When progress makes us poorer

Farmer's Weekly (South Africa) - - From The Editor - FW

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.

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