Another False Start in Africa Sold with Gates Foundation Green Revolution Myths

Yves here. It’s disturbing to see how far the influence of the Gates Foundation extends. And worse, it too regularly stands for what the sort of leading edge [neoliberal] conventional wisdom that McKinsey regularly promotes. This post described how the much hyped green revolution, instead of increasing output, has resulted in environmental degradation and exposure to toxic substances even as the number of underfed increased.

By Timothy A. Wise, senior advisor at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and author of Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food and Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor, who was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought. Originally published at Inter Press Service

Since the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) was launched in 2006, yields have barely risen, while rural poverty remains endemic, and would have increased more if not for out-migration.

AGRA was started, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, to double yields and incomes for 30 million smallholder farm households while halving food insecurity by 2020.

There are no signs of significant productivity and income boosts from promoted commercial seeds and agrochemicals in AGRA’s 13 focus countries. Meanwhile, the number of undernourished in these nations increased by 30%!

When Will We Ever Learn?

What went wrong? The continuing Indian farmer protests, despite the COVID-19 resurgence, highlight the problematic legacy of its Green Revolution  in frustrating progress to sustainable food security.

Many studies have already punctured some myths of India’s Green Revolution. Looking back, its flaws and their dire consequences should have warned policymakers of the likely disappointing results of the Green Revolution in Africa.

Hagiographic accounts of the Green Revolution cite ‘high‐yielding’ and ‘fast-growing’ dwarf wheat and rice spreading through Asia, particularly India, saving lives, modernising agriculture, and ‘freeing’ labour for better off-farm employment.

Many recent historical studies challenge key claims of this supposed success, including allegedly widespread yield improvements and even the number of lives actually saved by increased food production.

Environmental degradation and other public health threats due to the toxic chemicals used are now widely recognized. Meanwhile, water management has become increasingly challenging and unreliable due to global warming and other factors.

Ersatz Green Revolution 2.0 for Africa

Half a century later, the technology fetishizing, even deifying AGRA initiative seemed oblivious of Asian lessons as if there is nothing to learn from actual experiences, research and analyses.

Worse, AGRA has ignored many crucial features of India’s Green Revolution. Importantly, the post-colonial Indian government had quickly developed capacities to promote economic development.

Few African countries have such ‘developmental’ capacities, let alone comparable capabilities. Their already modest government capacities were decimated from the 1980s by structural adjustment programmes demanded by international financial institutions and bilateral ‘donors’

Ignoring Lessons of History

India’s ten-point Intensive Agricultural Development Programme was more than just about seed, fertilizer and pesticide inputs. Its Green Revolution also provided credit, assured prices, improved marketing, extension services, village-level planning, analysis and evaluation.

These and other crucial elements are missing or not developed appropriately in recent AGRA initiatives. Sponsors of the ersatz Green Revolution in Africa have largely ignored such requirements.

Instead, the technophile AGRA initiative has been enamoured with novel technical innovations while not sufficiently appreciating indigenous and other ‘old’ knowledge, science and technology, or even basic infrastructure.

The Asian Green Revolution relied crucially on improving cultivation conditions, including better water management. There has been little such investment by AGRA or others, even when the crop promoted requires such improvements.

    • • As in India, overall staple crop productivity has not grown significantly faster despite costly investments in Green Revolution
      • Higher input costs often exceed additional earnings from modest yield increases using new seeds and agrochemicals, increasing farmer debt.
      • Soil health and fertility have suffered from ‘nutrient-mining’ due to priority crop monocropping, requiring more inorganic fertilizer purchases.
      • Subsidies and other incentives have meant more land devoted to priority crops, not just intensification, with adverse land use and nutrition impacts.
      • Moderate success in one priority crop (e.g., wheat in Punjab, India, or maize in Africa) has typically been at the expense of sustained productivity growth for other crops.
      • Crop and dietary diversity has been reduced, adversely affecting cultivation sustainability, nutrition, health and wellbeing.

Paths Not Taken

AGRA and other African Green Revolution proponents have had 14 years, plus billions of dollars, to show that input-intensive agriculture can raise productivity, net incomes and food security. They have clearly failed.

Africans — farmers, consumers and governments — have many good reasons to be wary, especially considering AGRA’s track record after a decade and a half. India’s experience and the ongoing farmer protests there should make them more so.

Selling Africa’s Green Revolution as innovation requiring unavoidable ‘creative destruction’ is grossly misleading. Alternatively, many agroecology initiatives, which technophiles decry as backward, are bringing cutting-edge science and technology to farmers, with impressive results.

