With more than half the population living below the poverty line, Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries—and the majority of its people operate small farms. So, for more than a decade, non-profits and governments have focused on reducing poverty and hunger in the country by helping farmers there increase productivity in their fields, using the same monocropping techniques embraced by commodity corn and soy growers in the U.S.
Between 2007 and 2018, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) invested $22.5 million in projects that included training agro-dealers to sell commercial seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. Meanwhile, Malawi’s government provided around $50 million per year in subsidies for synthetic fertilizer.
The result? Yields for dietary staple crops, especially corn, have increased by 50 percent. But the poverty rate is still over 50 percent, and the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity has increased slightly, to 82 percent of the population.
“These are the failed policies of the past, with no real acknowledgment that science and history have moved forward,” says Timothy A. Wise, who conducted years of research on agriculture in Africa for his book Eating Tomorrow. “We should have learned from this and at least be funding a wider range of practices.”
That sentiment is at the core of two new reports that shed light on how billions of dollars from public institutions and private foundations continue to flow to “Green Revolution” strategies like those employed in Malawi, despite what critics say is mounting evidence of their failure.
The first report, from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES), charts how funds spent on “agricultural research for development” in sub-Saharan Africa primarily support research focused on industrial agricultural principles. And the second report, focused specifically on AGRA, produced by a coalition of organizations, presents data that shows the organization is failing to meet its own stated goals throughout the continent.
Bill Gates, one of the world’s most prominent philanthropists and thinkers, is at the center of both narratives. The reports both take a critical look at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is by far the biggest funder of agricultural research and development in Africa, and the primary funder of AGRA. The foundation, they report, is committed to the idea that farmers in Africa will benefit from an input- and market-intensive approach, and may therefore be hampering efforts to encourage and support agroecology, a solution many point to as an important lever for reducing hunger and addressing climate change in that part of the world.
The Green Revolution vs. Agroecology
High-yield crop systems are often traced to Norman Borlaug, an agronomist who pioneered a variety of wheat that became a model for growing more crops on less land. The seeds and the technologies used to grow them were then exported to countries including India, Mexico, and Brazil.
In India, where farmers widely adopted the Green Revolution, rice and wheat yields increased in the 1960s and ‘70s, and historians credit those increases with a significant decrease in hunger; Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions. Similar strategies to bring hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers to smallholder farmers in developing countries are still embraced by many agricultural and hunger relief organizations.
But critics say this approach to food production relies on expensive inputs, and that a lack of attention to environmental impact has gradually limited its successes. In India, many farmers went into debt because of the high cost of seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides, and a farmer suicide crisis followed. The crop systems also depleted groundwater, destroyed soil fertility, and polluted ecosystems and communities. In one state, the negative effects led to so much backlash that it resulted in what may be the first state-wide ban on all pesticides.
Many of those same critics point to agroecology, a holistic approach in which farmers work with ecological systems to minimize environmental impact, as the counterpoint to the industrial system. Agroecology also increasingly takes into account farmer culture and agency.
“The bedrock of agroecology is food sovereignty, ”says Million Belay, the general coordinator for the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa.
“The bedrock of agroecology is food sovereignty”—the ability for communities to feed themselves—says Million Belay, the general coordinator for the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), which was established in 2013. In Belay’s opinion, agroecology “works for Africa” because it recognizes that focusing on productivity alone—without considering other factors such as protecting soil and water quality and building resilience to climate change—is shortsighted. AFSA conducted an analysis of 50 agroecology case studies from 22 African countries, and found that the projects had multiple positive impacts on 10 of the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
And a growing body of research suggests that while farmers’ yields may decrease during the initial transition to agroecological practices, the environmental and social benefits do not come at the expense of long-term yields. One of the largest studies of 286 agroecology projects, covering more than 91 million acres in 57 countries, found an average 79 percent increase in crop yield.
Research like that is causing a shifting paradigm in many global development agencies, including the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), toward an emphasis on agroecology, especially as a strategy for confronting the climate crisis.
“Agroecology is seen more and more as the most viable alternative to industrialized food systems,” says Molly Anderson, a food studies professor at Middlebury College who was involved in producing the IPES report.
For example, the FAO’s expert panel on food security at the end of June released its analysis of how food systems need to transform in order to meet the second U.N. SDG—ending hunger by 2030. It identified agroecology as one of the policy and innovation shifts that had the potential to address all of the varied dimensions of food insecurity at once.
