‘The Green Revolution reaches its limits’

Stig Tanzmann is a farmer and adviser on agricultural issues at ‘Bread for the World’. Jan Rübel interviewed him about his reservations about AGRA's strategy.

Ich bin ein Alternativtext
What helps the small farmers? "From our point of view hybrid seeds aren’t effective for small farms", Stig Tanzmann says. © Jörg Böthling/GIZ

By Stig Tanzmann

Stig Tanzmann ist Landwirt und Agrarwissenschaftler und arbeitet seit 2010 als Referent für Landwirtschaftsfragen bei Brot für die Welt.

Stig Tanzmann is a farmer and agricultural scientist and has been working as a consultant for agricultural issues at Brot für die Welt - Evangelical Developmental Service since 2010.

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Brot für die Welt (BfdW)

Brot für die Welt

"We don’t see ‘Green Revolution’ as a future model"



Mr. Tanzmann, why do you see AGRA as a ‘sinister alliance’?

Stig Tanzmann: We see a lot of issues with AGRA because of its handling of difficult political approaches. We don’t see ‘Green Revolution’ as a future model, but problems that continue to manifest themselves.



With the ‘Green Revolution’ in Africa or in general?

In general. We and our partners work based on different principles and see how the ‘Green Revolution’ reaches its limits or even failed several decades ago in various parts of the world. In India, for example, a country that is very much committed to the ‘Green Revolution’, the ongoing decline can be observed very closely. Unfortunately, in Germany far too little is reported about the devastating situation in Indian rural areas. At the end of November there were big farmers protests in the streets of Delhi again. Of course, this raises the question: why is the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) now investing in the promotion of the ‘Green Revolution’ in Africa, where it didn’t work out the first time around? And there are many known issues with the approach globally.



When was the first attempt?

The ‘Green Revolution’ has been a comprehensive programme since the 1950s and 1960s, and starting in the 1970s it was also attempted in Africa. But it could not gain ground in Africa. If it starts again today, alternatives will be put under pressure. AGRA is supported by funding programmes and policy approaches that restrict alternative agroecology and organic farming programmes in Africa, which the BMZ also supports.



Will the farmers then have the freedom to choose independently?

An example: As part of its political efforts, AGRA exerts a specific influence on national and regional seed legislation. These laws usually come down to the simple fact that only certified and approved seeds may be marketed. And this means that the farmer's own seeds don’t fit the category because they don’t meet certain conditions of approval, such as the so-called DUS criteria for homogeneity and stability. Consequently, these rural cultivation systems are discriminated against. From our point of view, we prefer diverse breeding approaches. We have nothing against certified seeds or the protection of the interests of breeders. However, the farmer systems can’t be excluded. In 2015, the BMZ and GIZ (German Society for International Cooperation) once published a helpful study on these issues. Implementing the results of this study under AGRA would mitigate or remove many of our concerns.



"Farm-saved seeds are being made illegal"


Would the rules be so strict that this happens?

In Malawi and other countries, when these laws are adopted, it means that farm-saved seeds are being made illegal. In Tanzania, farm-saved seeds can only be traded locally in the respective district. The BMZ would have to deal more with problems like that. Because even in the ‘Green Innovation Centres’ of the special initiative 'One World – No Hunger' (SEWOH) pushed by the Ministry, there is always a crop that doesn’t match a commercial seed sector. You can’t simply throw the baby out with the bathwater.



Now, a large part of the farm-saved seeds are cultivated for their own use. Locally, there wouldn’t be much of a change then.

We support the exchange of seeds. If a farm-saved seed proves to be particularly well suited, it must be passed on through exchange and sale. We certainly don’t demand an absolute subsistence economy: If the smallholders can’t sell their own seeds, it limits them.



But that does not invalidate commercialisation in itself?

No, we’re not opposed to it. But the settings must be right, so that smallholders benefit from it. Article 9 of the Seed Agreement of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation (FAO) guarantees, amongst other things, the so-called farmers’ rights: to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed. In other words, the right to sell their farm-saved seed. Of course, this is a commercial act. Our partner organisation Navdanya in India, which has built up a network of well over a hundred local seed banks and is globally known for its work in the preservation of traditional and farm-saved seeds, encourages the participating farmers to sell their seeds as well. I could name many examples from our partner spectrum here.



