Home > Uncategorized > Time is running out for a new agricultural model for the global south

Time is running out for a new agricultural model for the global south

from Jayati Ghosh

Climate change is posing immediate threats to humanity, and indeed to all living organisms on the planet, in extreme weather events across the globe. Other environmental stresses include rising water levels or falling water tables, desertification and salination.

Agriculture—especially industrial agriculture requiring chemical inputs—is cause and victim of these changes. Cultivation patterns such as mono-cropping, with heavy reliance on groundwater and chemical inputs, have reduced the food sovereignty of poor countries and generated growing environmental problems.

These, along with the impact of climate change, have affected food security and caused more severe and widespread hunger, so that the number of hungry people in the world started increasing in 2015. That’s the year when zero hunger by 2030 was declared a Sustainable Development Goal of the United Nations.

So when the very first UN Food Systems Summit meets this week, its biggest concern should be how to make the necessary changes in our food production, distribution and consumption patterns, to adapt them better to nature and make them more resilient. Obvious, right? 

Apparently not. The growing fear among many stakeholders is that, instead of recognising the need for truly transformative strategies, the summit may end up legitimising and supporting corporate-oriented agricultural models which would exacerbate the problem.

Mired in controversy

The Food Systems Summit has been mired in controversy, right from the planning stage. The Rome-based UN bodies—the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Programme and the International Fund for Agricultural Development—which have been sounding the alarm on the inequality within, and lack of sustainability of, global food systems were effectively sidelined. Instead, the World Economic Forum, an unofficial platform essentially representing global corporate interests, was made the partner—an extraordinary choice with little justification.

The summit itself is being led by the UN’s special envoy, Agnes Kalibata, president of the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which has been criticised for pushing a particular strategy on Africa without transparency or accountability. Fears have been expressed that this could simply become an opportunity for more fundraising for AGRA, which will soon be running out of money but has achieved little in the 15 years of its existence.

AGRA was launched in 2006 by the Bill & Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations. It was designed along the usual ‘green revolution’ lines—a mono-cropping model based on a combination of high-yielding commercial seeds, synthetic fertilisers and chemical pesticides, requiring lots of irrigation to increase yields per acre.

In the Asian region, this model produced medium-term outcomes which were mixed at best and have been associated with major ecological problems. But it certainly benefits the global agribusinesses that provide inputs and control the global distribution of crops.

Little to show

This may be one of the reasons why this model was pushed on Africa, and persisted with. While AGRA itself has provided around $1 billion to 13 countries, several recipient governments have injected their own resources in the form of seed and fertiliser subsidies, to many multiples of that amount. These provisions have been well in excess of the funding devoted to agroecological cultivation.

But there is little to show for this spending. AGRA initially aimed to double the yields and household incomes of 20 million small-scale African farmers by 2020, and halve food insecurity in 20 countries through productivity improvements. While it subsequently scaled down its goals, it has provided no evidence of actual outcomes, and the Gates Foundation has steadfastly refused to reveal the results of an audit it is said to have conducted.

However, an independent academic study found almost no evidence of significant increases in small producers’ productivity, incomes or food security; instead, the number of hungry people in AGRA countries apparently increased by 30 per cent in the first 12 years of its operations. According to the UN, severe hunger has increased by 50 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa since AGRA was founded.

Agroecological strategies

This is why farmers’ associations, civil society and faith groups across Africa have come out against the promotion of AGRA and demanded that more funding go towards agroecological strategies based on small farmers, which would be more equitable as well as more sustainable over time. Major experts on food issues who have worked closely with the UN system—including the special rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri; his predecessor, Olivier De Schutter, now special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights; and the chair of the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, Martin Cole—have even warned that the summit could further erode the UN’s public support and legitimacy. Several civil-society and farmers’ groups have decided to boycott it because of these concerns.

It seems obvious that the basic purpose of a Food Systems Summit in today’s world must be to ensure that everyone has access to sufficient nutritious and affordable food, and therefore does not go hungry or fall into unhealthy food-consumption practices; that this food is produced in sustainable ways, which take into account the limitations and growing constraints imposed by nature and do not create future ecological damage; and that small farmers, who do the bulk of cultivation in most of the developing world, are able to sustain themselves and their families and earn reasonable incomes through this activity. If so, then clearly the Food Systems Summit must move away from a strategy such as that of AGRA—instead of promoting, and seeking funding for, more of the same failed model.

These pressing issues are really too serious and urgent to be allowed to go unresolved. Humanity cannot keep on blowing up the few chances it has to save itself and the planet.

  1. September 24, 2021 at 5:24 pm

    “It seems obvious that the basic purpose of a Food Systems Summit in today’s world must be to ensure that everyone has access to sufficient nutritious and affordable food,”

    “The growing fear among many stakeholders is that, instead of recognising the need for truly transformative strategies, the summit may end up legitimising and supporting corporate-oriented agricultural models which would exacerbate the problem.,”

    These two quotes are reversed in the order they were presented in the article as a way to express my own personal impatience with misanthropic wealth accumulators. Economists tend to speak politely about pirates who wear expensive clothes and are willing to cause immense pain, suffering and anguish to gain more wealth.

    It was and is propaganda by pirates that convinces human mothers they are mere animals if they nurse their children using personal mammal breast milk instead of scientific baby formula. One of the larger baby formula companies repeated itself with bottled water, which is so profitable that pallets of water filled plastic bottles are stacked on tarmacs in the sun waiting to be picked up and shipped by air freight.

