About brown and green food revolutions, grasses and food crops
If the lives of a group of people are at stake, “Women and children first” implies that the lives of women and children are to be saved first. If the lives of hungry and malnourished people are at stake, those of women and children are to be taken care of first. That was one of my thoughts after reading Shannon Horst’s article entitled:
Africa needs a brown (not green) food revolution
Africa’s long-term food security will come from nurturing the soil, not manipulating expensive seeds
in The Christian Science Monitor on July 6, 2010 (re-posted on this blog).
First of all I want to confirm that I agree with most, but not all, of Shannon’s excellent points. One of my remarks is that some of her views are too generalized:
- I do not believe that all Western initiatives to help Africa risk to cause more damage to that continent. Not all these initiatives are ‘grounded in manipulating seeds and increasing synthetic fertilizers to improve production’.
- It is my sincere conviction that nowadays not all the aid groups ‘put more money, more science, or more business savvy behind the same old approach’. If this were the case, it would mean that ‘all scientists are looking in the wrong direction’. If Shannon Horst is a scientist herself, she certainly feels accused as much as I am by that statement.
- Not all the scientists ‘are focusing on how to grow bigger, more, and disease- and pest-resistant plants’.
- Not all the scientists ‘focus on how to manipulate the plants rather than how to produce both healthy plants and healthy soil’.
I therefore take for granted that Shannon Horst is aware of the content of my contributions on three of my blogs: https://desertification.wordpress.com, http://containergardening.wordpress.com and http://www.seedsforfoood.org.
While manipulating seeds and increasing application of synthetic fertilizers to enhance plant production can be qualified as ‘looking in the wrong direction’, these two points do not cover fully the content of what is called the Second Green Revolution. There are no strong arguments to sustain the idea that the totality of this agro-industrial model ‘would further destroy Africa’s soil and water in the long run and exacerbate the problems: food insecurity, bare land, soil erosion, increased drought and then flooding when the rains finally do come; increased pests and invasive plants; and the collapse of the river systems and groundwater stores’.
Even at an overripe apple there may still be some tasty pieces!
So, let us not blame all the ‘Western’ scientists to be part of what Shannon is seeing as some destructive machinery, called the Second Green Revolution, described as exclusively using technologies to boost farm yields.
Very fortunately, we all know numerous people, men and women, scientists, aid workers, members of international, national and non-governmental organizations, who are not looking in the wrong direction. They are working continuously hand-in-hand with the rural and urban population on the African continent, like on all the other continents. By the way, we certainly know many respected scientists, whose research work has been contributing or still contributes to the improvement of the living standards of the poorest human beings. Many of them developed excellent and constructive methods or models, successful practices and inputs, applied in all kinds of development programs for the welfare of farmers and townspeople.
Grassland or farmland, or both?
Grasslands are dominated by grasses. Grassland with scattered individual trees is called savanna.
Savannas cover almost half the surface of Africa (not 70 %). They are characteristic for warm or hot climates with an annual rainfall from about 50 to 125 cm (20-50 inches), concentrated in 6 or 8 months of the year, followed by a dry period when fires can occur. The soil of a savanna is porous, rapidly draining water. It has only a thin layer of humus, which makes it inappropriate for agriculture.
Farmers sometimes fell small parts of forests, burn the trees, and plant crops for as long as the soil remains fertile. When the field is abandoned a couple of years later grasses take over and a savanna can be formed.
Elephants can convert woodland into grassland in a short period of time. Shannon Horst is right in saying that ‘Africa’s once vast, healthy savannas were produced by the hoofs and manure of vast herds of grazing animals and pack-hunting predators’.
Some activities are seen as environmental concerns regarding savannas: poaching, overgrazing and clearing of the land for crops. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine that people aiming at a Second Green Revolution would ever plan to turn all those grasslands (half of Africa!) into crop fields, risking the creation of another Dust Bowl or the collapse of all the grasslands.