“The money that’s being spent [on agriculture in Africa] is not going to the right kinds of food systems.”
Meanwhile, the FAO calls agroecology “a key tool in the transition to sustainable food systems,” and has identified data that shows it can contribute to progress on multiple SDGs, from eliminating poverty and hunger to reducing inequality and furthering climate action.
And yet despite the evidence, Anderson said the IPES report shows that “the money that’s being spent [on agriculture in Africa] is not going to the right kinds of food systems.”
Research Funding, Mapped
The IPES report maps the complex landscape of agricultural research funding in sub-Saharan Africa and shows that the vast majority of money from foundations and governments is spent on projects that lean towards industrial agriculture.
The report found that a few countries, such as France, Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland, have increasingly supported agroecology projects, while the U.S. and U.K. primarily fund industrial agriculture research.
Most notably, among private foundations, the report found that the Gates Foundation is far and away the biggest contributor to agriculture research in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2015, it invested more than $400 million, which was almost three times the total investment of all of the other major foundations’ investments combined.
“The amount that’s being spent by philanthro-capitalists like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation just swamps the amount of money being spent by governments,” says Anderson.
Researchers found that 85 percent of the projects the Gates Foundation invested in were focused solely on supporting and increasing the efficiency of industrial agriculture strategies. Only 3 percent of the projects had components that could be linked to agroecological principles; none mentioned agroecology specifically. About a quarter of the projects funded included a focus on increasing sustainability, but that attention to environmental impact was primarily in the context of making industrial ag more efficient, by doing things like improving livestock vaccines and plant varieties.
A representative of the Gates Foundation declined Civil Eats’ request for an interview. Instead, the foundation sent an email statement that read, in part:
Our agricultural development investments seek to make smallholder crops and livestock more productive, improve nutrition, and help empower women farmers. Over the past decade, we have worked closely with national partners in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, to identify and support a wide range of innovations, investments, and policies that empower farmers with the tools they need to improve their livelihoods and lift their communities out of poverty.
Yields on farms in this region already are far below what farmers elsewhere in the world achieve, because African farmers often lack access to improved seed varieties and extension services. Like farmers in wealthier countries, we believe smallholders should be able to choose from a range of innovations that can help them adapt to stressful conditions like high temperatures, droughts, floods, pests, and diseases
However, the report on AGRA, which is based primarily on research conducted by Wise, disagrees with the foundation’s assessment. In fact, it asserts that AGRA has failed on its own measure of increasing yields.
The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa launched in 2006, and over time developed a public goal of doubling incomes and productivity for 30 million farm families by 2020. That goal is no longer listed on the organization’s website and AGRA did not respond to requests for comment. In July, it released a statement that criticized Wise’s research methods and approach and stated the organization could not comment on the report “because we have not been informed on their approach, data sources, and analysis.”
Wise told Civil Eats he asked AGRA if it would provide data on its progress but that a representative from the organization went silent after extended communication and failed to produce the data. Instead, his research team used public data on hunger, poverty, and agricultural productivity in the 13 countries AGRA works in to see how numbers had changed since the group began its work.
Overall, the data showed little evidence of significant increases in incomes or food security for people in AGRA’s target countries and some evidence that AGRA’s emphasis on just a few crops, including hybrid corn, have depleted soil and moved land use away from traditional crops like millet and cassava, which are more nutritious.
The data also showed that yields for staple crops in AGRA’s target countries rose by an average of 18 percent, with corn at 29 percent over the 12-year time span covered. That’s compared to the goal of 100 percent, and that increase was the same as the average annual growth rate in the years before AGRA.
“Our report shows that it’s not working,” says Wise, “and we’re not talking about two years, we’re talking about 14 years and a billion dollars of not working.”
While poverty rates in sub-Saharan Africa have decreased since 1990, the actual number of people living in poverty has increased significantly, due to population growth. And rates are still much higher there than anywhere else in the world: about 40 percent, as of 2015, compared to 10 percent globally. Recent evidence also suggests that some countries that had seen declining poverty rates in recent years may now be trending upward instead.
Meanwhile, after many years of decline, hunger has now been rising in the region for several years. A recent FAO report showed that after a decade-long decrease, undernourishment rates ticked back up in 2016 and 2017, with 237 million hungry people, compared to 177 million in 2005. The COVID-19 pandemic is now also contributing to rising poverty and hunger.
