Seeding a green revolution

By Michelle Chen Apr 22, 2009

On this Earth Day, those of us living in a world of carbon offsets and tempeh may want to step back and contemplate the most environmentally burdened communities, at home and abroad, for whom sustainability isn’t a matter of lifestyle but a question of survival. The global food crisis is one sustainability issue that weaves together issues of migration, climate change and structural inequality. The debate is continually fed by a toxic mix of business, politics and privilege. At the inaugural G-8 Farm Summit in Italy, agricultural ministers of the world’s major economies began mapping out plans for reforming the global food system. One of the familiar key themes was ramping up production through “free trade” and more sophisticated farming technology. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has questioned this approach, arguing:

A focus on trade liberalization sadly ignores a right-to-food agenda that prioritizes the role of small farmers (including women), improved access to food and climate-friendly agriculture. Developing infrastructure and resilient food systems, not more food production, is what is most needed in this time of crisis.

Outside of mainstream food politics, activists say agricultural crises in the Global South reflect a crisis of democracy, and local self-determination has to be part of the solution. The Oakland Institute, a progressive think tank, recently analyzed a large-scale campaign to fix the agricultural dilemmas facing African nations, concluding that the “green revolution” touted by well-heeled philanthrophic crusaders are in fact harming communities and undermining habitats.

In the mainstream media, their voices calling for technology to save Africa drown out the genuine voices of farmers, researchers, and civil society groups, and these spokespeople build support for efforts such as [Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa]. But there is widespread questioning of and opposition to technology-based solutions to hunger and poverty, especially genetic engineering of agriculture, in Africa. Africa has been largely united against [genetically modified] crops, opting instead for comprehensive policy interventions supporting family farmers to produce and trade their crops in a sustainable manner.

The Institute also argues that the proposed solutions ignore “the structural factors responsible for hunger and poverty in Africa,” including destructive policies imposed by international financial institutions and widespread deregulation in the agricultural sector. Challenging the idea that new technology and genetic modification are the key to sustainability, the Institute’s research on “ecological farming” found that organic agriculture, if implemented properly, could meet productivity needs, conserve resources, and foster self-sufficiency for local farmers. In the industrialized world, environmentalism is often framed as a moral battle between human consumption and the natural world. Yet to people elsewhere, who have been doubly ravaged by human greed and ecological devastation, the green revolution has taken on shades of colonization, and a monotonal “green” movement may be choking off grassroots action. Image: Terrace rice farming in the Cordillera mountains of the Philippines (Dan Chung / Guardian UK)