Why bother with history

African Green Revolution, is no joke

Since my early days in Secondary school, I have always wondered at the benefits in history as a subject: Why, because nothing ever seems to be learned. We just repeat the same mistakes and re invent the same old wheels

Asia’s Green Revolution was an economic and ecological disaster and should have taught a final definitive answer to the damage intensive farming can cause. But what are all the gurus teaching Africa to do, you got it; repeat the same old failed model

Sustainable farming techniques are being sidelined in favour of a quick-fix solution; modern seed varieties (MVs) that produce better yields if treated with synthetic fertiliser and pesticides.

Such inputs are expensive and the seeds need frequent replacement. In Asia, the use of MVs in a head-long rush for bumper harvests has been shown to accelerate soil degradation, destroy crop diversity and encourage farmers to go into debt.

As Africa seeks to banish hunger, sustainable alternatives that can boost production, incomes and food security, help conserve soil and water and build resilience to climate change remain badly are treated as a backward joke, because a myriad of per diem agents as advising a better way and I’m sure the Mont Santos of this world are contributing to the pot as well. I have no axe to grind with either side in this biased debate between the financial and farming world, but I do know how the poor farmers in Northern Malawi should go, and I would like my grandchildren to know what good soil is, and what noxious pesticides can do to our health.

Speaking of grandchildren as we, today, await a second bundle of joy, I feel that the good message will be handed on very well. Our oldest has already made the move. Having done a PhD in Chemistry and then spent a couple of years in the strange world of agrichemicals, he went to South America for a few months, which showed him in the error of his ways. Re returned, gave up the job and now plays music full time. (That’s his story). Of course this weekend playing at the Cambridge Folk Festival is not wholly unattractive!!

The Green revolution of Asia should have warned Africa, but maybe the usual corruption, by the really corrupt, deliberately ignored the possible lessons which include widespread soil degradation, increased vulnerability to pests, farmer debts, a decline in traditional farming knowledge, increased inequality in rural communities, loss of biodiversity and increased greenhouse gas emissions from industrial agriculture.

In recent years, interested parties including the World Bank, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), USAID, the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations and African governments have promoted a Green Revolution for Africa where solutions they advocate seem to focus too narrowly around promoting synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, which were behind many of Asia’s problems.

There are concerns about a number of initiatives funded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) founded in 2006 by the Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates’ Foundations, and supported by DFID (and maybe the Irish Government).

Working in 12 African countries, it funds important projects promoting improved seeds, soil health, market access for farmers and finance and policy work. It also aims to increase productivity by improving farmers’ access to mainly hybrid seeds – part of the MV range – and inputs such as chemical fertilisers.

A recent report says that AGRA funded agro-dealers in eight countries are selling ‘ever more quantities of chemicals to farmers and increasing their reliance on inputs’.

In Malawi, where AGRA operates, ‘the principal beneficiaries of these efforts are the key suppliers of the inputs, mainly Monsanto,’ it says.

To me it looks like there is a pact to promote particulat products

The report says 70 per cent of the world’s nearly 1 billion hungry are smallholder farmers and the rural landless who have been long locked into a cycle of low productivity, lack of assets and services and weak market power.

Today, they also face the effects of climate change, land degradation and ground water depletion.

The report gives examples of successful sustainable agriculture techniques that can help.

They include:

–          Diversification: cultivating a wide range of crops; introducing mixed systems of crops, livestock and aquaculture; and increasing biodiversity

–          Nutrient recycling (waste from one sub-system is used as an input in another)

–          Maximum use of renewable, locally available resources (such as seeds, manure, mulch, nutrient-fixing plants)

Low external-input organic soil and crop management techniques such as integrated pest management and zero or low till farming, enabling a radically reduced reliance on, or complete avoidance of, synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, looks like a no brainer, but what has that got to do with anything.

We use these techniques on our farms in Northern Malawi and encourage the farmers we work with to do the same. It’s a tough job, because even if we show them, there is such a hurricane coming from the experts and gurus that seeing is no longer good enough. Our first Ministry ally has come on board, but as I said before it’s like bows and arrows against the remote controlled drones

But after all: Who the hell do We think W are. And maybe History need to get off the page.

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