Increasingly, global organizations see those trends and point to agroecology as the best solution. “After working on these topics for 25 years or so, I have seen real shifts in the global narrative and people’s understanding of what’s causing food insecurity,” says Anderson. So questions remain as to why the investment is not shifting.
Turning the Ship on Ag Investment?
Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa members are now working in 50 of Africa’s 55 countries, on proven practices such as implementing crop rotations and System of Rice Intensification, but funding is an ongoing challenge, and the organization’s budget is less than $1 million per year. Compared to other organizations, “what we get is minute,” says Belay.
At A Growing Culture, Loren Cardeli supports farmers and groups in Africa as they incubate agroecological solutions that work for their communities—including traditional seed preservation techniques and innovations to collect and reuse runoff water in Kenya. He said it’s particularly difficult to get funders to consider socioeconomic factors and the importance of preserving culture within agricultural communities.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and I can’t get that to translate to most donors,” he says. “I scream from the mountaintops, and they think I’m crazy.”
According to IPES, the institutions heading up the research are a big factor when it comes to attracting global investment. And while projects led by African research institutions often had a more systemic focus, those institutions were the main funding recipient in just 9 percent of Gates Foundation projects. “Research institutions based in the Global North continue to lead on the majority of AgR4D [agricultural research for development] projects, and to attract larger sums of funding,” according to the IPES report.
In a qualitative analysis of the Gates Foundation, the report also found that the group expressed a persistent belief that industrial strategies were more practical than agroecological ones.
“There is widespread institutional support for the hypothesis that technological fixes will increase farm-level returns, thereby lifting more people out of poverty,” the authors wrote. On the other hand, “the perceived longer timeframe for agroecological practices to deliver returns in incomes or yields vis à vis industrial practices is seen as a drawback.” This probably wouldn’t surprise anyone who has heard Bill Gates publicly express his belief that the Green Revolution was a success and that more technological innovation that prioritizes productivity is needed.
Wise says that since the international food crisis of 2007-2008 (which caused major price spikes for staple foods) hit soon after the Gates Foundation started its work in agriculture, that timing might have solidified the foundation’s position as leading the charge to solve hunger on the continent.
“Everyone rightly responded to [the crisis] in a good way by saying, ‘Wow, countries need to grow more of their own food and their small-scale farmers need to be the ones to do it.’ I was very encouraged by that kind of reopening of the narrative about the role of small-scale farmers and self-sufficiency in developing countries,” says Wise. “And here was the Gates Foundation, telling them exactly how to do it. . . . And with so much money on the table and African governments completely strapped for cash and investment, it captured not just the narrative, but the policy space.”
“[Funders] want to take the continent onto a path where farmers will be used to using fertilizers, using chemicals.”
AFSA’s Belay agrees. “They want to take the continent onto a path where farmers will be used to using fertilizers, using chemicals,” he says. “Then there are markets for seeds, agrochemicals . . . [and other] technologies.” The Gates Foundation sees the opening of those markets as a good thing that will lead to increased incomes for farmers, but Belay sees it as way for multinational companies to make money on the backs of African farmers.
Those farmers are struggling even more due to the pandemic. And while Belay says that he is worried about the impact of COVID-19 on efforts to curb hunger and build sustainable food systems throughout Africa, he also sees it as a potential driver to shift thinking around resilience. For example, some farmers have had trouble accessing seeds because of border closures and supply chain disruptions.
“If they had their own seeds, they could have planted them, but now they are dependent on those companies to provide them,” he says. Similarly, he thinks some farmers will also be reminded of the value of building their soil, rather than relying on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. “If you have killed your soil, you have killed your agricultural system,” Belay adds.
In Malawi, one project has been taking a different tack since 2012. After identifying a local, bright orange variety of corn that was naturally high in Vitamin A, a nutrient important in undernourished communities, the Malawi Farmer-to-Farmer Agroecology Project used peer education models to help locals plant the corn in diverse crop rotations to build healthy soil and diversify diets.
“They got amazing results, with higher productivity . . . than any of the commercial seed varieties on small-scale farms. And they were growing sweet potatoes, cassava, cow peas, pigeon peas, and soybeans,” says Wise. One study found that participation in the project led to a significant increase in household wealth and a decrease in food insecurity for families.
If projects like this had more funding, Wise said, the impact could be massive, since the solutions themselves are low-cost. “On my book tour,” he says, “the most consistent question I get is: ‘Does Bill Gates realize this?’”