Posted by: Home Strange Home | September 26, 2009

Africa Left Out of the Green Revolution

According to the United Nations, one billion people in today’s world go hungry.  How is this possible that so many people remain unfed, given all the technological and agricultural advances that have been made in the past fifty years?   The Green Revolution made it possible for food production to match population growth and, in theory, for no one to go hungry.  

The Green Revolution began in Mexico in the mid-1940s with efforts to increase wheat production through the breeding and development of new high-yield varieties (HYVs) of wheat that are resistant to plants and diseases and yield two to three times more grain.  This program, led by the “father of the Green Revolution,” Norman Borlaug,  was later expanded to India and Pakistan in the 1960s and China in the 1980s.  It was widely considered to be successful in preventing further food shortages.   

In addition to the development of HYVs (mostly of wheat and rice), the Green Revolution also involved the financing of the accompanying agrochemicals and capital equipment needed to grow the new varieties, including pesticides, fertilizers, and irrigation systems. 

Unfortunately, the success of the Green Revolution has not been replicated in Africa, where hunger remains widespread, drought is a common cause of food shortage, and agricultural productivity growth has actually slowed.  Why is this the case?  There are a number of factors. 

Firstly, most HYV crops require irrigations systems, which remain scarce in Africa; most African farms lack the technology to support HYVs.  Many crops in Africa are still rain watered, making them particularly susceptible to drought.  Moreover, the lack of infrastructure makes the cost of moving fertilizers to farms very high as well as making it difficult to bring the grain to the market once it is harvested.  In addition, the soil quality is poor in many regions. 

In addition to such physical and technological factors, many argue that political factors such as food aid come into play.  The dumping of surplus crop produced in western markets which harbor excessive farm subsidies is said to undermine and undercut third world agricultural markets, making Africa dependent on food imports and aid.   Ironically, despite agriculture being the backbone of most African economies, Africa is today a net food importer.  

But it is worth nothing that famine is not simply about the quantity of food, but the distribution of that food.  In many instances, there is not an actual lack of food in a country, but a lack of the means to acquire that food among certain segments of the population, usually due to the failure of public action, political issues, or other social constructions.  Amartya Sen has argued that the large historic famines were results of socioeconomic dynamics rather than an absolute shortage in food supply.  

Sources: interview with Dr. Norman Borlaug,, and The New York Times.


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