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In Need of a Green Revolution: An Interview With Robert Paarlberg
Robert Paarlberg is the Betty Freyhof Johnson Class of 1944 Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College and Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. He has authored multiple books on development, including Starved for Science: How
Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa (Harvard University Press, 2008), Food Trade and Foreign Policy (Cornell University Press, 1985), and Countrysides at Risk: The Political Geography of Sustainable Agriculture (Overseas Development Council, 1996).

Question: In terms of access to agricultural technology, how far do small-scale African farmers lag behind farmers in developed countries?

Answer: They lack almost everything across the board. Farmers in advanced countries exclusively plant modern seed varieties. In Africa, only one-third of farmers use modern seeds, and the rest use the traditional varieties that they have been using and reusing for generations. The traditional varieties are hardy, but they don't respond to water or fertilizer and they don't generate a high yield.

The other obvious deficits are water and fertilizer. In Africa, only four percent of farms are irrigated and fertilizer use in Africa is the lowest in the world. Fertilizer use, on average, is nine kilograms per
hectare, which is only one-tenth the level of the industrial world. And that's one reason that yields per hectare in Africa are only about one-tenth the level of the industrial world - and only about one-third
the level of the developing countries in Asia. African farmers also have no access to electricity or to powered machinery, and many lack access to transportation systems beyond carrying things in and out on their heads. 80 to 90 percent of all household transport for farm families is on foot.

It's an environment that is essentially unimproved by the uptake of any modern technologies, and that is why in Africa the productivity of their labor remains very low. Years ago, there was a Nobel Prize-winning economist named T.W. Shultz who described their circumstances as efficient but poor. Agricultural workers are very careful with every action they take. They cannot afford to waste a thing because they are so poor. They work from dawn until dusk - there is no laziness here - and yet, because they don't have the technologies to increase the productivity of their labor, their average income is about a dollar a day, and one-third of [the workers] are malnourished.

Q: Should reaching parity in agricultural practices with the West then be a top priority of African governments? Are African governments the right vehicle for that push, or should some other actor(s) take the lead?

A: I'm not sure that parity should be the goal. There are some aspects of agriculture in the United States and Europe that I hope the Africans never imitate. The Americans, the Europeans, and the Japanese use too much fertilizer, instead of too little. We [the developed world] have agricultural systems that use too many chemicals rather than too few. We have become excessively reliant on the burning of fossil fuels, engaging in mechanized farming that is much more than any African farmer should
or ever could aspire to. So I wouldn't want parity with the advanced industrial states, but rather a technology upgrade from where they are now.

African governments have to play a role; you cannot ignore them. There are some basic public goods that only governments can provide: rural roads, rural power, schools and clinics, the protection of private property, the maintenance of a sound macroeconomic environment, public investments in agricultural science, public investments to improve technologies for poor farmers who cannot afford to purchase things from private companies, and so on. Private companies are not going to make
investments to improve technologies for poor farmers, because poor farmers make poor customers. It has to be done through the public sector.

That does not mean that there is no role for NGOs or for private foundations. I would argue that their role is first to pressure and to advocate public sector investments that are not being made. For example, in Uganda, the government devotes less than two percent of its budget to agricultural modernization even though 60 percent of Ugandans depend upon planting crops and raising animals for their income. A number of NGOs in Uganda are trying to do everything themselves. However, they
should devote at least some of their time to pressuring the government of Uganda into expanding investment. As long as NGOs realize that they cannot possibly substitute for the role of the government in providing basic public goods and concentrate instead on what they are good at,
which is usually the delivery of private services, then there could be a harmonious relationship between governments and NGOs.

Q: Some NGOs, notably the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM), have been critical of agricultural technology developments, such as the use of nitrogen fertilizer. What motivates these advocates, and is there any validity to their arguments in terms of say, nitrogen fertilizer being detrimental to individual farmers?

A: There is merit to their arguments. In Germany or in the UK, nitrogen fertilizer use is excessive, which can lead to the pollution of ground water, thereby creating medical hazards. In Europe, where farmers use too many chemicals, it is sometimes a useful corrective to have an organic farming movement. The problem is, the model that they want to follow would go from too many chemicals to zero. Their view is that you cannot use any nitrogen fertilizers. You have to replace nutrients in the soil instead by planting and plowing under cover crops, or by collecting and composting animal manure. These approaches work well enough on about four percent of the crop land in Europe in part because
these are more expensive processes that some wealthy European consumers support enough to pay a premium price for crops grown this way.

What African farmers need is not to go from nine kilograms of fertilizer a year to zero; they need to go from about nine to 50 and that is a commitment that agricultural scientists in Africa have made through the New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD). I think that it gets in the way of those sound goals when organic advocates from Europe come in and tell African farmers not to use any nitrogen fertilizer at all. I think that it is an inappropriate export of a European preference into a part of the world that needs more input use, not less.

