Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Green Revolution has downsides in Africa

Research into what happens after African farmers adopt Green Revolution technology includes significant downsides.

Lead author Neil Dawson from the University of East Anglia in England writes in the scientific journal World Development that only a relatively wealthy minority have been able to keep to enforced modernisation because the poorest farmers cannot afford the risk of taking out credit for the approved inputs, such as seeds and fertilisers.  

Their fears of harvesting nothing from new crops and the potential for the government to seize and reallocate their land means many choose to sell their land, the study says.

This comes as no surprise to me. In 1969, I saw it happen in Obregon, Mexico, where the late Dr. Norman Bourlaug conducted his Green Revolution plant-breeding research to develop dwarf wheats.

There the first adopters became so much richer, and so fast,  that they were able to build haciendas that occupied a quarter of a city block. But thousands of subsistence-level farmers sold their land, moved to Mexico and ended up in horrific slums.

Bourlaug was dismayed. He said his technology needed to be accompanied by social revolutions, including birth control.

Now Dawson writes that  ”similar results are emerging from other experiments in Africa. 

Agricultural development certainly has the potential to help these people, but instead these policies appear to be exacerbating landlessness and inequality for poorer rural inhabitants, says the research team.

The Green Revolutions “may increase aggregate production of exportable crops, yet for many of the poorest smallholders they strip them of their main productive resource - land, Dawson explained.  

The team looked in particular into eight villages in Rwanda where the researchers found the technology has disrupted subsistence practices, exacerbated poverty, impaired local systems of trade and knowledge, and threatened land ownership. 
“It is startling that the impacts of policies with such far-reaching impacts for such poor people are, in general, so inadequately assessed,” Dawson stressed.

I wonder what Dawson and his team would find if they studied a typical Canadian rural community and the changes technology has introduced over the past 40 years. Perhaps much the same – fewer, bigger farms embracing land that once supported scores of farm families.

But, they should ask, are more people better fed?