A farmer himself: Stig Tanzmann, adviser on agricultural issues at "Bread for the World". © Hermann Bredehorst/Bread for the World


"AGRA campaigns for political processes that eliminate the farmers´rights"


AGRA claims to focus on smallholders in particular.

Yes, I definitely want to give AGRA credit for it. But the funding should be designed so that there can be other approaches as well – and that’s where I have my doubts. In its policy efforts regarding seeds, AGRA often campaigns for political processes that then result in seed and plant variety protection laws that virtually eliminate the farmers' rights. So, in reality they make commercialisation of farm-saved seeds impossible and serve only breeding companies and corporations, but not farmers.



AGRA's position is that the existing systems should continue to coexist ...

... but then they should not push for exclusionary legislation, as in the case of seeds.



AGRA works locally with small and medium-sized seed producers. The big multinationals are not there.

But these laws work well for the multinationals. Cooperations of multinationals are increasing in Africa. And the medium to large seed producers in Africa have either been acquired by the multinationals or work with them in close cooperation. That will certainly continue to increase. How does that leave room for the farmers? Farm-saved seeds are very relevant in many places. It accounts for 80 per cent and has great cultural significance. And this sector receives almost no government support, and it has been working successfully for 30 years and longer. Why not start there?



Why not give smallholders the freedom to choose between their own seed and other seed?

We don’t consider that a key issue. More offers are always good. But other options are not promoted at the same time; instead they are practically limited by AGRA's policy on farm-saved seed systems, as I just explained. The BMZ needs to take a closer look to see which legislative changes have which consequences and how to truly create freedom of choice. I can only recommend ‘sui generis’ legislation in this case. There are significant studies on how to specifically design such laws. The aforementioned study by APBREBES (Association for Plant Breeding for the Benefit of Society) was even presented at a GIZ event as an example of how to implement the previously mentioned BMZ/GIZ study. If AGRA had really seriously dealt with the problems and successes of the ‘Green Revolution’ in other parts of the world, they would have had to use the ground-breaking Indian laws as an example for political seed efforts. The only reason why the farmers of Navdanya sell their seed so successfully because it is all based on a sensible legal framework.



In the end, there is nothing against using hybrid seed as well, right?

We’re not counting on it because we find it extremely difficult in the smallholder context, and especially in Africa. Every year a new batch has to be purchased, which can become financially dangerous for small businesses. Even if it works well for three or four years, one bad harvest can quickly trap the farmer in debt.



It carries risks, but also great potential through higher productivity.

I don’t agree with that. There are also non-hybrid seeds that are similarly productive and do not create dependencies. The areas are usually rather small: The amount to be commercialised and monetised with a surplus yield is often insufficient to successfully operate in the medium or long term without subsidies for hybrid seeds and chemicals.



By international standards hybrid seeds are the norm. We are surrounded by hybrid seeds in Germany. Why should Africa choose a different path?

There are many farmers, but also breeders who go a different way. From our point of view hybrid seeds aren’t effective for small farms because it increases their vulnerability. Moreover, the inbred lines necessary for hybrid breeding elude the public seed banks, so even in the medium term, the genetic resources are already privatised. Regardless of the farmers, every state and every society should think very hard as to whether they want to take that risk of dependency.



Even if these companies are initially supported by protective mechanisms?

Now there are many agricultural programmes in Africa again, which is also thanks to AGRA, and the African countries are finally investing more in their own agriculture. But when subsidies, such as the Farm Input Subsidy Programmes (FISPs) are used to support the farms, the question arises: Why is most of the financial volume spent on hybrid seeds and chemical fertilisers, but hardly any of it on agro-ecological/agricultural advice, on improved distribution of farm-saved seed, or on improved breeding support? This question is raised by many farming and rural movements in Africa. The alternative approaches could also increase productivity, as has been documented in other countries.



