprint. The challenge lies in balancing economic, ecological and societal needs. Agricultural innovations must increase food production and be sustainable, addressing hunger and malnutrition. Introducing biofortified crops, such as "Golden Rice", enriched with Vitamin A, is an example of how innovation can meet these standards, offering a path forward for addressing public health concerns in developing countries.

PUBLISHED ON Mar 01,2024 [ VOL 24 , NO 1244]

Shimelis Araya is a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Giessen, Germany. He can be reached at araya.gedam@gmail.com.

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