New Rice for Africa: Shades of Both a Green Revolution and Food Sovereignty

Daniel Bornstein is a junior at Dartmouth College majoring in Anthropology and Environmental Studies. A contributor to Nourishing the Planet and, he is currently studying in the Gambia with St. Mary’s College of Maryland’s Promoting Educational and Cultural Exchange program.

The New Rice for Africa variety has become part of the debate over whether a Green Revolution is the best approach to ensure food security in Africa (Photo Credit: Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research)

JAMBUR, The Gambia—The dissemination of the high-yielding New Rice for Africa (NERICA) seeds has sparked contention that is a microcosm for a central debate in global agricultural development: does Africa need its own Green Revolution, an effort that 50 years ago saw dramatic productivity increases through the use of new crop technologies in Asia and Latin America?

NERICA, developed by 2004 World Food Prize winner Dr. Monty Jones, is being promoted by the Africa Rice Center mainly in West African countries where rice is a staple food. It is a cross between an Asian variety, responsible for the high yield, and an African variety, which ensures its local adaptability.

West African governments have touted NERICA as a hallmark of a new Green Revolution and as a path to boosting rice self-sufficiency, especially after the 2008 food price spike exposed the dangers of import dependence. On the other side, advocates of “food sovereignty”—centered on farmers’ control over food systems—have voiced strong opposition. The advocacy organization GRAIN has labeled NERICA a “trap for small farmers” who will become vulnerable to expensive chemical fertilizers and seeds, a situation widely cited by critics of the 1960s Green Revolution.

What I’ve found in Jambur, which in 2002 became the first Gambian village to access the new crop, is a much more nuanced picture, one that in fact incorporates elements of each side of the debate. This suggests what a tactical misstep it would be for food sovereignty loyalists to completely remove themselves from engaging with a new variety just because it has become embedded in the discourse of a new Green Revolution.

I have observed, in one respect, an outcome that reveals the dangers of making small-scale farmers dependent on high-input seeds: the expensive price of chemical fertilizer. Farmers here say that in most years they have applied fertilizer at the rate of 4 bags of NPK and 2 of urea per hectare, the amount recommended to them by the National Agricultural Research Institute. But this year fertilizer’s price has jumped and they are cutting back usage by more than half, and seeing yields shrink as a result.

Here lies the problem with the notion that higher yields alone will end hunger in developing countries. A standard mantra talks about addressing the “yield gap” whereby resource-poor farmers are achieving lower yields than farmers of the same crop in the world’s most productive regions. But the yield difference is due in large part to the inability of African farmers to access the very inputs that enable such high production in wealthy countries. So boosting yields simply to close a “yield gap” may involve jeopardizing farmers’ own livelihoods, which is not the right path for agricultural development, especially since it is small farmers themselves who are the most vulnerable population.

Despite that downside, alternative food movements can find in NERICA a characteristic that is a pillar of their agenda: ‘seed sovereignty,’ or farmers’ right to save their own seeds, as opposed to having to purchase seeds. Unlike the hybrid seeds of the Green Revolution, farmers can harvest and re-plant NERICA every season. In Jambur, they are trained on how to harvest the highest quality seeds by the village’s resident farmer expert on NERICA, Omar Bojang, who claims that “nobody in The Gambia knows more about NERICA” than himself—a sign of the farmer-to-farmer knowledge dissemination that, it turns out, is also a top priority of food sovereignty folks. So as outspoken critical voices invoke Vandana Shiva’s notions of “biopiracy” to warn about the African Green Revolution’s erosion of farmers’ control over seeds, we would do well to remember that this simply doesn’t apply to NERICA.

If the movement for a new model for global agriculture becomes intent on attacking anything that has ever been praised by proponents of an African Green Revolution, then it risks missing opportunities to influence the implementation of new varieties in ways that benefit small-scale farmers. Nowhere is this idea better encapsulated than in anthropologist Glenn Stone’s concept of a “science of the gray.”

“This is an odd corner for researchers ethically committed to the welfare of Third World farmers to have painted themselves into—opposing potentially beneficial agricultural strategies or technologies because they might impede a complete transformation of the agricultural system,” Stone writes in a 2005 article. “If the complete transformation never comes, one has relinquished the ability to mitigate the excesses of the extant system.”

Applying this wisdom to NERICA, we must realize that the thrust toward another Green Revolution, associated as it is with some of the most powerful institutions in the world, isn’t going away any time soon. But there are ways to “mitigate the excesses”—pushing for more research on agro-ecological production, and training farmers in seed production and in farmer-to-farmer dissemination.

I’ve heard the argument from activists that playing by the rules of the pro-Green Revolution institution risks co-optation and ultimately dissolution of reform movements. But I’d say that contributing to the prevailing system—no matter how strongly you disagree with its underlying ideals—can actually raise the profile of alternative models, if only because you’re given the space to demonstrate their success.

So as the debate over an African Green Revolution continues to rage, it’s important to keep in mind that the reality will almost certainly lay in the “gray” area, rather than exactly matching one side’s ideological perspective.

In your own work, where have you encountered examples of the “gray” area that may characterize new agricultural technologies? Share them with us in the comment section below.


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