For example?

In Brazil, they stayed away from hybrid seeds and invested in organic and farm-owned seeds. Consequently, the farmer's breeding reached new levels. We consider the precariousness that is currently required for farm-owned breeding, conservation and propagation not good. It’s really a miracle that it works so well in this state of insecurity and without government assistance. If it was actually promoted, it would have great potential to fairly quickly establish a self-sustaining system that doesn’t depend permanently on subsidies from the agricultural budget. The FISPs programmes that are politically influenced by AGRA are ineffective and cost-intensive from the perspective of our partners.



"It is increasingly obvious that agro-ecological agriculture will be the future"


Farmers are becoming more entrepreneurial. This is how things develop naturally when agriculture is commercialised – and generally speaking, you don’t disagree with that.

Objection. It isn’t entrepreneurial and sustainable if you have to subsidise seeds and fertilisers in the long term, just so that you can afford to buy it in the first place. An entrepreneur strives for independence, not dependence on subsidies. I think this is where AGRA as well as the BMZ are getting things confused. Agroecology would bring much more entrepreneurial independence than AGRA’s current approaches.



The populations in Africa are growing rapidly. This must obviously be accompanied by an increase in productivity – to feed themselves and to reduce food imports, correct? Could all that be done without hybrid and fertiliser?

Of course. By promoting agro-ecological methods, productivity can immediately be massively increased. Unlike the ‘Green Revolution’, however, these successes are sustainable for a long time and there are actually no negative environmental repercussions. In India, the fathers of the ‘Green Revolution’ have taken analysed the procedures and found drastic problems for man and nature. I recommend to read ‘Modern technologies for sustainable food and nutrition security’ by P. C. Kesavan and M. S. Swaminathan. The FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) says the ‘Green Revolution’ has increased yields in the short term, but has not overcome famine and instead created huge ecological problems that are completely out of control. Why then do it all again?



AGRA now claims that it has learned from the mistakes of the green revolution in India and Asia, where mass use of chemical fertilisers has become necessary. In Africa, the focus will be more on the local level, in close cooperation with the farmers – also with traditional seeds, so that not as much fertiliser must be used. Do you believe them?

I don’t want to completely dismiss this awareness of AGRA. However, in terms of seed policy AGRA failed to learn (or at least has not taken it into account) what India has actually done right in this area. But overall, the whole approach is no longer expedient. The concept is simply antiquated. It comes as no surprise that the FAO is focusing on agroecology. The BMZ should simply promote modern approaches other than those of AGRA. Okay, AGRA is taking on a more diverse position than in previous green revolutions. But it would be terrible if that was not the case. In rainfed agriculture, which is the main operation in Africa, it is also critical to ask whether the use of nitrogen fertiliser makes any sense.



By comparison, very little chemical fertiliser is used in Africa. Its proponents see a clear connection with the likewise low productivity.

Much of African agricultural systems suffer because for decades there was no systematic support. From a scientific point of view, it is becoming increasingly obvious that agro-ecological agriculture will be the future. AGRA is a bit antiquated in that sense and out of touch. Today, especially in Africa, you don’t need a system of fertilising with chemicals if you want to increase yields. In recent years, there have been a number of important studies on the potential of agro-ecological production methods in Africa.



Nevertheless, such a transformation of African agriculture in a conventional way would be nothing less than what is considered everyday standard practice in Europe and America. Doesn’t that mean that Africa is deprived of something?

I don’t understand the question. Agricultural systems in the US have catastrophic issues ...



... but they are still conventional.

The agricultural system of the US is definitely not conventional. It builds massively on the reckless use of green genetic engineering. And the problems there stink to high heaven. In 2017, there were massive losses over nearly 1.5 million hectares of cultivated land due to Dicamba drifting away from fields where Dicamba-resistant GM soybeans were growing.

Yes, but there is a transition underway, like here in Germany. The cultivation system trend is moving away from conventional agriculture. The demand for organic products is growing massively and can hardly be satisfied.



That’s also part of a certain trend towards luxury ...