A 2006 University of Essex survey, of nearly 300 large ecological agriculture projects in more than fifty poor countries, documented an average 79% productivity increase, with declining costs and rising incomes.

Published when AGRA was launched, these results far surpass those of Green Revolutions thus far. Sadly, they remind us of the high opportunity costs of paths not taken due to well-financed technophile dogma.

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  1. flora

    Thanks for this post.

    Vandana Shiva is scathing in her description of Gates’ work to colonize India and Africa through industrial agriculture promoted as “Green Revolution”. The first 10 minutes of this 2015 utube are worth watching.

    (More recently, she called Gates’ new book “rubbish”.)

  2. PlutoniumKun

    The fundamental problems of the Green Revolution approach to agriculture were well established by the 1980’s at least – there is mountains of research on this going back decades. Every development NGO that I know of (including some of the ethically dubious ones) have been aware of this for a long time and so have put capital/input based agriculture at the very bottom of their priority lists when trying to aid rural agricultural communities.

    If the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation is still pushing this as a ‘solution’, even if modified somewhat, then they are either ignorant or mendacious.

    1. skippy

      I think Bills actions on Oxford speak for its self, yet somehow these egregious social trespasses are fait accompli without question.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        One wonders why Oxford was so very pleased and happy to comply with Gates’s request with such extreme speed and haste.

    2. David

      Yup, and it’s funny that small-scale farmers in Europe are getting increasingly interested in Permaculture, , which is directly inspired by those very practices that the Green Revolution sought to replace.
      On the other hand, as James C. Scott pointed out in “Against the Grain”, some form of intensive, technologised agriculture has been practised since the days of the first ancient empires.

      1. Colonel Smithers

        Merci, David.

        In Mauritius, too. One of my cousins set up a decade ago, having not really got going in the City. He assists nearby small holders, especially their children, with training.

        As we have cousins managing plantations along the East African coast, the “cousinade” is interested in getting farmers neighbouring these plantations interested.

      2. Darius

        Frances Moore Lappe wrote about this in the 1970s in Food First. The Green Revolution is a modern day enclosure movement. In many parts of the world, it also involves significant deforestation. I recently saw a Mexican film called Whatever Happened to the Bees, which illustrates how the state is promoting deforestation in Campeche to establish large industrial soybean farms. The indigenous Mayan beekeepers are being shunted aside, and native wild honey bees are being driven to extinction.

    3. Stephen Gardner

      As an engineer I can both sympathize with and see the folly of a simple child-like faith in technology. Especially those of us of a certain age who grew up during a time when technology was generally accepted as the hope of humanity. Bill Gates typifies technology fan boys of that age. Since he is so powerful and wealthy it is hard to imagine him falling prey to false dreams. But technology has been very very good to him and he believes in it just as fervently as any religious acolyte. And this is even more true in an area outside his own experience (agriculture). I don’t much like Bill Gates and what he did to monopolize the OS and software industry but I think he probably means well here. He just is too enamored of technology and has a technologist’s disregard for the humanities.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I think you are right that Gates is the victim of a certain type of mindset, rather than being actively malevolent in much of what he does.

        Its easy enough to label the likes of Bezos as sociopaths, but Gates has always it seems to me to have had a level of self awareness lacking in most of those billionaires, and to some degree have some sort of social conscience – after all, if he just wanted to be super rich and powerful, he would have maintained control of Microsoft.

        Some of what the B&MG Foundation does is genuinely good, which makes it all the more infuriating when they do damaging things like this. I honestly don’t know if there is some horrible plot behind it all, but I’m inclined to think that he genuinely thinks that mixing techno futurism with his own experience of free markets (i.e. capitalism with the absolute minimum of real competition) is the way forward. Sometimes the worst things are done by intelligent people with (moderately) good intentions, but without the humility or self awareness to listen to the real experts. Silicon Valley in particular seems to generate a lot of that particular form of high performing Dunning-Kruger types.

        1. ChrisPacific

          I think there is a strong belief in technology circles that believing in a goal strongly enough is sufficient to make it happen. It stems from Moore’s Law, which became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy – tech companies came to see it as a benchmark in order to stay in the game, and devoted immense resources to keeping up with it as a yardstick. Because it was a new industry that lent itself to rapid technological progress, they were able to do that over a much longer period of time than anybody expected. Tech executives who were leading through that period came out of it with a set of assumptions which they (consciously or unconsciously) apply in other circumstances as well. So you have the concept of the Big Hairy Audacious Goal, for example, where you don’t need to understand whether it’s practical or how to get there. You just set the destination, challenge your company or industry to accomplish it, and very often they will succeed – or so their experience of leading tech companies in the 80s, 90s and 2000s tells them. As far as tech leaders are concerned, that’s what good leadership is, and because in Western capitalist society these people are our heroes and exemplars, that’s what we (voters) think good leadership is as well.

