With the passing of the United Nations’ highly contested Food Systems Summit last month, the task of “feeding the world” has taken on a newfound urgency.

But one point apparently lost on the summit’s attendees is that the project of “agricultural modernisation” which many of them have supported for decades is only making food insecurity worse in recent years, especially in Africa.

Since the 2007-08 world food price crisis, Western governments and philanthropies, led by the United States and the Gates Foundation, have backed a multitude of programmes across the continent to raise farmers’ productivity and connect them to commercial supply chains. Together, these efforts carry the banner of an “African Green Revolution” – an approach not unlike the primarily Asian and Latin American Green Revolution before it.

But at the heart of this massive philanthropic and governmental undertaking lies an essential contradiction: agricultural “modernisation”, we are told, will benefit Africa’s smallholder farmers by giving advantages to farmer-entrepreneurs with larger landholdings. The result is a “revolution” ostensibly meant to help the poor which actually makes rural life difficult for anyone but the most well-off, well-connected, commercially-oriented, and “efficient” business people.

Sasakawa Global 2000 found many farmers willing to accept their assistance. But according to Amanor, many of the farmers who initially adopted the technology reverted to traditional practices and local seed varieties after the project concluded. Even after years of working in rural Ghana, the organisation saw only a 45 percent recovery in crop investment.

These days, there are many reasons why smallholders do not cooperate with the “modernisation” programmes of the African Green Revolution. In their 2015 study, Nyantakyi-Frimpong and Bezner Kerr found that smallholder farmers often preferred to plant their own maize varieties, even when government and development organisations made more “advanced” hybrids available.

As the farmers understood well, their own hardier, local varieties of maize were more resistant to drought, required less labour, cost less, and required little or no chemical fertiliser. Moreover, unlike hybrids, whose wide leaves obstruct the sun for neighbouring plants, farmers could plant their own maize varieties alongside peanuts, cowpea, and bambara beans – all nutritious crops well adapted to the local ecology.

Development planners have long touted technologies like hybrid seeds as “solutions” to the many problems resulting from climate change, and it is true farmers sometimes turn to them in their struggle to adapt to unpredictable ecological conditions. In one study, one of us found that many smallholders in an area of northern Ghana reluctantly turned to those technologies in a desperate gambit to adapt to increasingly erratic rainfall, shortening growing seasons and drier, less fertile soils.

But beyond climate change, farmers have also adopted technology to deal with the problems induced by the African Green Revolution itself, such as increasing competition for land, as local businessmen (and they are overwhelmingly men) acquire farms to capitalise on the very programmes supposedly meant to help smallholders.

Despite the apparent need for more technology, smallholders find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle, sacrificing tomorrow’s soil for today’s planting. While even some of the poorest farmers in Ghana rely on chemical fertiliser to grow enough food to survive, a number of farmers said their soils were infertile without ever-larger doses of chemicals. Or as some put it, the land was “addicted to chemicals”. This dependency increased their debt and their risk of land dispossession, particularly for women.

Far from levelling the playing field so that any farmer can succeed, the emphasis on expensive technology and commercial access has only made it harder for smallholder farmers to survive in their native lands, while opening the door to local businessmen who see in the African Green Revolution their own investment opportunity. As one farmer said, “[donors] are supposed to help, but what do we see? […] you see big cars. This district executive wants 50 acres, the party head wants 100 acres.”

As another put it, development workers “treat farmers like they are so stupid”.

Even at the smallest scale, farming is more than a livelihood. Studies show that a major share of the world’s food is grown by smallholder farmers. Yet many critical agrarian thinkers like Henry Bernstein have argued that smallholder farming is becoming increasingly difficult, and even impossible in some places. Developmental aid that largely goes to the agri-food companies and well-capitalised businessmen, while smallholders lose the very farmland they need to survive, is undoubtedly one of the underlying causes of this phenomenon.

It is tempting to think of mass displacement as an unforeseen consequence of the African Green Revolution. But displacement and marginalisation were always bound to result from an effort that rarely envisions smallholders as anything more than a component in a supply chain managed by other, more powerful actors.

Read the full story here