5 June 2019

UN-backed eco-activism threatens to turn back the clock on development

By Chris Bullivant

There is a new crisis afoot in African development.

The continent has the potential to become a development success story: expanding its own agrarian economy, building infrastructure to allow for the export of not just raw foodstuffs but manufactured food goods to markets around the world.

The potential growth of commerce, leisure, education and the middle-class will affirm domestic institutions and stable governments, allowing independent nations to trade with each other within the Continent, and in time compete with developed countries outside of it.

Critical to this potential success is letting Africa use the modern farming technologies that are available to everyone else.

But there is a counter-vision to this one of prosperity: one being pushed aggressively by the UN, even making aid contingent upon its adoption: agroecology.

Agroecology is an approach to agriculture that was cooked up in the classroom and moved out to the farm by activists from across academia, NGOs and the organic food industry.

It aims to turn worldwide agriculture into a “form of resistance to the economic system that puts profit before life” (that’s a quote from the Declaration of the International Forum of Agroecology back in 2015).

Under agroecology rules, farmers must not use modern pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, genetically modified organisms, gene editing or labour-saving modern technology that would increase yields.

And across Africa, the approach would be to disconnect and shield farmers from a global, industrialised food industry. It’s a vision that is as sentimental as it is impractical, a deliberate decision to turn the clock back on agricultural technology. The question is, how far?

Agroecology experts denigrate the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, which saved a billion lives through the use of modern crop technology that boosted harvests in food insecure India and elsewhere. And yet, if the entire world were to adopt pre-1960s agricultural techniques we would have to designate the entire landmass of Russia for the production of food to meet current demand, let alone to feed a projected global population of 10 billion people by 2050.

Advocates admit, celebrate in fact, that implementing agroecology across the EU would reduce agricultural output by 35 per cent.

But agroecology enthusiasts wants to push progress even further back than the 1960s. According to the Declaration, the movement aims to create a “peasant culture” agriculture, of “indigenous people” and the “artisanal fisherman”. It imagines everyone working together as a “collective”, with short supply chains in an urban-rural balance.

This might sound idyllic to some people, but by trying to reduce mechanisation in farming, the agroecology lobby are really threatening to take us back to a pre-industrial food system.

There’s no knowing where this kind of thing could go – after all, why stop with agriculture?

As Nairobi gears up for the 1st International Conference on Agroecology what other twentieth century technologies might it want to ban across Africa in its return to peasant culture: cheap clothes made from synthetic materials, antibiotics, vaccines, radio, the landline, TV, mobile phones, cars?

What other technologies from the industrial revolution onwards should be outlawed as unnatural and industrialised: anaesthesia; the steam engine, locomotives and railways; the pneumatic tyre; mass produced cotton clothing; electricity, the telegraph and the light bulb?

The deadlier truth is that agroecology romanticises a time before the Age of Discovery. The movement is anti-international trade and wishes to see short supply chains only.

For Africa this would mean isolating the continent from the rest of the world. Rather than a progressive vision of African development, the imposition of agroecology would condemn Africa to something akin to the European Dark Ages of failed crops, short lifespans and plague, with village collectives ruled by a mighty overlord: in this case an NGO.

It is to revert to technologies and societies present on the eve of Columbus setting sail for the New World, when the global population was 461 million. Technological and social developments since then have allowed for a rapid expansion of the global population to today’s 7.2 billion. If we were to adopt agroecology worldwide then perhaps 6.8 billion of us would need to die, or move to Mars.

But for all its manifest flaws and contradictions, agroecology is already dominating the policy agenda of the UN body responsible for eradication of hunger across the globe, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The FAO is working to pioneer this new approach in developing countries through conferences in Mexico, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya under its ‘Scaling Up Agroecology’ programme, and will be hosting its annual conference at its HQ in Rome this month.

There are perhaps two reasons why they are so keen to impose the approach upon the developing world.

The first is that it sets easier targets for the FAO to meet. An agroecology approach puts lower expectations for yield. As long as people are just above starvation level, the FAO is meeting its targets.

The second reason to push this on Africa, is because it is where Africa’s farming is already at. Not only do ‘donor agencies’ have less responsibility to see these countries develop, but now they would have a moral imperative to preserve these traditional subsistence farms. The FAO is effectively setting out to make sure African agriculture never develops beyond peasant farming.

In reality, all agroecology will end up doing is replacing one set of multinational corporations with another: replacing multinational food companies aiming for profitable yields and prosperous farmers with multinational NGOs like Oxfam, and organic food giants who will dictate agriculture policy to keep farmers at subsistence level.

Of course, those advocating these deeply damaging policies are unlikely to suffer their consequences themselves.

It is telling, after all, that this month’s international agroecology conference in Nairobi is at a safari hotel with fresh fruits and continental breakfast, bottled water, cotton bed sheets, electricity, wifi, computers, phones, and will be full of educated, vaccinated delegates who will have arrived by planes, trains and cars.

They have, oddly, not decided to meet in a series of mud huts and to spend the week walking to wells to irrigate crops and following FAO directives to crush fallarmy worms between their fingers to deal with an invasive species devastating hectares of African and now Indian crops.

Those who are on the edge of a great breakthrough in human and social development across Africa are being coerced into a 14th Century lifestyle by a UN agency. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. In 2015, the FAO gave Venezuelan President, Nicolas Maduro, a commendation for meeting a millennium goal of halving malnutrition, during a crippling food shortage for millions of Venezuelans. In Venezuela, thousands find themselves corralled by armed police as they line up for food handouts. It is a vision of where the FAO would take not just Africa, but all of us should they truly ‘Scale Up Agroecology’.

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Chris Bullivant has worked for think tanks and NGOs dealing with health and welfare reform