          The problem is that the tech industry during the high growth period of the late 20th century doesn’t translate well to many other situations. For example, you can challenge your team to double your processing speed in 18 months, but you can’t challenge them to make objects fall with acceleration faster than 9.8 metres/second/second at sea level. One case in point is battery technology, which has much more in common with the latter scenario than the former (you’re dealing with physical properties of elements and chemical reactions at a fundamental level). There was a story a while back about the head of Uber’s flying cars division attending a battery tech conference, challenging the assembled experts to achieve Moore’s Law-type improvements, and being met with mirth and ridicule.

          So yes, I’d agree that it’s entirely possible that Gates is acting in good faith, doing what’s always worked for him, and has not stopped to think about whether what he’s asking for is more like improving semiconductor performance or increasing the force of gravity. Unfortunately that possibly makes him even more dangerous, since he’ll come across as sincere and inspire others to share his vision, at the expense of other options they might have taken.

          1. Mikkel

            I love talking about Moore’s Law. In the 50+ years it’s been in force, processing power has increased about 10 billion times. That’s amazing!!

            But the theoretical limit of computation (known as Bremermann’s limit) shows we have a little ways to go. It looks like the best processors are at almost 10 trillion operations per second (10^13) but the limit is around 10^48 operations a second. That means that if we continued to double performance every 18 months we could go another 121 years before we hit the limit!

            I don’t think that number really does justice to the enormity of the difference though. Another way to put it is that today’s processors would take over 200 trillion times the age of the universe to compute what the theoretical maximum processor would do in 1 second.

            So yeah, our progress is impressive but physics gives us a loooooooong way to go.

            By contrast, engines are already operating at about 90% of their theoretical limit and it looks like batteries are about 20%. Even with the biggest engineering breakthroughs we can’t do *that* much better, and it demonstrates why it’s so hard to progress.

            I am in the tech industry myself and totally agree that this very rare circumstance has shaped the psychology and culture to a point where it is totally unhinged from the rest of reality. It is very dangerous for that segment to have so much influence and the fact that they are held up as exemplars is preventing society from navigating our challenges with open eyes.

    4. aleric

      Yep, these problems were being discussed in Ag Econ classes in the early 90s, at a school with a building named after Norman Borlaug.

  3. skippy

    Norman Borlaug level stuff …. oh how the free market [not what Smith said, but anyway] investors vibrated in unison over that income stream in perpetuity E.g. everything has to eat.

    I’m reminded of another Gates level doo’gooder episode I posted on NC years back, bringing potable water to the poor village people in low lying areas in India, higher force calling. Seems money was donated by small pockets so the force of there goodwill was apparent, in contrast to pagan thoughts, but for some reason no one did a geo toxicity test on the wells and just slapped at tap on them.

    Sadly sometime later it was found out, after the fact, that it was heavy in arsenic, don’t think there was a medical funding drive by the doo’gooders to recompense the loss or suffering of the many afflicted.

    It might just be me, but maybe Gate should just stick to his patch of ground in his Palace on the Puget and fiddle with the local natives with his huge plans and see how that works out before going global.

  4. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Yves.

    Unfortunately, Gates has the British government and media to facilitate his malign activity and influence. He donates to the BBC and Guardian.

    The Gates, Clinton, Omidyar and Blair foundations get much of the British aid budget to disburse as they see fit, as apparently they are the experts, or to mandates that have little or no oversight. Gates has been at it for years, but the Clinton and Omidyar came on the scene in the late teens. Blair has come on the scene in the past year or so. Blair’s champion in the government is Matt Hancock.

    Gates also gets some French aid money, including some of the receipts from aviation taxes.

  5. diptherio

    When I hear the term “Green Revolution” my first thought is still the program of that name carried out in the 1960s and 70s. I had an anthropology prof. who despised that one (after having spent several years in Africa and seeing the environmental and social fall-out) for the exact same reasons this one is coming under fire. It’s almost like the clowns running these programs refuse to learn from history.

    1. Stephen Gardner

      I had an ex brother in law who was an alumnus of UP Los Banos, where the IRRI is, I think, headquartered. He was very proud of that fact and took me on a tour. Lots of plots of short rice being grown. Interesting place and I think everyone there thought they were doing good. Of course that was in the late 70s. Things have changed. Still scientists can be as tenacious in false beliefs as anyone. Who was it that said Physics progresses one funeral at a time.

