A Green Revolution for Africa?

Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” examines the latest World Bank “World Development Report: Agriculture for Development”. I’ve not yead read the source report, but Borlaug highlights the key reasons that have prevented progress in Africa — soils, climate and lack of rivers for irrigation resources — but poor governance in central:

…Environmental degradation in African agriculture has also been much greater. Increasing population pressures have overwhelmed traditional systems of shifting cultivation to restore or recycle plant nutrients. This has resulted in a progressive — and now often dramatic — degradation of the soil resource base, while fertilizer use has hardly increased at all, and is the lowest in the world. Erroneous views about what constitutes sustainable agriculture have polarized discussions about the need for organic and chemical fertilizers, and hindered African governments in setting the right priorities for soil fertility management.

A broader and more integrated perspective is needed for African agriculture, one that focuses on the entire farming enterprise — food and cash crops, livestock and value-added processing. Even so, the World Development Report underscores the importance of transforming staple-food production. Because such crops are the most widely grown, productivity improvements have huge payoffs, both to producers and consumers. Much greater attention must also be given to post-production market linkages — especially to grain markets and agro-industrial food processing that offer off-farm employment opportunities.

Substantially greater investments in infrastructure — roads, electrical power, water resources — underlie all other efforts in rural and agricultural development. Unless infrastructure is improved, there is little hope for real progress in reversing the alarming food insecurity trends or in making agriculture an engine of economic growth.

One World Bank statistic is especially alarming. In Asia, agriculture R&D investment has increased three-fold over the past 20 years, but in Africa, only by 20% (it has actually declined in about half the countries). Building research talent is one of Africa’s most urgent imperatives, and even with adequate investments, this will take time and new vision.

R&D is especially needed to address Africa’s special production circumstances. At least half of the continent’s poor and hungry people are smallholder farmers in marginal lands, where agriculture is more costly and risky due to agro-climatic stresses and/or remoteness from markets. New science and technology, including the tools of biotechnology, will be needed to develop crops better able to withstand climatic stresses such as drought, heat and flooding. Such research will also contribute to helping the world prepare for future production effects anticipated from global warming.

The World Development Report is a milestone contribution to placing agriculture once again at the center of the development agenda. Achieving this priority shift will be fundamental to poverty reduction and sustainable development.