Q: In your book, Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa (Harvard University Press, 2008), you describe yet another inappropriate export from Europe to Africa: the misperception that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been proven to be detrimental to public safety or the environment, when there is little research to support that position. How pervasive is this view among average African farmers if their governments have bought into strict regulatory processes to support this perception of GMOs?

A: Most African farmers know very little or nothing about GMOs because it is not yet legal for them to plant GMOs. African governments have not yet permitted the use of this technology. The only government in Africa that allows the planting of GMO crops is the Republic of South Africa, which is an exception because it is a temperate zone country and it is still dominated by commercial farmers left over from the apartheid era. In the rest of Africa this technology is being kept at a distance from farmers by governments and regulators who have adopted the European approach of being highly precautionary and making it nearly impossible to get an approval for this technology. They depend upon Europe for
foreign assistance; therefore they want to follow European policy. This is in part because European-based NGOs like Friends of the Earth from the Netherlands campaign against the use of this technology in Africa, and in part because Africa exports a lot of agricultural commodities to
the European Union, so African governments worry that if they start planting any GMO varieties, importers in Europe may stop purchasing goods from that country.

In addition, African governments are anxious about the health and environmental impacts of GMOs. Unfortunately, when European activists campaigning against GMOs go to Africa, they repeat all of the
allegations against the technology, but they never mention the fact that scientific authorities in Europe have thus far found no documented evidence of any new risk to health or the environment from any of the GMOs on the market so far. That is the official opinion of the Royal Society in London, of the French Academy of Science and Medicine, the German Academy of Science and the Humanities, and the Research Directorate of the European Union. They are not significantly different from the conventional crops on the market but Africans seldom hear that; they usually hear only the worrisome scare stories.

Q: So, does this mean that the only hope for changing this anti-GMO mindset in Africa is first a change in European policy?

A: I hope not, because European policy will not change any time soon. The other path would be the development of genetically engineered crops in Africa, specifically tailored to the needs of small farmers in Africa. This path would not be undertaken by private companies like Syngenta, Pioneer DuPont, or Monsanto, but by African scientists working in African research institutes. It would be funded not by companies, but by philanthropic foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The technology that is most promising in this regard is a new genetically engineered variety of corn that is better able to tolerate drought. That is exactly what farmers in Africa need more than anything
else.. If they were able to plant seeds that could do well even when the rains dipped by 20 or 30 percent in the low end, it would help them avoid falling back into poverty. The trick is to take this drought tolerance gene that was discovered by corporate scientists in North America, and with Gates Foundation money, help African scientists transfer this trait into African varieties of corn before selling or giving away these seeds to farmers in Africa. That's a project which will take five years at least, but the Gates Foundation has just announced its plan to spend US$ 45 million to achieve that objective.
And my hope would be that a compelling technology such as this would become available. It would be much more difficult for regulators and governments in Africa to prevent their farmers from acquiring that compelling technology because of the regulatory preferences of Europeans.

Q: Are there any indications in the status quo that this sort of science infrastructure is being developed by Africans?

A: African governments do not have any extra money. They are heavily dependent on foreign assistance and on foreign governments for periodic debt cancellation. They have government workers and army soldiers that need to be paid. They have urban services that need to be delivered. African governments have very little flexibility in their budget to make investments in a long-term project like agricultural research and development.

Historically, African governments have not spent money for agricultural research and development unless it is made available to them by the donor community for that purpose. The problem is - and here we have to blame the US as much as Europe - the donor governments have withdrawn their support for agricultural science in the last 25 years or so. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has reduced its assistance to agricultural science in Africa by 75 percent over the last 25 years. USAID has reduced its assistance to agriculture overall, from approximately 25 percent of its budget in 1980 down to only 1 percent of its budget today. It is therefore no wonder that African governments are not spending enough on agricultural modernization.

Q: You mentioned earlier that only four percent of African agricultural land is actually irrigated. What sort of role can technology play in expanding access to irrigation for drought-stricken regions?

A: Irrigation costs in Africa are much higher than they are in Asia because the topography is less even, the road and power infrastructure for developing irrigation projects is inadequate, and the population density in Africa is much lower than in Asia. The benefits per person of an irrigation scheme tend to be a little lower in Africa than they are in Asia, and that has made it harder for African governments to justify irrigation.

However, if you measure the benefits in terms of poverty reduction, investments in irrigation in Africa are money well spent. The trick is to decide what kind of irrigation works best. Do you build a dam and an irrigation canal system, or do you drill separate wells?, Do you use more traditional low technology water harvesting systems, or do you come up with an intermediate technology, say a foot-powered travel pump that allows you to lift water without electrical power? All these options are available; what is holding them back in Africa is primarily a lack of private sector money and a lack of public sector investments in the countryside. As I said, Uganda spends only one to two percent of its budget on any kind of agricultural modernization. I would like to see more NGOs invest their resources in extending appropriate household scale irrigation systems to farmers in Africa.

Q: At the household level, how do disparities like access to irrigation impact the quality of life on the African farm, particularly in creating conditions of hunger and poverty?

