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May 10, 2009

The battle of farming ideas in Africa

by Stephan Faris

Joseph Odiambo walks decisively past eight plots of corn and comes to a stop in front of the ninth. Where the other plants towered sugar-cane thick with broad crisp blades, here the plants are skinny and stunted, draped with yellow-tinged leaves.

The contrast is deliberate, an advertisement for the wares Odiambo sells from his roadside supply shop in western Kenya. While the shopkeeper's robust plots were planted with commercial seed and carefully nurtured with inorganic fertilizer, his sickly specimens are the result of seeds sown in the bare ground. "We wanted to have a control plot, to show the difference," he says.

Odiambo's demonstration plots are an opening salvo in a battle between two very different agricultural philosophies. The goal itself is not in dispute: a healthier, wealthier Africa, one that can feed itself and perhaps even export. Both sides also agree that the solution should be green. The disagreement lies over just what that word means.

To Odiambo's backers, green means agricultural bounty. The Kenyan shopkeeper is one of hundreds of agricultural dealers who have been given credit and training by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a high-profile effort to boost the production of small-scale farmers through better agricultural technology. Funded by the Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates foundations and chaired by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the group takes its name from earlier green revolutions in Latin America and Asia, where the introduction of hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers is credited with rescuing hundreds of 
 millions from starvation.

In Africa, AGRA is funding scientists working on new seed strains, bankrolling the breeders who produce them, and helping wholesalers expand their inventory. Most importantly it's enlisting locals like Odiambo as free-market agriculture extension officers, training them in the proper use of seeds and chemical fertilizers. "The farmer will leave the shop with the product, and also the knowledge of how to use it," says Esborne Baraza, who coordinates AGRA's efforts in western Kenya.

The model is the village of Sauri, a short walk from Odiambo's shop, where seed and fertilizer supplied by Columbia University's Millennium Promise has allowed farmers to reclaim soils that were depleted or weed-infested, expanding cultivated land by 50% and quadrupling maize production. Growers who struggled to feed their families now enjoy surpluses. Within three years, most could afford to buy the inputs themselves.

Yet AGRA also has its critics — those who support a revolution in an entirely different shade of green. For them, the fact that African farming hasn't changed in over a century is a feature, not a bug. It provides an opportunity to replace industrial farming with organic practices that can be just as productive, but far more sustainable.

At the St. Jude Family project in southern Uganda, double-decker animal pens open onto corn, cabbage, bananas and crawling green beans. The earth is contoured to reduce runoff and erosion. Spring onions serve as natural pest control. Legumes fix nitrogen to the soil. Cow manure produces biogas for the farm's stove. Farm owner Josephine Kizza says her project has introduced organic techniques to 180,000 Ugandan farmers. "In the Western countries, organic farming is expensive. But here in Africa, it is very cheap."

There are two ways of tipping a balance sheet into the black: raising revenues or cutting costs. In the tea-growing region of central Kenya farmers trained in simple organic techniques are pursuing the second option. Their methods — raised beds, deep pits for water-harvesting, compost piles, intercropped maize and beans — are a lot of work, but they've allowed farmers to substitute labor for pricey inputs such as fertilizers. Even if yields do nothing more than hold steady, they will still be ahead thanks to lower costs. Before, says farmer John Kamau, 56, "we could not make a profit. Everything would go back into farming."

The case for organic farming is a strong one. A 22-year study led by David Pimentel, a professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, that was published in 2005, found that organic farms produced just as much corn and soybeans as conventional farms. While they required more labor, the cost was more than offset by savings in commercial nitrogen, insecticides and herbicides. In Africa, where labor is cheap and capital scarce, the benefits would be magnified.

According to Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva, past green revolutions boosted production of wheat and rice at the expense of other food. Using land for cash crops, she argues, actually decreased total food production. "You're losing because you're measuring only the single commodity," Shiva says.

Even worse, argue fans of organic farming, the resulting system leaves growers vulnerable to shocks: sudden rises in the cost of inputs, drops in produce prices, unexpected climatic shifts. Artificial fertilizers change the chemistry of the biologically impoverished soils, leaving farmers dependent on their continual application. Indian activists, including Shiva, trace a rise in farmer suicides to an unsustainable dependency caused by India's Green Revolution. "We shouldn't push a model that is viable for 10 years and then collapses," she says.

AGRA, for its part, says it has learned the lessons of Asia's experience. Africa's farmlands are divided into small, impoverished plots and scattered across a diverse ecological landscape. What works just south of the Sahara is likely to be very different from what would be successful in the Ethiopian highlands or the Congolese tropics. Rather than try to impose a transition to large-scale, industrialized agriculture, AGRA is providing small-scale farmers with a variety of products for use in traditional planting. The idea, says Joe DeVries, director of AGRA's seed program, isn't to supplant existing practices, but to supplement them.

DeVries says that organic techniques can be part of the solution, but won't be enough on their own. An American farm uses about 90 lb. (41 kg) of fertilizer per acre per year. In Africa, the average is a little more than 3 lb. (1.4 kg). "In some parts of the United States, overutilization of fertilizer may indeed have become an environmental problem," says DeVries. "In Africa we're seeing that underutilization is the problem." When degraded soil blows away, frustrated farmers turn to the forests for more land. A farmer applying as little as a coke-bottle cap of fertilizer for each stalk of corn could potentially triple his yields — and benefit the environment. "We're not going to deny Africa these technologies," he says. "How could we?"

But activists like Meredith Niles, a campaigner at the U.S.-based Center for Food Safety, point to links between AGRA and agribusiness giants such as Monsanto. "They're clearly tied to the companies that are going to benefit from selling more fertilizer and more seed," says Niles.

In an ideal world, this is a face-off that would benefit Africa. For some farmers, commercial solutions — of the type promoted by Odiambo — will be the best way forward. Others might be better served by organic techniques. The key will be giving each grower the opportunity to make a comparison. So far, the more organized and better backed AGRA is the group getting its message out.

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