Sustainable Intensification in Africa feeds the greedy agribusiness

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Feature story - May 4, 2012
There is an old ironic saying that goes ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’. There is a broader social truth to it: that people, if well fed and nourished, tend to be more content with life.

But for big agribusiness, this old axiom is being turned on its head. These corporations are currently waging an epic PR battle to convince people that their products are what should feed the world – or at least those who can afford them. For agribusiness, the way to a man’s stomach is through winning the hearts and minds of policymakers and consumers around the world.

Nowhere is this hypocritical PR offensive more evident than in Africa. 

Since the food crisis of 2007/2008, global agribusinesses have redoubled their efforts in presenting their production technologies as a solution to ending hunger in Africa. The basic premise is to boost productivity through new policies and investment programmes targeted specifically to small-holder food producers under the guise of 'sustainable intensification'.

What these companies are promoting with sustainable intensification really amounts to a continental-scale sales pitch for their products: namely, patented seed varieties (including genetically engineered (GE) crops) and agricultural chemicals.

Consider this snippet from a Syngenta Foundation report on small-holder agriculture and sustainability in Africa: The low level and stagnation of productivity growth in Africa can be attributed to limited use of irrigation, fertilizer and improved crop varieties – the absence of an African ‘Green Revolution’.”

Hmm. Then there is this from seed company Pioneer: “About one-third of the world’s farmers, some 450 million people, can benefit from a new green revolution that addresses the needs of Least Developed Countries. With only manual farming implements and little or no access to fertilizer or other modern inputs, there are some areas that attain only 20 percent of the yields that are achieved by farmers in the developed world.”

So what’s wrong with this? It is undoubtedly true that small-holder food producers in Africa do suffer from low productivity and little access to improved technologies and production methods. The problem is the high-tech, high-input and high-cost model of farming that they promote, which is utterly inappropriate for the vast majority of farmers in Africa, and indeed for small-holder food producers around the world. After decades of intensification in agriculture, more people go hungry than ever before. As noted by the international non-profit group, GRAIN: “Twenty years of expanding agribusiness control over the food system has generated more hunger – 200 million more people go hungry than 20 years ago. It has destroyed livelihoods – today 800 million small farmers and farm workers do not have enough food to eat.”

We believe that the intensive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, in conjunction with patented ‘improved’ seed varieties, is environmentally unsustainable, economically unaffordable and exacerbates social inequalities.

Worryingly, the multi-billion dollar agribusiness spin is working. Sustainable intensification is now all the rage amongst the international public crop research bodies as well with major donor agencies, multilateral development banks and large philanthropic foundations. The language has even been used in the draft agreement of the upcoming Rio +20 Earth Summit in June.

The state of agriculture in Africa will worsen over the next decades due to impacts of climate change. Without doubt, small-holder food producers need to adapt, but agribusiness solutions prove to be a failure rather than the golden recipe. The solution lies in locally adapted farming methods, in training and in the improvement of ecological farming methods. So if sustainable intensification represents a false solution, the question remains: how can African agriculture be improved to meet the needs of the people?

In Zambia this week, an inspiring conference is taking place highlighting the multiple success stories of organic and ecological farming in meeting the livelihood, food security and sustainability challenges of communities across the continent. We believe that the examples highlighted at this event, and others like it, point the way forward and should be supported by increased investment from national agricultural ministries, international agencies, donors, foundations and the private sector.

The language of sustainable intensification is essentially an attempt by agribusiness to repackage the same old chemical cocktails under a green veneer, marketing their products as the solution, when in fact they are a large part of the problem.

But what many farmers’ organisations and rural development groups in Africa and other parts of the world are realising is that what we need is a massive shift in investment to support an ecological intensification. It is this vision which we support, and for which we will continue to campaign.

To learn more about the ecological solution Greenpeace suggests.

Dr Julian Oram

Senior Political Advisor, Sustainable Agriculture

Greenpeace International (based GP UK)