    The profession of economics is polite to well dressed murderous thieves destroying Earth because those are the people who sign their paychecks.

    Many economists will not change until they realize their children and grandchildren are not likely to outlive them. By then it will be too late.

    • Econoclast
      September 28, 2021 at 12:39 am

      I agree with all this, Garrett. I would add, referring to the current focus on infrastructure investment both domestically and globally via such as BRICS, that those who do the building are highwaymen, in the sense of pirates. Highjacking what seems a good idea and seems to provide jobs, for their true purpose, pouring more concrete and continuing to pave over the world, a la an old image from paint company Sherwin Williams, “cover the earth”.

  2. Meta Capitalism
    September 24, 2021 at 6:26 pm

    “misanthropic wealth accumulators” it seems, is the core of libertarianism today that conflates license with liberty.

  3. Ken Zimmerman
    September 25, 2021 at 8:53 am

    On the oceans of the world during the 15th – 19th centuries pirates were pursued and if captured hanged, or worse. Even today Somolian pirates are often executed if captured. In 19th century America law officers like Wyatt Earp hanged or otherwise executed hundreds of ‘outlaws.’ Dillinger was ‘gunned down’ on an American street by FBI agents. But in even in these situations it’s not clear who is the criminal. After all Errol Flynn made very popular movies about the heroic acts of pirates. The Somali pirates in ‘Captain Phillips’ weren’t depicted as psychopaths. Just confused peasants. In Earp’s confrontations with ‘outlaws’ both sides often wore police badges. When he was killed Dillinger was a folk hero for millions of Americans. Which brings us to the obvious, President Donald Trump. A great leader, a swindler and sociopath. Which is it? We need to consider these kinds of judgments. Often separating the ‘bad guys’ from the ‘good guys is not easy or precise. Just like society in general.

  4. John Jensen
    September 27, 2021 at 4:51 am

    I’m guessing the Gates Foundation knows something about food production that we don’t and they are simply misunderstood. We probably can’t deliver improved food production by way of AGRA although AGRA will obviously demand that more funding go towards local agroecological strategies based on small independent farmers, For us liberals and AGRA this makes everything more equitable as well as more sustainable – but is that actually doable? Or, does it make more sense to create small farmers (over the long-run) through the same sort of large corporate landholders we are used to calling corporate farms. Perhaps we first need to create a beginning agricultural infrastructure using the greedy and selfish owners of extensive plantations to produce more food by using local labour at minimum wages, Like we did in all the Colonies we previously created. Are sustainable farms possible in the middle of nowhere?

    Perhaps using western methods, expensive dams for irrigation, tons of fertilizers and heavy equipment which had the overall effect of lowering global food prices 70 years ago – like Borlaug promoted with his leadership in the 1950’s – 1970’s green revolution – is the only way to do it – in Western countries and not in the middle of nowhere. That green revolution in Western countries involved hands-on training for farmers through local departments of agriculture, colleges and membership cooperatives using existing roads and rails (that do not exist in the poor countries we wish to help), How does anyone fund the development of climate tolerant crops and extensive use of machinery in areas without an energy and transportation infrastructure? I seriously doubt that the poor farmers we wish to help have the capacity, education and infrastructure required to do the same. Most machinery is too sophisticated and expensive for beginners and even if farming is scaled down to hobby farm sized operations (10-20 acres) with small tractors, rototillers and motorcycles to move fuel, fertilizer and take crops to local markets on primitive trails – who is going to organize it? If Dole was using an AGRA approach to create small pineapple, banana, coffee, cocoa and bamboo farmers in the Philippines – would enough of those products be produced and how would they get it to market 100 years ago? Instead, Dole simply bought out thousands of individual farmers and created extensive plantations and the needed infrastructure to service them – by their greedy profit-loving selves. Maybe there is no other alternative to achieving the food security we “all” need. Just saying. Anyone else heard of actual alternatives that worked? Maybe AGRA proposals don’t work?

  5. Ken Zimmerman
    September 28, 2021 at 10:49 am

    Let me be specific.  In Marxist philosophy, the dictatorship of the proletariat is a state of affairs in which the proletariat holds political power. The dictatorship of the proletariat is the intermediate stage between a capitalist economy and a communist economy, whereby the post-revolutionary state seizes the means of production, compels the implementation of direct elections on behalf of and within the confines of the ruling proletarian state party, and instituting elected delegates into representative workers’ councils that nationalize ownership of the means of production from private to collective ownership. During this phase, the administrative organizational structure of the party is to be largely determined by the need for it to govern firmly and wield state power to prevent counterrevolution and to facilitate the transition to a lasting communist society. Other terms commonly used to describe the dictatorship of the proletariat include socialist state proletarian state, democratic proletarian state, revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat, and democratic dictatorship of the proletariat.

    Following the Bolshevik revolution in Russia of 1917 the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat for Russia and the Ukraine ordered all farm land organized into collective farms. Thousands of small (peasant) Russian farmers resisted. Many were executed by the proletariat central government. Ukrainian farmers rebelled at the order. That same government executed thousands of these farmers and took family members hostage to ensure compliance. The order was intended to increase food production and update farming practices. But the long cultural traditions of Russian and Ukrainian peasant farmers stopped that effort almost immediately and lead to years of civil war and bloodshed. At the same time the revolutionary goals of an ambitious new socialist nation impeded efforts at compromise.

    So, who are the bad guys and who are the good guys in this story?

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