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Foro Global sobre Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutrición • Foro FSN

Re: Sustainable Development Goals - your story of creating a food secure world

Helga   Vierich-Drever
Helga Vierich-DreverYellowhead Tribal CollegeCanada

The Green Revolution, especially use of improve varieties and chemical fertilizers and other inputs, is one such wizardry of ecological upward manipulation. Adding chemical fertilizers and other inputs to crop varieties vastly improved by the breeder’s art: experimental crosses and hybridization, was among the factors credited with averting starvation in the last decades of the 20th century. 

I worked for a Green Revolution Institute, the International Crops Research Centre for the Semi-Arid Tropics, (ICRISAT) during the 1980s. There I found a common assumption that people in subsistence economies, in developing nations, were suffering frequent short falls of food production. it was also assumed they had hit a ceiling of carrying capacity: they were not able to keep up with their rising population. Adding improved crops, augmenting soil fertility with chemical fertilizers, and yield improvement though other inputs like herbicides, pesticides and fungicides; these were the wizard’s gifts to prevent famine and starvation.  

Here is my own dilemma: I did not find starvation within the rural areas where I was stationed in Burkina Faso, which was then one of the poorest countries in the world (lowest $.day figures). 

My genealogical data indicated that for the period prior to aobut 1960, a rate of infant and childhood mortality that was  close to 30%, on average. Annually, factored against the death rates for all adults, this gave a modest annual growth rate of .07% to .05%.  I also did not see evidence of extreme poverty – if families were put at risk by illness or the death of a parent, they were allotted sufficient cereal from the headman’s granaries (consisting of the collective surpluses of all households in the lineage) until they could recover.

The youngest families in the genealogies, however, had much lower infant and childhood mortality. Their completed family sizes looked much larger, in some families it was doubled. The differences appeared, to me, attributable to vaccination programs initiated in the country in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s.  There had been efforts through the WHO and Save-the-Children funded campaigns to extend vaccination to rural areas such as those where our study villages were located. Before this there had been a general resistance to such campaigns among rural populations in French West Africa. 

My own experience, therefore,  indicated that perhaps the take-off of population growth in these regions had more to do with the success of vaccination programs and the extension of other aspects of medical care and sanitation, which reduced infant and childhood death rates. I was particularly struck by an example of a couple who had lost all but one of a dozen children (born during the 1940s and 1950s) to what appeared, from the descriptions given, to have been tetanus infections following the cutting of the umbilicus.  This was striking in contrast to their only child, a son, who had five surviving children ranging in age from 16 years to 18 months, all born during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I interviewed this extended family in 1983. They had only lost two children during that time, both during an outbreak of some kind of fever, possibly dengue or yellow fever. I personally got dengue while I was in the field. It is still fairly common there.

As a result of these observations, I am sceptical of the idea that most people, in traditional subsistence economies, go hungry because of inadequate yields. I found substantial surplus production was being concentrated in the granaries of headmen and village chiefs. These leaders traditionally deployed these surpluses when drought caused famine*1. 

In my own view, the Green Revolution may have saved the lives of farming people on land degraded or marginal for agriculture but it was due to the fact that the better land had been take over by colonial plantations and later by commercial ranches and crop operations. 

It was a nice idea – save the small farmer all over the world, in India, the Middle East, South America, and Africa but it was, I eventually concluded, in error when applied to tribal societies that showed no evidence of soil damage from over-cultivtion of land, no evidence that malnutrition was common, and which still had local political systems in place that secured surpluses for storage against drought. These traditional small holder subsistence farming economies were perfectly capable of feeding the people within them, and systems like slash and burn were even sustainable and protective of ecological diversity, keeping up to eighty percent of the village lands in secoundary growth and forest. This large area of common land provided supplimental food and fuel tothe villagers, as well as sustiaaning the penetration of rainfall into the water table and keeping wells, ponds, and rivers from either flooding or running dry. 

