Saturday, February 02, 2008

Life and its Enemies

In "The White Man's Burden" I referenced the Green Revolution as one example of the beneficial impact that the industrial First World has had on the developing Third World, and something that should be weighed on the income side of the cultural impact income statement. Naturally I thought that the saving of one billion lives through the application of advanced agricultural techniques was universally regarded as a net benefit for mankind. So I was surprised to find that there are many critics of the Green Revolution of the 1950s and '60s, as well as a new effort by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation to re-apply the techniques of that revolution to today's Africa:

Unfortunately, the Green Revolution did not extend to the entire planet. Sub-Saharan Africa remained largely untouched. As a consequence, average per capita food production in Africa has declined by 12 percent since 1980.

Enter the Gates Foundation. In September 2006, the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations announced a joint $150 million effort to create an Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Last week, the Gates Foundation upped its ante on boosting production by another $306 million. About half of these new grants will fund efforts to improve seeds and soils in Africa. The Gates Foundation has clearly identified the right target. "For the poorest people, GDP [gross domestic product] growth originating in agriculture is about four times more effective in raising incomes of extremely poor people than GDP growth originating outside the sector," according the World Bank's World Development Report 2008. But why did the Green Revolution not take off in Africa? The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has noted, "Poor infrastructure, high transport costs, limited investment in irrigation, and pricing and marketing policies that penalized farmers made the Green Revolution technologies too expensive or inappropriate for much of Africa." This list is basically an international bureaucracy's euphemism for saying that government corruption and mismanagement has kept African farmers poor. "Poor infrastructure" means that governments built no roads over which seeds, fertilizers and pesticides could be shipped cheaply to farmers. And conversely, without good roads, farmers can't get their crops to market.

For example, Uganda has just 58 miles of paved roads per million citizens, Mozambique just 87 miles . By contrast, the United States has 8,000. In addition, African governments have a history of imposing price controls on food crops ,which discourage farmers from growing more than they need for their families. Africa has not been alone in pursuing this destructive policy. In the 1960s, India paid its farmers 40 percent less than the world price for their grain. Green revolutionary Borlaug managed to persuade the Indian government to drop grain price controls. Restored market incentives persuaded Indian farmers to rapidly adopt new high yield crop varieties.

Interestingly, modern crop technologies fostered by the Gates Foundation might enable poor farmers to outflank, in part, these corrupt and stupid government policies. For example, seeds that contain traits like pest-resistance and drought-resistance could reduce farmers' dependence on government subsidized pesticides and irrigation systems. In fact, the Gates Foundation has provided nearly $40 million to researchers to develop drought resistant corn varieties for Africa. In addition, the foundation is funding low-cost drip irrigation systems designed by International Development Enterprises that can reduce the cost of irrigation from about $6,000 per acre to about $37.

About half of the $306 million in agricultural grants announced last week will go to the African Soil Health Program which aims to work with 4.1 million small-scale African farmers and regenerate 6.3 million hectares of farm land through better soil management practices. For the time being, AGRA supports only conventional crop breeding and does not fund the development of new varieties by means of genetic engineering. Rich countries have poured almost $600 billion in foreign aid into Africa over the past four decades. Result? Zero increase in per capita incomes. Is the Gates Foundation now pouring in good money after bad? Let's hope not.

Though I think Gates might be on the right track, I think it is prudent to hedge optimism with skepticism due to the long track record of failure for "save Africa" enthusiasms of the past. But if the Gates effort can reproduce some of the successes of the original Green Revolution, then on what ground do his critics stand?

A perusal of the Food First manifesto against the Green Revolution demonstrates that it is political and ideological ground.
1. The Green Revolution actually deepens the divide between rich and poor farmers. In the1960s, at the beginning of the first Green Revolution, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundationspromoted industrial-style agriculture in the Global South through technology “packages”that included modern varieties (MVs), fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation. The high cost ofthese purchased inputs deepened the divide between large farmers and smallholders becausethe latter could not afford the technology. In both Mexico and India, seminal studies revealedthat the Green Revolution’s expensive “packages” favored a minority of economically privileged farmers, put the majority smallholders at a disadvantage, and led to the concentration of land and resources .

The industrialization of American agriculture did the same. At our nation's founding almost all people worked in the agricultural sector. In 1900 41% of Americans were employed in agriculture, and in 2000 it was around 2%. Improvements in agriculture puts small farmers out of business. This leads to urbanization and growth in the industrial sectors, and eventually to prosperity and higher living standards.

This is a good thing. Agrarian societies have historically experienced resource limits due to overpopulation, deforestation and degradation of the environment. It happened in Europe in the 19th and early 2oth centuries. Had the new world not been available to penniless peasants from Europe, then the death toll in Europe's wars in the 20th century would have been all the higher. Agrarianism isn't sustainable.

