The teaming up of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with the Rockefeller Foundation to bring a "new" Green Revolution to Africa sadly ignores the lessons of the failures of the first Green Revolution.
In the first Green Revolution, the Rockefeller and Ford foundations exported industrial-style agriculture -- based on chemicals and "high-response" seeds -- to the Third World, with the paradoxical outcome of greater production of a few food crops, accompanied by even worse hunger, and by environmental degradation. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers eventually degraded the soil, leading to declining productivity, and the high cost of those inputs deepened the divide between rich and poor farmers, swelling the ranks of the hungry.
The Gateses' apparent naiveté about the causes of hunger have led them to make private investments in genetically engineered seeds and to launch this $150 million altruistic offensive to promote technology packages that use irrigation, fertilizer and, not surprising, new seeds. Unfortunately, the likely results are higher profits for the seed and fertilizer industries, negligible impacts on total food production and worsening exclusion and marginalization in the countryside.
Today's rural Africa has been devastated by 25 years of free trade and anti-peasant policies imposed on the continent's governments by the World Bank, the Intertional Monetary Foundation, the WTO, the United States and the European Union. The forced privatization of food crop marketing boards -- which, though flawed, once guaranteed African farmers minimum prices and held food reserves for emergencies -- and rural development banks, which gave farmers credit to produce food, have left farmers without either financing to grow food or buyers for their produce.
Free trade agreements have made it easier for private traders -- the only buyers and sellers of food left now that the marketing boards are largely gone -- to import subsidized food from the U.S. and the European Union than to negotiate with thousands of local farmers, driving local farm prices below the costs of production. Faced with this negative panorama, peasant families across the continent have abandoned agriculture in search of low-wage jobs in urban slums and in the international migrant stream.
Understanding this reality is critical to addressing hunger in Africa.
Under such circumstances, what difference could a new "technology package" make? Farmers still could not afford the inputs, or sell what they grow, or make a living as farmers -- not to mention the severe environmental and human health risks of genetic engineering technology.
In contrast, the global alliance of family farm and peasant organizations, Via Campesina (www.viacampesina.org), will hold a world conference in Mali in February 2007 on "Food Sovereignty," an approach far more likely to reduce hunger in Africa. Delegates from across Africa and around the world will debate the changes that are needed to truly reverse the policy-driven collapse of food production in Africa and other continents. Those policies, including a step back from free trade extremism and market fundamentalism, plus increased supports for family farmers, improved access to farmland for the poor, and ecological farming methods, are together called Food Sovereignty.
Without such changes, no farming technology can truly address hunger. In contrast to the Gates/Rockefeller guaranteed-to-fail approach, creating such a favorable policy environment for family agriculture would make it possible for the hungry to feed themselves using sustainable, ecologically sound farming methods.
Peter Rosset is the author of "World Hunger: Twelve Myths" (Grove Press, 1998), "Food is Different" (Zed Books, 2006) and "A New Green Revolution for Africa?" (Food First Books, forthcoming). He is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley.
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