Among commentators on international development, there is no greater pastime than suggesting simple technological cures for all the ills of the African continent. Agriculture is a particularly popular theme, and the latest installment in the New York Times’ Fixes column, “A Green Revolution, This Time for Africa,” by Tina Rosenberg, is an exceptional example of this genre of half-thought out recommendations.
After recounting conversations with researchers developing hybrid drought-resistant seeds, Rosenberg goes on to declare that Africa needs more hybrid seeds, more fertilizers, and more conventional farming if it is going to feed its population. Her prime example of the potential for this kind of agriculture is Malawi, which Rosenberg holds up as an example of the success of even small increases in fertilizer use. And yet, Malawi could just as easily serve as the example for why her recommendations are so irresponsible.
In Malawi, there is a time of year called the “hungry season.” It’s the time when stored maize from the previous year’s harvest has been exhausted and the new year’s maize harvest isn’t ready yet, and so people starve. If the country needs food aid, it’s during the hungry season that it will be needed.
The whole idea of a hungry season conjures images of drought-swept landscapes with tumbleweed blowing in a sandstorm. What is surprising about the hungry season in Malawi though is that it is actually the greenest time of year – it’s the rainy season. Kristof Nordin of Never Ending Food Permaculture in Lilongwe, tells of seeing people dying on the side of the road of starvation during the hungry season – often lying right in front of an abandoned field where wild edible plants grow in abundance.
The problem is that food, in Malawi, means maize. This is the legacy of Hastings Banda, Malawi’s founding father, an authoritarian leader who, coming to power in the wake of the Green Revolution, forced his people to plant maize on a massive scale. In a few years, he managed to change his people’s entire dietary regime. Lost were the traditional African grains of sorghum and millet, harvested at different times throughout Malawi’s twelve month growing season. In their place came one annual harvest of maize and the hungry season. From a complex network of food sources, a homogenous system dependent on one plant was created.
Today forty-six percent of Malawian children under the age of five face chronic malnutrition. Malnutrition causes about half of all child deaths. International organizations and NGOs are fighting back by fortifying sugar with vitamin A, the only hope as long as maize remains the basis of the country’s entire diet. A more diverse agriculture would be a tremendous help in this fight.
Beyond malnutrition though, drought-resistant seeds and conventional agriculture only replace one type of precarious situation with another. Hybrid seeds only work as long as credit is available to buy them, as long as NGO’s continue to subsidize them, and as long as providing fertilizer subsidies remains a priority of donor countries in the global north. Fear of drought has simply been replaced by fear of another global economic meltdown, fear of another change in development priorities on the other side of the world.
This is just what happened in 2008, when rising oil prices lead to rising fertilizer prices and ultimately hunger and riots in countries dependent on foreign markets for their food. Or in Malawi in 2011, when foreign donors cut off funding to the government to protest corruption in the midst of a major currency shortage and fuel crisis, exacerbating a precarious situation that left ordinary citizens waiting in lines for hours and trains with shipments from abroad stopped at the border.
If Malawi is truly going to care for its population and become stronger and more resilient, it is not through greater dependence that it is going to happen but through greater independence. In a report released last October by the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development entitled “Wake Up Before It is Too Late,” the UN made just this recommendation for the whole world, calling for, “a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a ‘green revolution’ to an ‘ecological intensification’ approach.”
This would mean more sustainable soil management techniques, more focus on composting, crop rotation and companion planting. Other studies have abundantly illustrated the benefits of techniques like intercropping as well. All of this would mean using what Malawi already has in order to feed itself, fighting climate change in the bargain.
In the end the question that can’t help but be asked is: Whose interest would another green revolution in Africa serve? Those of small scale African farmers who would find themselves dependent on the international community to survive and fortified sugar in order to be healthy? Those of international corporations who would find a new market opened and subsidized for their products? Or those of governments in the global north who would find themselves with a new level of influence and control over Africa’s internal affairs?
Malawi has everything it needs in order to be sustainable, independent, and healthy. Malawi doesn’t need another green revolution.