5. Without addressing structural inequities in the market and political systems, approaches relying on high input technologies fail. The growing hunger in Africa is largely due to the increased impoverishment of the very rural peoples who once grew food, but who have now left farming. Today’s African farmers could easily produce far more food than they do, but they don’t because they cannot get credit to cover production costs, nor can they find buyers or obtain fair prices to give them a minimal profit margin. Under such circumstances, what difference will a new 'technology package” make? Without addressing the causes of why African farmers leave farming—or why they under-produce—AGRA will have little impact on this trend.

Rural Africa has been devastated by 25 years of corporate globalization’s free trade and antipeasant policies, imposed on the continent’s governments by the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, the U.S. and the E.U. (Rosset, 2006a, and deGrassi and Rosset, forthcoming).x 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 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 who are left—to import subsidized food from the U.S. and the E.U. than to negotiate with thousands of local farmers. This amounts to “dumping,” which drives local farm prices below the costs of production and drives local farmers out of business.xi The failures of the Green Revolution have taught us that sustainable rural development is not just about increasing yields; it requires the redistribution
of land and resources, a fair and stable market, and sound agroecological management. These are the very aspects of agricultural development that are ignored or undermined by the Green Revolution.

The real problem is that African economies have not been able to diversify and grow, so that displaced farmers have not been able to find work in new industries. I won't pretend to be an economic expert or have a comprehensive understanding of all of the developmental problems that have befallen Africa, but I suspect that it has a lot to do with rent-seeking dictators like Robert Mugabe who have subverted well meaning but naive foreign aid. Africa needs to take the leap into full blown capitalism. It can't be managed to prosperity by technocrats from the United Nations, the World Bank, or the NGOs. This is one reason that I remain a little skeptical about the Gates initiative. For all the scientific sophistication of its approach, it is still charity. Only when non-charitable, return seeking investment capital can find its way to Africa will a sustainable economic growth curve be viable.

10.AGRA’s “alliance” does not allow peasant farmers to be the principal actors in agricultural improvement. The Rockefeller and Gates Foundations consulted with the world’s largest seed and fertilizer companies, with big philanthropy, and with multilateral development agencies, but have yet to let peasant farmer organizations give their views on the kind of agricultural development they believe will most benefit them.
Through Via Campesina (, peasant and small farmer
organizations from Africa and around the world are debating and formulating the policy changes needed to truly reverse the policy-driven collapse of peasant agriculture in Africa and other continents. These policies, including a step-back from free trade extremism and market fundamentalism; plus increased supports for family farmers; improved access to farmland, water and local seeds for the poor; and ecological farming methods, are together called Food Sovereignty (Via Campesina et al., undated; Rosset, 2003). Their February 2007 World Forum for Food Sovereignty in Mali, which includes African consumer and environmental groups as well, marks a key point in this process. Without such changes, no farming technology—especially chemical and genetically-engineered based—can truly address hunger. In contrast to
the Gates/Rockefeller approach, creating such a favorable policy environment for family agriculture will make it possible for the hungry to feed themselves using sustainable, ecologically-sound farming methods, create rural employment and produce a surplus, which is critical for the food security of local populations.
The concept of food sovereignty was developed by La Via Campesina, and brought to the
public debate during the World Food Summit in 1996 as an alternative framework for food and agriculture. Since that time the concept has gained tremendous popularity and echo in civil society sectors of nations both North and South, and has been developed into a holistic and internally coherent alternative framework (Rosset, 2006a). Food Sovereignty proponents argue that food and farming are about more than trade. They also argue that production for local and national markets is more important than production for export from the perspectives of broadbased and inclusive local and national economic development; addressing poverty and hunger;
preserving rural life, economies and environments; and management of natural rresources in a sustainable fashion. They argue that every country and people must have the right and the ability to define their own food and agricultural policies that they need to protect local markets. They must also have access to public sector budgets that include subsidies that do not lead to greater production, exports, dumping and damage to other countries. Under these conditions, the farming peoples of every country on Earth (with the exception of some citystates) have the ability to feed their nations’ peoples, and to feed them well. They believe that low prices are the worst force that farmers face everywhere in the world, and therefore that we need to effectively ban dumping, to apply anti-monopoly rules nationally and globally, to
effectively regulate over-production in the large agro-export countries, and to eliminate the kinds of direct and in-direct, open and hidden subsidies that enforce low prices and overproduction. In other words, that we need to move from mechanisms that enforce low prices to those that would promote fair prices for farmers and consumers alike. This alternative model is opposed to patenting seeds, and it also includes agrarian reform, with limits on maximum farm size, equitable local control over resources like seeds, land, water and forests. The food sovereignty approach is increasingly being taken seriously by other sectors, such as organizations representing consumers, urban poor, indigenous peoples, trade unions, environmentalists, and human rights activists, and by researchers and other experts. It also forms the basis for collaboration between the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN and farmer groups and other civil society actors, as announced by FAO Secretary General Jacques Diouf at the 2002 World Food Summit.
If the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations truly want to end hunger and poverty in rural Africa, then they should put their millions in the service of the struggle by peasant and farmer organizations and their allies to truly achieve food sovereignty.

