Food Forward

Robert Paarlberg on the history of the Green Revolution and the future of global food production

Courtesy of Robert Paarlberg

Robert Paarlberg, an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University and a professor at Wellesley College, is an expert on biotechnology and agricultural systems, and the author of several books, including Food Politics (What Everyone Needs to Know). Food Politics discusses international food prices, famines, government subsidies, poverty, hunger, and malnutrition—issues sometimes overlooked in discussions about the future of our food supplies. Paarlberg was a presenter for "Oregon Humanities' Think & Drink program Future of Food Security in May 2012.

Jill Owens: Throughout Food Politics, you make it clear that, in many ways, farming in rich countries and farming in poor countries are polar opposites, particularly regarding governmental policies, subsidies, and farming methods. Could you explain some of those differences?

Robert Paarlberg: The first difference between rich countries and poor countries is their capital endowment, the money that they have to invest, and their accumulated rural infrastructure: Do they have rural roads? Rural power? Storage facilities? Clinics? A national agriculture research system? Agricultural universities? All of those institutional infrastructure resources are abundant in rich countries, but in much of Africa they're almost completely absent. In rural Africa, 70 percent of average farmers live more than two kilometers from the nearest paved road. That's a thirty-minute walk. They're physically cut off from transportation and marketing infrastructures in ways that farmers in rich countries are not.

Another major difference is that agricultural societies in poor countries are urbanizing rapidly, but disproportionate numbers of poor people and undernourished people are still living in the countryside and depending on agriculture or herding animals for their employment and income. In wealthy modern industrial and postindustrial societies, the agricultural population may be only 2 percent of the population, as in the United States, or 3 or 4 percent, as in Europe. These are no longer agricultural societies. The people farming in the countryside are, for the most part, highly capitalized, well-educated operators of large, highly productive commercial farming operations. Their income is typically higher than the income of non-farmers, and their wealth is typically considerably greater than that of non-farmers. In these two different categories of countries, these are the polar extremes, although transitional countries exist on the continuum.
Government policies tend to differ as well. In poor agricultural societies, it's still the case, unfortunately, that most government interventions are designed to keep the politically powerful urban population happy by guaranteeing inexpensive food. That usually means taxing the farmers and shifting income away from farmers, who are already poor, toward urban consumers, who are less poor. In rich countries, the tendency is the other way around. In the United States, Europe, and Japan, governments tend to intervene to subsidize the income of farmers, and they take income away from urban consumers and from taxpayers to do that. Their policies are biased to subsidize farmers rather than to tax them.

So yes, in almost every respect, these are dramatically different environments.

JO: Can you explain briefly what the Green Revolution was, and why it bypassed Africa?

RP: The Green Revolution was an extension to tropical countries of some of the science-based upgrades seen in the mid-twentieth century in Europe and North America. That is, the development through conventional plant breeding of improved seeds, especially seeds that would produce higher yields in response to fertilizer. Increased applications of fertilizer, especially nitrogen fertilizer, were a second thrust. Increased investments in irrigation to provide a reliable water source were the third thrust. A fourth was the use of chemical insecticides to protect crops that were growing in abundance in monocultures, the way many Green Revolution crops were grown.

These technologies were used in the United States and Europe in the mid-twentieth century to increase the productivity of farming dramatically, but they hadn't really been introduced into some of the poorer countries of the tropics, specifically in Pakistan or Southeast Asia. They had traditional irrigation systems, but they hadn't been improved, they hadn't been maintained, and they weren't extensive enough. They were still using traditional seeds. They were using very little nitrogen fertilizer, and they didn't have any pesticides.

The Green Revolution was a development of locally appropriate versions of these science-based applications that created considerable productivity growth in agriculture, especially in South Asia and Southeast Asia. It took off in the 1960s and accelerated in the 1970s and into the 1980s, and it resulted in a dramatic productivity turnaround. It saved much of Asia from what would have otherwise been a serious food crisis, not just the persistence of poverty in the countryside but also inadequate supplies of basic staples like wheat and rice for urban consumers.

The Green Revolution didn't reach Africa for a number of reasons. First, the investments were made with Asia in mind. That's where the food crisis was in the 1960s, so when agricultural scientists working for the Rockefeller Foundation decided to develop new seeds, they focused on the wheat and rice grown in Asia. They didn't focus on sorghum, millet, cassava, banana, or other staple crops grown in Africa. Second, Africa had much less irrigation than Asia, so the water advantages weren't as available to African farmers. Third, the geography was more difficult. Africa had very little in the way of physical infrastructure for transportation or for irrigation. The terrain was less uniform. Much of the Asian population is found in broad river valleys, whereas in Africa, the population is found everywhere, including in hilly upland areas that are difficult to crop in the way that Green Revolution farming operated in Asia. Also, human resources in Africa were not as well developed. You didn't have agricultural universities or agricultural scientists ready to adopt and improve the science of modern farming the way you did in much of South and Southeast Asia.

And just as Africa was prepared to welcome some of these new techniques, by the 1980s and the 1990s, at that critical moment, the international community, which had funded the Green Revolution through donor agencies like USAID or agencies like the World Bank, turned their back on agriculture. They decided, based on the success of the Green Revolution and lower international food prices, that the world's food problem was solved and they didn't need to do any more. So if you look at foreign assistance to African agriculture from the United States, between 1980 and 2006, it actually declined by 86 percent. This was at a time when the number of hungry people in Africa was doubling, and at a time when average corn yields in Africa were falling by 14 percent. As Africa's food crisis worsened during this period, as its need for a Green Revolution became more acute, the international donor community that had sponsored the original Green Revolution backed away.