As savannas are covering half of the African continent, the rural populations of these savannas are indeed ‘pastoralists or agropastoralists who do not farm’, although many of them do have a small garden. Do we really suspect the international organizations or the big agri-business to plan the transformation of these pastoralists into farmers?
If half of the rural populations of Africa are pastoralists, the other half must be farmers. If half of the continent is covered with savannas, the other half of Africa’s landscape must be farmland in tropical or temperate climate, humid, semi-humid, arid or semi-arid climate zones.
I believe that neither ‘Millions have already been spent by US and European aid organizations throughout Africa on unsuccessful farming programs’, nor that ‘these approaches to increasing food security focus on production without considering the social, economic, and biological consequences’.
To the best of my knowledge, many successful programs and projects with contributions of numerous famous international scientists, with expertise in their different disciplines and belonging to highly qualified institutes and research centers, have been set up in collaboration with the very best national experts, to improve agricultural and horticultural practices in almost every African country. It is not even thinkable that all these programs merit the qualification ‘destructive’.
On the other hand, I gladly take Shannon’s point on the interesting aspects of Allan Savory’s work on the role of livestock for animal husbandry. My high esteem and appreciation go to his remarkable findings.
However, I must admit that I have a lot of difficulties to understand how Savory’s findings on ‘educating local people in practices that blend some older pastoral knowledge and techniques of animal herding with new understanding of how grazing animals, soils, plants, and organisms coevolved and function in a healthy state’ are applicable on Africa’s 50 % of farmland, an ‘ecosystem’ that is so completely different from grassland that the two impossibly can be compared.
Finally, I want to congratulate Shannon for her closing remark:
‘Does this mean we should not support technological innovation? Of course not. But what we must do is find and support those technologies that not only solve a problem or achieve an objective, but also maintain or enhance the social, financial, and biological fabric of the whole system over the long term’.
If we accept that farmland and grassland are two different entities, with their own intrinsic finality, having a natural tendency to pursue their own good, one should treat them differently according to the traditional (local) knowledge. That knowledge can be optimized by combining it with modern technologies, aiming not only at improving the live of ALL the rural people, farmers and herders, but also that of the urban people, who will participate in the success of a revolution, be it a brown or a green one, ‘enhancing the social, financial, and biological fabric of the whole system over the long term’.
Honestly, considering all this, I believe strongly that one should first improve the live of women and children in Africa. Women deserve it to get a better live, because they play a key role in the ‘social, financial, and biological fabric’. Children deserve it, because they carry the future of a continent in themselves. Therefore, child malnutrition is a real shame.
The most important challenge for Africa is to improve food security, both on farmland and on grassland. All over this beautiful continent women and children should sit first at the table.
Carole Gonzalez commented on this link:
“Wow, that is interesting. My “yes – but” – is that growing food plants in containers in villages is an adjunct to improving the grasslands. There is much to be said for a paleo diet. I am diabetic and must follow it to be healthy. Some but not much fruit, mostly green vegetables and meat must compose my diet. I am looking to send Patrick Harry in Malawi some seeds of trees that grow well under arid circumstances and produce fruit without much or any care. “
Frank Ziddah commented on this link:
“Tons of “super” seeds of rice, maize, cassava and other local staples in various parts of Africa are made available by international development agencies every now and then. The problem with their programmes is that those agencies and their regional or local partners fail to effectively market and convince farmers [mostly educated] to make the switch. Hence, a year or so later adoption and usage rates are not surprisingly [very] low. In short, their efforts fail. Going forward I would suggest a 2-prong approach: better soils + better seeds. “
Frank Ziddah Having read the post at scribd, I must agree to your concluding remarks “the most important challenge for Africa is to improve food security,” using solutions suited to Africa’s soil and ecosystem.
Tony Simeone commented. Very informative exchange that clearly articulates your interest and philosophy on land use – AND recipients of benefits.