Africa’s farmers and the Chinese green revolution narrative



The Chinese agricultural success story is not only distorted, but it is being misapplied in Africa.

As Sub-Saharan Africa grapples with high food prices in some regions and famine in others, many experts argue that increasing food production through a program of hybrid seeds and chemical inputs is the way to go. This approach, marketed as a New Green Revolution for Africa, is increasingly supported by a triumphal telling of China’s history with this method in the 1970s and 80s. This Chinese success story is not only distorted, but it is being misapplied in Africa.

China’s Great Famine of 1958-61 reportedly killed 36 million people. This was a seminal moment for the country and, from that point forward, producing enough food would be a major priority. China would subsequently increase grain production dramatically between 1960 and 2000, with wheat output increasing eight-fold for example, exiling the ghost of famine to the margins of that country’s collective social imagination.

According to many Chinese and Western observers, these stunning productivity increases were due to two factors. First, the Chinese aggressively embraced a Green Revolution approach. They would both borrow hybrid seeds from the West and develop their own such technologies. Furthermore, they would massively increase nitrogen fertilizer production by importing manufacturing technology, eventually becoming the world’s largest producer of these agricultural inputs. Second, the Chinese adopted a series of more market oriented reforms from the late 1970s, allowing for the decentralization and decollectivisation of agriculture, as well as a rise in producer prices.

Now experts from some the world’s major development institutes and organizations are arguing that Sub-Saharan Africa ought to follow the Chinese example in the realm of agricultural development. They not only suggest that this will increase food production, but that it will build a foundation for future industrial development.

While a renewed focus on African agriculture is welcome (as this is an area that has been ignored for over 20 years), this particular telling of the Chinese success story is distorted and the type of agricultural development being promoted is problematic.

While Chinese agricultural production did, indeed, increase dramatically from 1960 to 2000, it was done at great environmental and social cost. China now faces stagnating production and declining yields which are most likely related to soil degradation due to, among other factors, the overuse of nitrogen fertilizers. Untold is the fact that China had been seriously exploring a bio-intensive path to increasing agricultural production up until about 1972 when it began to gradually open up to the West. From that point forward, the Green Revolution approach would take precedence. Furthermore, while the agricultural reforms of the late 1970s and 80s did allow some peasants to produce more crops, these reforms also led to dramatic increases in inequality in the Chinese countryside.

The current reality is that a rapidly urbanizing China is experiencing major shifts in dietary patterns. With increasing prosperity comes increasing consumption of meat, and a greater need for grain to feed these animals. With stagnating grain production, China needs to find other sources of food around the world.

By pushing for a New Green Revolution in Africa, both China and the West are clear winners. Many Chinese commentators view Sub-Saharan Africa as under populated and land rich. As such, enhancing agricultural productivity on the continent means that it will have more food to export to China, which increasingly needs such imports. Furthermore, the US is home to some of the world’s major seed companies and agrochemical firms. By encouraging an input intensive approach to agriculture dependent upon imported technology, American firms are destined to profit.

Most egregious are long term leases of land (or ‘land grabs’) in Sub-Saharan Africa to foreign entities (often sovereign wealth funds of Middle Eastern, North African or Asian countries, as well as Western hedge funds) for the production of agricultural goods for export. These deals are often ‘sold’ to local publics as a source of employment and as a means to bring the New Green Revolution to Sub-Saharan Africa. The reality is that these leases (often for 50 years or more) essentially allow other regions of the world to export their food insecurity to Africa, or for Western investors to profit from a decade long trend of steadily increasing global food prices.

While China and the West benefit from this New Green Revolution strategy, it is not clear if the same is true for small farmers and poor households in Sub-Saharan Africa. For most food insecure households on the continent, there are at least two problems with this strategy. First, such an approach to farming is energy intensive as most fertilizers and pesticides are petroleum based. Inducing poor farmers to adopt energy intensive farming methods is short sighted, if not unethical, if experts know that global energy prices are likely to rise. Second, irrespective of energy prices, the New Green Revolution approach requires farmers to purchase seeds and inputs, which means that it will be inaccessible to the poorest of the poor, i.e., those who are the most likely to suffer from periods of hunger.

If not the New Green Revolution approach, then what? Many forms of bio-intensive agriculture are, in fact, highly productive and much more efficient than those of industrial agriculture. For example, crops grown in intelligent combinations allow one plant to fix nitrogen for another rather than relying solely on increasingly expensive, fossil fuel based inorganic fertilizers for these plant nutrients. Mixed cropping strategies are also less vulnerable to insect damage and require little to no pesticide use for a reasonable harvest. These techniques have existed for centuries in the African context and could be greatly enhanced by supporting participatory collaboration between local people, African research institutes and foreign scientists.

This is not the first time that Sub-Saharan Africa has been sold a set of flawed policies based on a misreading of another region’s history and experiences. In the early 1980s, the International Financial Institutions convinced African nations to adopt neoliberal economic reforms based, in part, on a particular telling of the economic history of the Newly Industrialized Countries (NICS) or Asian Tigers. African countries were told to focus on exports as the NICS had done and that a free market approach was required to reach that end. What international advisers conveniently neglected to mention was that the export success of the Asian Tigers was also due to generous government support and intervention (not the free market).

Now China is being held up as an Asian Agricultural Tigers for the nations of Sub-Saharan Africa to emulate. Africa’s leaders ought to carefully study their comparative world history before accepting this advice.