To underscore the political and ideological agenda at work in the Food First critique, I've bolded every leftist/collectivist shibboleth in their concluding argument. It is almost like the Food First activists are zoological curators trying to preserve these native/indigenous agrarian communities in an exhibit of their natural habitat, instead of looking at the African people as individuals who may have their own ambitions and desires. This is the ground where extreme ideologies of left and right overlap. Agrarianism is as much a utopia of the left as of the right, as described in this paean to the American Agrarian tradition by paleo-conservative blogger Daniel Larison:

In 1930 twelve Southerners, scholars, men of letters, poets and patriots, issued their defense of a way of life and an understanding of how to live well that they had received from their arts, their fathers and their Southern patria: the book of essays in defense of the Southern agrarian tradition, I’ll Take My Stand. They were, as M.E. Bradford described them, “the natural heirs of Randolph of Roanoke, John Taylor of Caroline, and the better side of Jefferson–anti-Hamiltonian, antistatist, conservative Democrat….Community was their a priori ideal–an informally hierarchical social organism in which all Southerners (including the Negro, insofar as the survival of that community permitted) had a sense of investment and participation. In brief, a patriarchal world of families, pre- or noncapitalist because familial, located, pious, and “brotherly”; agrarian in order not to produce the alienated, atomistic individual to whom abstractly familial totalitarianism can appeal; classically republican because that system of government best allowed for the multiplicity that was the nation while at the same time permitting the agrarian culture of families to flourish unperturbed.” (Remembering Who We Are, p.86)

As Dr. Tom Landess recounted to us in a talk last month, the South to which the Southern Agrarians referred and which they defended was neither an imaginary product of nostalgia for the antebellum South nor a the fruit of longing for the days of the Southern aristocracy. The South of their hopes and loves was the South of the small farmer, the yeoman, the small businessman, the shopkeeper, the South that existed, the one which they knew, and the one which they knew was threatened and in danger of passing away under the new onslaught of industrialism and abstract notions. In that land, there was a way of life not unique to the Southern experience but one that was nonetheless peculiarly present in the region that was attuned to the “rhythm of the seasons and the uncertainties of life,” tied to nature and to the passage of time, and thus to history, in a way that, as Dr. Patrick reminded us in his talk on Allen Tate, cultivated a mind all together more historical and culturally European than the mind malnourished in the cities of the Northeast.

On account of the agrarian way of life of the smallholder and the farmer and the culture of the people who settled the South, the region’s people had a keen sense of place that itself grew from an awareness of being fixed and rooted in a place and forming part of the continuity across the years that bound ancestor and descendant. That experience could fuel the imagination of a Faulkner to tell the story of the Sartoris clan where the generations of a family together formed a character in its own right, for perhaps the most complete story and the most fully formed characters come from the experience of multiple generations bound by place and their relationship to that place.

Memory across generations ties a people to their past and lends the place where they live meanings that had been hidden by the veil of time. This sense of the past was fed by the reception of memories from their fathers in the form of simple stories told and retold, the recollecting of their people’s lives that wove together anecdote, gossip and report into the remembrance of who they were and what they were doing in the particular time and place where they were.

The Southern mind saw history as something concrete, the fruit of a series of events that does not move us onwards towards a goal but is embodied in the tangible reality of habit and memory (and Bradford tells us to love the inherited nomos of our place and people rather than rush on madly towards the telos of the teleocrat). This mind saw history as a process of growth and change that those closest to the land understand better, and it remembered that history through the telling of the stories of their kin.

Receptive to memory, the Southern mind was also submissive to nature and God. As the “Statement of Principles” in I’ll Take My Stand tells us:

Religion can hardly expect to flourish in an industrial society. Religion is our submission to the general intention of a nature that is fairly inscrutable; it is the sense of our role as creatures within it. But nature industrialized, transformed into cities and artificial habitations, manufactured into commodities, is no longer nature but a highly simplified picture of nature. We receive the illusion of having power over nature, and lose the sense of nature as something mysterious and contingent. The God of nature under these conditions is merely an amiable expression, a superfluity, and the philosophical understanding ordinarily carried in the religious experience is not there for us to have.

