BOSTON, Aug.31 (IPS) – As the United Nations prepares for its Food Systems Summit on September 23, the urgent need for structural changes in the way we grow, harvest, distribute and consume food has never was also obvious.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) annual hunger report, released on July 12, the world experienced an almost unprecedented increase in severe hunger from 2019 to 2020. L The agency’s annual estimate of “undernourishment” showed an increase of up to 25% from 2019 levels, to between 720 and 811 million people.
Sub-Saharan Africa has seen up to 44 million more people suffer from severe undernourishment, leaving 30% of the continent’s people to struggle to feed their families. According to FAO estimates, 66% of the continent faced “moderate or severe food insecurity” in 2020, up from 51% in 2014, an increase of 244 million food insecure people in just six years.
You wouldn’t know from listening to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which released its 2020 annual report the same day the FAO sounded the alarm. After noting the challenges of COVID-19 and climate change, the report speaks of “evidence of improved productivity, better crop quality, higher incomes and more months of food from surpluses” .
Unlike FAO’s well-documented data, AGRA’s “evidence” was a hastily-compiled shoddy body of data, presented with carefully chosen examples to show progress. (See my analysis of the AGRA report here.)
AGRA appears to live in a different world from poor rural Africans, oblivious to the documented shortcomings of its technology-driven approach to agricultural development. AGRA leaders and donors seem unaware that the number of critically undernourished people in sub-Saharan Africa has increased by almost 50% since AGRA’s inception in 2006.
This is why African farmer, faith-based and community organizations are now questioning AGRA’s flawed model, calling on donor agencies and foundations to stop funding this 15-year-old initiative.
Business as usual at the Food Systems Summit
The COVID-19 pandemic was of course largely responsible for the surge in hunger in 2020, but climate change and conflict have also contributed. The same is true of misguided agricultural policies.
It was the sixth consecutive year of increasing undernourishment, a trend that prompted UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutierres to convene the Food Systems Summit this year. The world was clearly not on track to meet the fundamental sustainable development goal of ending severe hunger by 2030.
The summit has been mired in controversy from the start. Gutierres has been widely criticized for his partnership with the World Economic Forum, the business elites who meet each year in Davos to discuss the problems of the poor world, sidelining the Rome-based UN agencies that typically run these issues. . He compounded the legitimacy crisis by appointing AGRA President Agnes Kalibata as a special envoy to lead the summit.
Major civil society networks and organizations boycotted preparations for the summit, which were denounced for promoting technological solutions offered by companies while failing to promote the right to food – and COVID and climate change – in the center of the agenda. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Michael Fakhri, recently issued a scathing review.
The summit’s usual approach, with its Nairobi-based staff holding virtual “dialogues” and examining “breakthrough solutions” to food system failures, seemed deaf to FAO’s strong alarms. The most serious hunger remains in rural areas of developing countries.
The failure of the Green Revolution in Africa
Over the past 15 years, the Green Revolution has been the dominant approach in Africa. AGRA led the charge from its headquarters in Nairobi, with $ 1 billion in funding, much of it from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but also with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and a small number of bilateral donors. African governments have contributed in waves of subsidies to farmers – up to $ 1 billion a year in total – to buy what the Green Revolution sells: commercial seeds, fertilizers and other inputs.
The Green Revolution’s “theory of change” is as simple as it is flawed: putting seeds and fertilizers in the hands of small farmers. They will see their yields double, as will their income from the sale of surplus crops. And they will become food secure because of the food they grow and can now afford to buy.
Evidence suggests that none of this happened. Adoption rates for new expensive seeds and fertilizers remain low, even though governments subsidize farmers’ purchases. Many of those who adopt have failed to achieve significant yield increases, even in favored crops such as corn. Few have seen their income increase from the sale of growing surpluses; some found themselves in debt after a bad harvest. And food insecurity has increased from its already alarming levels.
It is less a theory of change than a proven path to persistent hunger.
The violin in Nairobi
AGRA is set to unveil what it will undoubtedly present as a bold new strategy. But AGRA is likely to do little more than change its current strategy, as it has done before. The mistaken premise that commercial seeds and fertilizers can dramatically reduce hunger and poverty in rural Africa through a productivity revolution remains unchanged.
Emperor Nero played the violin as Rome burned down. AGRA should stop hacking around Nairobi as more Africans go hungry. And donors should listen to African civil society leaders and say no when AGRA claims to speak on behalf of Africans and asks for millions of dollars more for its flawed strategy.
Timothy A. Sage is Senior Advisor at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and author of Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food.
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