Op-Ed: Green Revolution is failing African farmers

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In March, the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI) sent letters to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other donors calling on them to stop funding the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Evidence from a donor-commissioned evaluation, released in February, confirmed the findings of an independent academic assessment that the billion-dollar program was failing to significantly improve yields, incomes or food security for Africa’s small-scale farming households.

Unfortunately, USAID was quick to dismiss the evaluation’s findings, and its support for funding AGRA continued. That is why one of us was among the African civil society leaders who, in March, briefed members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and asked them to stop the appropriation of any further funds for the alliance when Congress reauthorizes the Global Food Security Act later this year.

Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.,) Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.,) and Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) have sent a “dear colleague” letter to the co-chairs of the House Appropriations Committee asking them to reexamine the funding for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. We thank those members for taking our concerns to heart.

As a multi-faith environmental NGO, SAFCEI works regionally with faith leaders concerned about environmental and climate issues. Those faith leaders represent their communities across Africa and they see what is happening on the ground.

For years, African smallholder farmers have been the supposed beneficiaries of top-down initiatives such as AGRA, which promote the use of commercial seeds and fertilizers and changes in government policies that recent studies show are harming poor farmers and the environment. Farmers lose control over their seeds and become dependent on expensive inputs. The diversity of their crops, and their families’ diets, decline with the promotion of monocultural cropping and subsidized commercial seeds. Their soils become depleted.

Meanwhile, the seed and fertilizer companies are the true beneficiaries, turning public subsidies and support into private profits for major seed and fertilizer companies.

We wrote recently to AGRA donors about this issue, following an open letter sent last May to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, AGRA’s largest funder. Signed by more than 500 African faith leaders and organizations, the letter cites the growing evidence that this model of agriculture is not serving the people of Africa nor creating a climate-resilient future for small-scale farmers. We received no acknowledgment or reply from the Gates Foundation nor most of the other donors to date.

A recent evaluation confirmed poor outcomes for farmers who are recipients of AGRA’s approach, concluding that “AGRA did not meet its headline goal of increased incomes and food security for 9 million smallholders.” In fact, an assessment by a Tufts University researcher who works with us at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy to raise awareness about this issue found that the number of undernourished people in AGRA’s focus countries increased 30 percent since the initiative began in 2006.

In Africa, women farmers form the backbone of farming, often creating and providing nutritional diversity for their families and communities from smallholdings or backyard farming. However, as the donor evaluation pointed out, “Farmers who adopted improved inputs and experienced yield increases were typically younger, male, and relatively wealthier…. [P]roductivity and income gains were also concentrated among these relatively high-resource farmers.”

This finding directly contradicts the stated goals of USAID and other AGRA donors to ensure that their assistance programs benefit smallscale farmers and empower women.

That is why we were dismayed to read that a USAID spokesperson quickly responded to the critical evaluation and pledged continued support for AGRA, stating, “We appreciate AGRA’s response to the report conclusions and concur with their proposed next steps to improve performance outcomes.”

Faith leaders ask USAID to pause, listen to farmers, reconsider that position and stop funding AGRA and other green revolution approaches. We ask that, instead, USAID shift its support to locally-defined, holistic approaches that enable agroecological transitions to sustainable food systems in Africa. Such farming methods work with, rather than against biodiversity, and promote the equitable production and local marketing of nutritious food.

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As people of faith, we believe in working to support those most vulnerable to food insecurity and climate change. We welcome support that is appropriate and provides resources that will make hunger and poverty issues of the past.

We also hope that members of Congress will, when it comes time to reauthorize funding for AGRA later this year, consider our view and that of the many communities that faith leaders represent.

Francesca de Gasparis is the executive director of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI). Rev. Fletcher Harper is executive director of GreenFaith, a grassroots, international, multifaith climate justice organization. He is based in New York City.