... why should that be considered luxury? From my perspective, it stems from a deep awareness of the problems and long-term consequences of the ‘Green Revolution’.



We are already full and aren’t afraid to go to bed hungry at night.

I don’t quite understand that argument. We have massive problems in Germany, namely an enormous nitrogen surplus, large groundwater issues and a massive extinction of species. European funding flows into a system that is no longer ecologically efficient. And it all comes with spine-chilling consequential costs that hardly anyone talks about. Look at the expensive drinking water treatment plants that are not reflected as externalised costs in the agricultural systems. This list of externalised costs, including social costs, can be continued for a long time, and many people outside the ministries are well aware of this. Why do you think that tens of thousands will take to the streets again on 19 January 2019, in the middle of winter, to demand another agricultural system? AGRA does not inquire about the social and environmental costs of its policy. The BMZ should definitely do it. Regarding the ‘Green Revolution’ in India, these very questions were asked early on. Read the previously mentioned scientific article. AGRA could have focused on these questions and, in my opinion, they also should have.



But doesn’t it make a difference if we select to be more organic here in Germany, with all the choices we have, while in Africa the need is so great that it would take a major force to increase productivity?

There’s a difference in opinion of how an increase in production could be realised. I can’t stand this exclusive tenet that leads people to believe that increased profit is only possible with the ‘Green Revolution’. The ‘Green Revolution’ belief system must be questioned more. We need other ways, because these industrial dogmas have led our planet to its breaking point and beyond. Especially in regards to nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, but also species extinction, the planet’s stress limits have been exceeded for years, if not decades. A link to the ‘Green Revolution’ is hard to deny.

If we want to feed people for the long haul, we need other systems. And if you look at the examples of Europe and America: the high productivity is also an issue as it leads to the enormous exports to Africa – because they are extremely cheap, mainly due to ignoring the ecological costs. How can operations with a size of three to four hectares resist such systems, if the trade issues aren’t addressed in terms of external tariffs.



What exactly is not African about AGRA?

That's not the real question. AGRA was set up by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Gates Foundation and will continue to mainly be funded by non-African funds. Of course, this has an impact on AGRA’s general direction. The more important question is whether AGRA has the sole answer to all African agricultural issues, as we are often led to believe, and whether people are seriously and earnestly addressing the African criticism of AGRA and the ‘Green Revolution’? There are a lot of critical opinions about AGRA from our partner environment, but in my opinion they have not been heard so far.



But nobody is challenging the African character of AGRA. That shined through in a background paper that you co-drafted.

There are still open questions in that regard. But we have to acknowledge: AGRA has an enormous influence on African agricultural policies. Despite all the basic criticism of AGRA's approach, there is no doubt about the positive influence on agriculture and agricultural policy becoming higher priority on the agenda of local politics. In this sense, there is an undisputed Africanisation.



This background paper – is it the official position of Bread for the World?

Bread for the World and its predecessor organisations, such as the Protestant Development Service, have a long history of criticising the ‘Green Revolution’ in general and AGRA in particular. The first critical publication about AGRA was published in 2007 by the Protestant Development Service. While criticising the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Brot für die Welt 2016 once again made a critical comment about AGRA. And of course we have been hearing critical comments from our partner organisations since the founding of AGRA. However, the paper you mentioned earlier was created by Jan Urhahn (Inkota) and me as an author paper on behalf of the Work Group on Agriculture and Food in the Environment and Development forum.



Ich bin ein Alternativtext
What will the future bring? Stig Tanzmann takes a critical look at the work of AGRA. © Jörg Böthling/GIZ

Über den Autoren

Stig Tanzmann

Stig Tanzmann ist Landwirt und Agrarwissenschaftler und arbeitet seit 2010 als Referent für Landwirtschaftsfragen bei Brot für die Welt.

Stig Tanzmann is a farmer and agricultural scientist and has been working as a consultant for agricultural issues at Brot für die Welt - Evangelical Developmental Service since 2010.

Brot für die Welt (BfdW)

Brot für die Welt
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