Today, like other traditional indigenous economies, people in these systems are being systematically converted to a much riskier, unsustainable, and ecology-simplifying food production system that is creating socio-economic stratification. Norman Borlaug’s work – arising out of his desire to help people in degraded farming lands, has been turned to the further commercialization of the remaining landscape of the planet. 

Of course some families in the ICRISAT villages appeared more prosperous than others. All human societies are marked by disparity of effort and luck, which sometimes manifests as a difference in family size, and may also translate as differences in conservative “traditionalists” and progressive “entrepreneurs”. 

I observed this difference deepen through the extension of Green Revolution technologies to the rural Sahel villages. As chemical fertilizers became available, the primary effect was an increase the length of time a piece of land could be cultivated. Instead of being fallowed after a few years and thus returned to the commons, such land was now cultivated for decades with only brief fallows. And it was even being passed down within the family, as a kind of “farm tenure”. 

Secondly, the chemical fertilizers, and other inputs like herbicide and insecticide, were subsidized for farmers who were willing to grow a commercial cotton crop. This was done through policies of the agricultural extension services operating in Burkina Faso at the time. I am certainly not suggesting that all of this was down to the “green revolution” efforts of scientists at my institute. They were more interested in promoting cultivation of the sorghum and millet varieties they had been developing. The increased length of cultivation on any one piece of land, and the fact that this pattern was often tied to a commercial crop meant that “entrepreneurial” farmers generally had far more land under cultivation than traditional subsistence farming families. Only some, of the traditionalists, were able to afford the chemical fertilizers. Others often lacked the extra labour (being younger households or those with few sons) to tackle clearing extra land for a commercial crop, as well as for a food crop. 

Social stratification was beginning to appear, as well as a shift in land tenure, as land use intensification occured.*2 

A few of the bigger and more entrepreneurial family farms enlarged their holdings from year to year, while everyone else continued to farm small and temporary plots. Some particularly small or older households began to work as additional labourers for larger households. When this was not arranged along lines of kinship, but rather as a contract paid “in kind”, they got some of the crop. If it was arranged by kinship, these households were provided for during the rest of the year from the granaries of their lineage headman. Essentially, however, a landless class of rural labourers was being created. The children of these landless families got discouraged and migrated out of the village to seek work on plantations in the Ivory Coast, or in the growing cities like Bobo-djuolasso or Ougadougou. It was among these migrants, in the poor neighbourhoods of these cities, that I saw some evidence of malnutrition.

*1 People who were promenant in these communities were not wealthy, except in the trust of other people. They were the peace-makers, the truth tellers, and the moral examples that the young modelled themselves after. “Big men” and chiefs were not so much exercising power over others as they were exercising responsibility to others.Let me give an example to show what I mean: I was interviewing households in an African village in Burkina Faso, on the subject of how much grain they had in store after harvest. Every one of them had cultivated more than they needed in order to contribute to the stores of the village headman. I then interviewed this headman, and he proudly showed me granary after granary.He told me there was enough grain in store to feed the village through seven years of drought.This was a moment of revelation for me. I had been thinking of him as a powerful and greedy man, who was enriching himself through his political position. Suddenly I saw the man for what he was – an ethical, methodical, and diligent person striving to live up to the great responsibility entrusted to him. He had to constantly monitor those granaries, checking for damage by rot or vermin, and carefully assess all withdrawals from this common fund. 

*2 Boserupian intensification has helped explain land clearing even in the deep past (Ruddiman and Ellis 2009). At present, as human populations are growing and urbanizing, agricultural demand has increased so much that the most intensive agricultural systems are becoming dominant. The good news is that the most intensive systems tend to focus on the most productive land – marginal lands are increasingly abandoned and left to regenerate ( the “forest transition”; eg. Rudel et al. 2009). So even as we go off the end of Boserup’s chart, disaster is not the result and intensification continues- though the planet will never be the same- our agriculture has now transformed the planet for the long-term (Ellis et al. 2010).