JO: You write in Food Politics that the best approach to a future Green Revolution might be to combine both agro-ecological insights—such as crop rotations, cover crops, and manuring—with Green Revolution seeds and the limited use of pesticides as a last resort. How plausible is it that the international community will change its mind about trying to eradicate hunger and poverty in Africa using those methods?

RP: We're in a much better place now than we were four or five years ago. If you look at the United States' assistance to agricultural development since 2009, since the Obama administration, we have gone from a small budget of $4 hundred million or $5 hundred million a year worldwide to a substantial budget of more than $1.3 billion a year worldwide. We've increased the number of agricultural specialists at USAID dramatically. We have increased our assistance to the twenty or so countries of the Obama administration's Feed the Future initiative dramatically and effectively, and if that can continue, I'm quite optimistic. On top of the other changes we've seen in Africa, including less violent conflict, sounder macroeconomic policies, and a steady improvement in the quality of institutions and human resources, I think there's a great deal of reason to be optimistic.

I worry a little bit, though, that this new assistance effort is going to be undercut by the political fashion that's taken over (at least in the House of Representatives) to try and cut the budget wherever possible. The House Budget Committee last spring proposed eliminating the Feed the Future program. Committee members proposed reducing it from $1.3 billion per year to zero. That's seriously wrong-headed. First, it's not the place to save money. We spend only about $1.3 billion annually on agricultural development assistance worldwide; we spend about $700 billion a year on the defense budget. It would be foolish, as the House Budget Committee proposed, to increase the defense budget while zeroing out agricultural development assistance.

JO: What do you think the consequences of our recent focus on organic, local, non-GMO (genetically modified organism) foods in rich countries, particularly in the United States and Europe, are for farmers in poor countries?

RP: If we focus on organic farming in the United States, then fine. Give it a try. I don't think it's going to be the future of farming in this country. It will be a significant niche in the market, but currently in the United States, only one half of one percent of agricultural cropland is certified organic. That's not a lot. The reason farmers haven't shifted more land into organic certification, despite the higher price they'd get if they grew organically—there's a significant premium to farmers who grow organic produce—is because they know that the labor requirements are higher, the land requirements are higher because the yields are lower, and they don't think they can make as much money.

That being the case, I'm not sure it makes a lot of sense for people in the United States and Europe to tell African farmers that they should be organic farmers. In fact, right now, many African farmers are de facto organic farmers. They could be certified tomorrow, because they don't use any synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. They don't use any synthetic pesticides. They don't plant any GMOs. They're using a traditional form of farming that's technically organic, but it's not very highly productive. They get crop yields that are only one-tenth as high as in the United States or Europe, and they earn only about $1 a day. One-third of them are chronically undernourished.

The lesson is that every region that has escaped hunger and rural poverty so far has done so by using the tools of modern agricultural science. They include not only irrigation, crop rotations, and organic techniques but also nitrogen fertilizer. They also use improved seeds: not necessarily GMOs, but improved seeds rather than seeds developed 100 percent through local on-farm seed selection. There are those in the United States who legitimately don't like some aspects of industrial farming in the United States. They think that the alternative should be organic and local. They don't realize how far Africa is from the U.S. system. What Africans need isn't less fertilizer; they need more. It isn't less capital investment; it's more. It isn't fewer improved seeds; it's more improved seeds. In Africa today, the average farmer applies no nitrogen fertilizer. The average use in Africa is 9 kilograms per hectare, which is less than one-tenth the average in the industrial world, and it's only about 20 percent of the target that the African Union has set.

I'm all for more organic techniques in Africa—mulching, crop rotations, and cover crops—but I'd also like to hear environmental advocates say African farmers need more fertilizer. Among organic purists, they can't say that, because synthetic nitrogen fertilizer isn't permitted for use by certified organic farmers.

JO: The subtitle of your book is What Everyone Needs to Know. What is the most vital thing about food politics that most people don't know? What's missing from the conversation?

RP: One thing is the importance of distinguishing between natural biological systems and biological systems that depend upon human intervention. Natural biological systems are extremely valuable and need to be protected, but sometimes the best way to do that is to rely for our growing food needs on systems that are somewhat more engineered. If we can increase food production on the land that's already plowed by using more fertilizer and by improving seeds technologies, that allows us to leave the forests uncut, to leave fragile lands unplowed, and to leave natural wildlife habitat undisturbed. If we don't improve yields on the land that's already plowed, we're going to have to expand the footprint of low-yield farming into the margins of natural biological systems, and they will be destroyed. That's what's been happening in low-yield Africa. Seventy percent of all the deforestation that takes place in Africa is the result of the expansion of low-yield farming.

There's an analog to this issue in fisheries. Right now, of course, open ocean fisheries, or natural fisheries, are under intense pressure. They are threatened in one place after another with collapse. The way out of this, if we want to keep fish in our diet (which would be a very good idea, because it's an excellent source of protein), would be to create more engineered fishing systems, such as aquaculture systems. We're doing that; some people don't like it. I think freshwater aquaculture systems have already proven themselves.

It's also in forestry. If you don't invest in developing improved trees, managing forests, even fertilizing forests the way some companies do, and replanting those forests in a sustainable way, our need for timber and for pulp is going to lead to the destruction of natural forests.

It's hard to put this on a bumper sticker, but if you want to protect nature, you have to, at least in some places, alter nature.

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