And in its piety the Southern mind did not, like some Eunomian heretic, scrutinise and weigh the essence of God. On the contrary, it tended to set anything that smacked of rationalism to one side in the understanding of the Faith such that the Southern religion might even be called in many respects “arational,” as Dr. Patrick explained to us, and in its spirituality potentially and dangerously prone to think of religious experience as an escape from history rather than a living out of the Word incarnate and the Word enfleshed and embodied in us in the sacraments. And yet it was this same religious spirit in the South that does instinctively recognise the createdness of things and the dependence of the being of all things on the will of the Creator, a recognition that comes and must come in no small part from the relationship to the created order of one who tends and cultivates rather than one who uproots and exploits, which is to say an agrarian relationship rather than that of an industrialist and a consumer. It is there in the tending of the “cultivated garden” that man understands his place before creation and his Creator, particularly by being in his own place where he will give praise to his God for the bounty that has been provided in God’s goodness. It is there that he remembers who he truly is, seeing his connections to his place across the generations in the fields and groves that nourished him and made him into what he is. Then, having remembered, he will tell his sons and daughters of their history on that land, so that they will know it is loved and should be loved, and to see that they must love and care for it because, in a way, the land has already loved and cared for them. As Bradford concluded his essay in defense of the Agrarians (and all agrarians), so will I conclude today, with a few lines from Donald Davidson:

Is good, but better is land, and best
A land still fought-for, even in retreat:
For how else can Aeneas find his rest
And the child hearken and dream at his grandsire’s feet?

So in the end, the Agrarian romanticism of Food First and Larison is about aesthetics. Aesthetics and the worship of suffering.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...


These people are just zookeepers.

However, it makes little sense, in terms of agriculture, to speak about 'Africa.'

There are cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast, palm oil plantations in Nigeria. A lot of African food production is still based on transhumance. Or slavery.

February 02, 2008 10:25 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Harry, Zookeepers. Well said, but also keepers of what they see as the romance of Africa past.

Next we'll have reproductions of native villages with people dressed in animal skins selling genuine tiger tooth necklaces.

Stop all aid and let the people figure out what they want to do. All the money we send goes to buy arms so the despots can keep control.

It's sickening.

February 02, 2008 10:56 AM  
Blogger lonbud said...


Stop all aid and let the people figure out what they want to do. All the money we send goes to buy arms so the despots can keep control.

Doh! How come nobody thought of applying that same logic to the Middle East?

February 02, 2008 3:13 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Apples and oranges lonbuddy.

February 02, 2008 3:35 PM  
Blogger lonbud said...

Fruit, nonetheless.

Brings to mind that favorite admonition of those who like to quote the Christian Bible:

Galatians VI, 7:

Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.

February 02, 2008 3:44 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Tell that to the Muslims

February 02, 2008 4:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Green Revolution actually deepens the divide between rich and poor farmers.

Tends to happen when you start out with everyone starving. Bummer.

These Food First people are a gas. Here is their mission statement: The purpose of the Institute for Food and Development Policy - Food First - is to eliminate the injustices that cause hunger.. Hey, that must be a lot more fun than feeding the hungry. Just think of the resolutions and conferences, etc. Once again, a terrific example of how leftist abstract gobbledegook is built on (or hijacks) a noble, concrete, charitable cause.

Of course, we on our side aren't completely immune from this tendency reduce the world's problems to "root causes" like oppressiion or capitalism. Why, I know a smart fellow who, whatever the issue is, finds a way to pin all blame on religion.

February 03, 2008 4:36 AM  
Blogger Mr. Vermouth said...

I think the use of "Green Revolution" was an unfortunate choice by AGRA (makes a nice acronym though.

The main point of the matter at hand should be that Gates is supporting market-based, sustainable solutions at the local level in these countries. The Foundation is not supporting traditional bilateral aid. It has given its money to private orgs who build economies from the grassroots with local citizen entrepreneurs, NOT ex-pats or government bureaucrats. This is how it differs markedly from bilateral aid packages and the "Green Revolution." A better name for it would be the "Entrepreneurial Revolution" but that might not make African governments happy.

February 05, 2008 8:13 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Well, on this particular issue, the record of religion -- or one particular religion in Latin America -- is spotty.

Capitalist agriculture there hasn't proven effective at feeding everybody. There are (at least) two ways it can be done wrong, and the Church has managed to line up on both of them.

February 05, 2008 9:19 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

However, alhough the impact of religion on food has been generally baleful, I don't blame it particularly.

And while I have no objection to increasing production, I think both versions focused on in this thread are economically secondary.

If it were my decision, I'd put my first money on preservation of already produced food.

Many places that are hungry, such as Russia and India, already grow plenty of food. They lose up to half of it after harvest.

My next investment would be in controlling easily controllable maladies that degrade the labor of rural people, like guinea worm.

I've said more than once before, I don't think most people have any idea how food gets made. That includes many people who are professionally involved in agriculture, one way or another.

February 06, 2008 9:20 AM  

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