Time to change course: The future is in agroecology
AGRA acknowledges the need for “a mix of approaches from agroecology to the latest crop and soil science”, but agroecology is the latest science.
While we welcome the response from Hailemariam Dessalegn, former prime minister of Ethiopia and chair of the board of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), to our concerns about AGRA and the “Green Revolution”, we want to respond to a number of the points made.
It’s important to make clear that our critique is not just of AGRA but of the impacts of the Green Revolution as a whole on African agriculture. For decades, corporate players have used “innovation” and technology as a front to expand agribusiness models and deepen their profits at the expense of small-scale farmers, local communities, and climate change. The majority of AGRA’s board members are from developed countries and donor organisations, raising critical questions. Why are Western funders using their preferred solutions and resources in the absence of Africans’ free and informed consent? How can AGRA, established by foundations outside of Africa and registered in the US, claim to be African-led?
Recent Tufts University research and analysis of AGRA’s 2020 report have made AGRA’s failings clear. We have continually sought to open a dialogue with AGRA supporters, including an open letter to donors in June 2021 that received scant response. Following their silence, AFSA publicly challenged donors to stop funding detrimental Green Revolution programs like AGRA, in favour of more effective and sustainable agroecological approaches.
Independent expert analyses show that AGRA uses personnel and direct financial support to influence fertiliser, biosafety, and seed policy in partner nations in favour of agribusiness. These methods enable AGRA to build and support an institutional structure through financial and other contributions that bind African nations to its Green Revolution strategy through laws and rules.
AGRA has received billions of dollars in funding and had 15 years to demonstrate measurable impact – but it is evident The Green Revolution has failed. It is time for donors and governments to rethink their strategies, not double down on an expensive, failing approach.
Malnutrition and hunger on the rise
In AGRA’s 13 priority countries, poverty remains endemic and severe hunger has increased 30%. Across sub-Saharan Africa, severe hunger has increased by nearly 50%. Dessalegn claims it is unfair to blame AGRA for rising hunger across Africa, but it is undeniable that the Green Revolution and industrial agriculture have driven farmers to adopt expensive inputs that narrowly focus on commercial crops with already saturated markets rather than produce diversified, traditional African crops.
The lack of a diversified diet directly contributes to malnutrition and if food producers are further encouraged to decrease their crop variety, the impact on health and hunger will persist. The alarming rise in hunger is among the most important indicators that the Green Revolution has only exacerbated the problem without meaningfully alleviating hunger.
Farmers bearing the brunt
Despite AGRA’s branding as a farmer-centred African-led agricultural transformation, corporations are benefiting at the expense of farmers. There has been no productivity revolution in AGRA’s focus countries, and Dessalegn even concedes this point, acknowledging most production growth is a result of “the expansion of agricultural land, not an increase in productivity”.
Even with subsidies for commercial seeds and fertilisers, which have cost resource-strapped African governments billions of dollars, farmers have seen few returns. AGRA has incentivised the production of maize, rice, and other select crops, through the use of proprietary seeds developed by multinational companies, stripping farmers of autonomy over what they plant.
These input-intensive agricultural methods are unsustainable for farmers, priming them for a vicious cycle of debt and dependence on subsidies. Two-thirds of Tanzanian farmers who had adopted Green Revolution inputs stopped using them once subsidies were cut, and instances where chemical fertilisers and herbicides are not subsidised, they come at a significant cost. Zambian farmers saw savings of 10 to 20% of their income after transitioning away from these inputs, further proving that farmers are not the beneficiaries of forced dependence on industrial inputs.
Climate resilience declining
Food systems today contribute nearly 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with a growing percentage generated by synthetic fertiliser. The Green Revolution’s dependence on fossil-fuel-based inputs such as inorganic fertiliser runs counter to the latest science and is not serving African farmers – or the planet.
As the climate continues to change, it will only pose greater challenges to farmers, who will face declining yields, increased extreme weather events, and pestilence. For smallholder farmers, the best insurance policy against this is a field of diverse crops, not AGRA’s prioritisation of a select few. Farmers have been drawn away from hardy, climate resilient staples such as millet; since AGRA began, there has been a 24% decline in millet production and a 21% decline in yields. The Green Revolution is only harming African agriculture’s climate resilience.
Agroecology must be our future
Contrary to dominant false narratives, we actually produce enough food today to feed the planet. The issue is how food is produced and who benefits from it. Agroecology is a people-centric system of sustainable agriculture that empowers food producers to control their food systems and protect their livelihoods. Farmers work in sync with nature to grow diverse foods while regenerating natural ecosystems, protecting biodiversity, and achieving abundant yields –all without the use of uniform seeds, chemical pesticides or fertilisers. Dessalegn acknowledges the need for “a mix of approaches from agroecology to the latest crop and soil science”, but agroecology is the latest science. Agroecology is not influenced by profit-driven multinational companies and instead encourages collaboration between farmers and academics to discover sustainable innovations and technology.
Agroecology’s successes are abundant. In Mali, extreme weather, pests and land exploitation have impacted the agricultural system. To alleviate widespread hunger, farmers are using innovative practices like agroforestry to rebuild the local ecosystem, prevent soil erosion, and create microclimates, improving crop yield 45% over the region’s average. In the Gamo Highlands in Ethiopia, farmers are sustaining a highly diverse agricultural system of more than 50 crop species, adapted for altitude and grown according to slope, soil, and microclimates. This is a sharp contrast to the adjacent plateau of Wolaita, which is plagued by destructive monocropping, annual food shortages and declining soil fertility.
Unlike the Green Revolution, agroecology is not an ideology –it is a path forward toward a more equitable food system. This means dignified livelihoods for food producers, thriving rural African agricultural economies, access to healthy and nutritious food that celebrates local culture and tradition, and climate-resilient food systems. It is time for donors to support this African-led movement.
We have called repeatedly on AGRA donors to evidence the impact of their investment, much of it financed through taxpayer-funded international development agencies, but they have remained silent each time. 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.