When progress makes us poorer
Dr Lindiwe Sibanda, vice-president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, tells a story with which many people who grew up, like her, in rural Zimbabwe or in South Africa’s rural areas, can identify. Speaking at the recent launch of the African Research Universities Alliance’s Centre of Excellence in Food Security at the University of Pretoria, she recalled weekends and holidays spent at her grandmother’s house, where her family would eat rich meals consisting of fresh grains, greens, eggs, chicken and goat meat that came from the small parcel of land on which they farmed. It wasn’t a life of abundance, but it was one of sufficiency and satisfaction.
But then progess happened. Inspired by the Green Revolution, a period in the 1960s when agricultural productivity took a giant leap forward thanks to advances in research and technology, many smallholder and subsistence farmers in Zimbabwe were given support to plant their plots with high-yielding maize that could produce a surplus they could sell. This would enable them to grow their operations, and would ensure that there was enough food available not only for the people in rural areas, but also for the growing urban population. Zimbabwe’s early forays into the Green Revolution were derailed by the disastrous land reforms that occurred there. As such, even the supposed progress that was to be the outcome of the Green Revolution never occurred.
Sibanda’s family, and other rural families, experienced the familiar payoff of this drive for productivity above all else, because now, instead of having access to a diverse group of foods, they had to rely on a single staple food: maize. They produced enough to feed their families for a year, and yes, they even had enough to sell. But this was all they had; they no longer had indigenous grains and greens to provide them with sufficient nourishment.
I am not arguing that the world did not gain anything from the Green Revolution, but, make no mistake, this single-minded pursuit of increased productivity has cost us dearly. As a direct result of the Green Revolution there is a nutrition deficit in our global food system and it suffers from a serious lack of diversity and resilience. Worldwide, about 10% of the population experiences chronic hunger; in sub-Saharan Africa, this figure jumps to a quarter of the population, according to the UN’s World Health Organization. Meanwhile, nearly one-third of the world’s population is obese or overweight. Furthermore, despite there being more than 50 000 edible plants in the world, 60% of our energy intake comes from only three staples: rice, maize and wheat.
We should not over-romanticise the type of life that smallholder farmers have, but we should, similarly, not over-romanticise the benefits of stubborn progress.
When we talk about growing the farming sector in South Africa and helping smallholder farmers become increasingly commercialised, which is something we will talk about a lot this year, let’s consider what the reckoning may be for the type of progress we think we want.