  6. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

    No one questioned Bill Gates’ wisdom about our ongoing public health trainwreck. Whitney Webb aptly says that Gates is not a ‘computer entrepreneur’. He’s an investor. Tied at the hip for decades to Warren Buffett, who took him on as an acolyte before he even got involved in computing. What he can’t buy he steals, and like the US Govt, his money buys an amen chorus to sing his praises as the cuddly, wonky loveable nurd. This sugar coats his depradations with another characteristically American trope: When one of Gates’ projects causes demonstrable harm, it’s all just an unfortunate accident-as Chomsky puts it ‘blundering efforts to do good’.

    1. Nikkikat

      Thank you! Your comment is right on. Bill and Melinda are every bit as evil and malign as Bezos, Musk and Zuckerberg. These people are psychopaths and any attention they give to anything is dangerous for the rest of us.

  7. tegnost

    When Will We Ever Learn??????

    Who is we? I figured out along ago that these biotech productivity pipe dreams are really just land grabs and patenting the genome. When will the people of the world stop having them shoved down their throats is a better question.

    1. David H.

      The rich “Do Gooders” would sally forth to do good and at the end of the day they solved nothing but to make their fellow grifters richer and the problems even worse.

      You are right, “When will we ever learn.”

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      Some persons here and there in the world can buy better food from farmers using better eco-methods and eco-approaches. That would keep those lonely few farmers just enough in business to survive on the land till such time as ” the people of the world” can cut off the hands shoving petrocorporate GMO shitfood down their throats.

      Every dollar is a bullet on the field of economic combat.

  8. William Hunter Duncan

    No, see, it is working exactly as it always has and was intended to. I’m pretty sure it was a genuine nazi who said if you control the food you control the people. The enclosing of the commons is a lot older than that.

    Look around America. We The People do not control the land, and we are almost entirely dependent on a centralized just in time industrial food supply. Gates is the largest Ag landowner. This is a global land grab, and a turning of all peoples into dependent serfs. Oh, and an ongoing mass extinction wherever these methods are applied.

    So yeah, about all that….

  9. Susan the other

    Thank you for this post. Agri-ecology/Eco-agriculture. And permaculture. Preserving old knowledge and indigenous practices. They are 78% more productive than the Green Revolution nonsense. “Well-financed technophile dogma” is the end of the road for profiteers. Because… no profits. And obviously so when you stop to think about the energy involved in a green “revolution” – construction of irrigation works, expensive seeds, pesticides (green?), GMO technology, patent lawsuits, distribution and processing networks; the export rush, expensive equipment and plentiful energy… What a joke. Not to mention crashing commodity prices. Bill Gates has been very quiet lately about about his philanthropy in Africa.

  10. Irrational

    Another excellent book to read on the failure of the neoliberal model is “Aid on the edge of chaos” by Ben Ranamalingam.

  11. Matthew G. Saroff

    Bill Gates is an implacable foe of the intellectual commons, and so his “assistance” to poor farmers is primarily intended to make sure that they cannot replant seeds, develop their own cultivars, etc., because he sees this sort of non-IP restricted activity as evil.

  12. The Rev Kev

    There was a bit of a tradition with American oligarchs like Rockefeller and Carnegie a century ago and it was a remarkable phenomenon. In creating their own fortunes, they would be absolutely ruthless and would let nobody or anything get in their way and the historical record bears me out here.

    But in their old age when they could see their end approaching, many felt the need to leave a legacy so that people would think well of them after they died. And so they built public libraries, charities, colleges, foundations, etc. so that this would be their true legacy – or what they wanted people to think to be their true legacy.

    Now a century later the present oligarchs that we have have proven that no matter how much wealth they accumulate, that they will remain scum bags to the end and continue to taint and destroy anything that they touch. Several months ago I would have picked Jeff Bezos to be emblematic here but it appears that Bill Gates may now be the new poster child here.

  13. Henry

    I highly recommend those interested in this area watch the new documentary “The Seeds of Vandana Shiva”. It’s quite inspirational.
    The problem as any profitable “modern” farmer, such as Joel Salatin, Elizabeth and Paul Kiaser, Ernst Goestch will tell you is the “technology” that Gates is pushing is outdated, last century techniques, which have been optimized for the economic parasites. Unfortunately with these parasites infecting our governments it increasingly feels like our societies are like ants infected with Cordyceps.

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