A: In much of Africa, rainfall is destiny for your crops and your livelihood. African farmers need technologies that give them higher yields in good years and stable yields in bad years. Our tolerant
varieties of maize will do that; access to irrigation and fertilizer will do that; and access to veterinary medicine will help protect their animals. They need all of these updates from science to be able to get
through bad years and start accumulating assets, instead of being periodically being pushed back into poverty.

Q: In your article in the International Health Tribune on April 22nd , 2008 you indicated that it's poor investment in agricultural productivity, and not the international rising food commodity prices, that drives pervasive hunger in Africa. Is the rising price of food destabilizing for the agricultural sector in Africa?

A: The rising price of imported food like rice, maize, and corn is a source of acute economic stress for urban consumers who depend upon food purchases from the world market. And it is appropriate to try to respond to these short-term problems with more food assistance, which is what is available presently. Efforts to stabilize international commodity markets by discouraging countries from export bans are driving up the international price. That is also appropriate. But even if you were to stabilize prices for urban consumers in Africa, you would solve only a small part of Africa's food and nutrition problems. 80 percent of those in Africa who are poor and hungry live in the countryside, not in cities. I therefore counsel against taking an urban-centric view of Africa's food problems and focusing only on the current crisis in international market prices. That is only a small part of the problem.

Since more than 80 percent of the population is satisfied from domestic production, unless domestic production is increased, the people in the African countryside are going to remain malnourished regardless of whether we solve the international food price problem. Agricultural food production is dramatically lagging behind population growth. Agricultural production in Africa is 19 percent below where it was in 1970. If we focus only on solving the temporary instability in international food markets without doing anything like raising productivity in the countryside, the projection is that by the year
2080, the number of malnourished people in Africa will triple at the same time that the number of malnourished people in Asia declines by 90 percent. A business-as-usual attitude for agricultural productivity in Africa is not a formula for just standing still in today's unsatisfactory situation; it is a formula for multiplying the number of malnourished people in Africa threefold.

Q: Given how pervasive malnourishment - compounded by problems of global warming - is expected to become in Africa, can we expect to see any African popular movements that would bring about some sort of reactionary change?

A: I would not wait for that to happen. The people in Africa who need more productive agricultural technologies live in the countryside at a distance from the power centers in the city. They cannot demonstrate in the capital city because they are 50 kilometers away. And there is no road to get them to the capital city, so it would be a two-day walk. They are also illiterate and not able to be effective participants in modern political activism. Moreover, they are disproportionately limited and often legally second class citizens, not able to own or control their own assets. Women, children, and the elderly are often stuck in the countryside if the men look for better income opportunities in town. These are not the kinds of people who would be likely to start a violent insurrection.

The average day of a woman in rural Africa is work from dawn until dusk, usually either in meal preparation, tending crops, or caring for children. We complain about too much fast food here. In Africa the problem is too much slow food. The average meal of maize requires African women to first plant the maize. They then have to weed the fields, harvest and store the crops; they then have to strip the maize before winnowing and drying it. They have to pound the maize, then they have to dry it again. To cook the maize, first they have to walk to fetch firewood and water before they can prepare food for their family. This is a set of timely demanding activities; just surviving leaves very little room for political organization and activism.

Q: Is the introduction of simple machinery an easier way to move forward in productivity investment?

A: You need everything, but electrification in rural Africa would be a wonderful improvement. Electrification would be of considerable value in doing any number of village tasks; from pumping water to cutting wood and grinding meal. Every single technological upgrade works synergistically with every other technology upgrade.

One thing that does not work is waiting for the private sector to provide these things. That is one problem we have had in the last 25 years. It has become fashionable during the Thatcher-Reagan era to discourage public sector-led development. Since governments always get in the way of development, the best thing to do is to get the government out of the way. Create a stable macro-economy, get the prices right, and devalue the currency. Then private investment will respond to needs and price signals. All of that is fine, if you have roads, power, public schools, and clinics for basic human health. If you have the public goods that private companies need in order to make safe and secure investments, private companies will commit; but in Africa you don't have those, so you need first of all to deliver the public goods. Only then will the private sector do its job.

Q: Are there any encouraging signs of a "Green Revolution" on the horizon for Africa?

A: The current spike in food prices may trigger a lot of responses that I would label as only temporary band-aid solutions, like giving more food aid. However, these band-aid solutions are dramatizing the needs of African countries and giving more urgency to the imports of long-term investments. Thus far, the United States has not done as much on this front as Great Britain. Prime Minster Gordon Brown has already promised larger investments in agricultural development in Africa. The World Bank is finally waking up to this problem after allowing the agriculture share of its lending to shrink to only eight percent of its portfolio. The new World Bank president, Robert Zoellick, has said that he is going
to more than double bank lending for agricultural development in Africa. If high prices trigger these kinds of responses, and if significant new investments are made, there is nothing to stop Africa from seeing its productivity climb.