Investigation #5: Innovation

An innovation – (n) a change in the way of doing things

-Wesbster’s New World Dictionary

Earlier this summer, President Obama traveled to Africa where he toured Senegal’s Feed the Future Agricultural Technology Marketplace, a public private partnership demonstrating how research and innovation can improve the lives of farmers.  While he was in Senegal, Obama announced that the United States government will invest more than $180 million in Western African agriculture to improve food security.  To do so, the United States is promoting technology-driven agriculture in Ghana, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.

But what exactly are the technologies and innovations being promoted?  The government is supporting a group called the Scaling Seeds and Other Technologies Partnership that is led by AGRA (the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa).  This alliance continues to be funded, in large part, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

This news follows a year of intensifying external investment in African agriculture.  On an almost weekly basis, multinational conglomerates and private American companies have announced new investments in African seed, manufacturing, trade infrastructure, animal production, ag research institutes, and land.  In some cases, these investments have created partnerships.  In other cases, African businesses have become a listing in a multinational ag portfolio.

While groups like AGRA promise to help Africa “feed its own”, Africa’s “own” has begun to resemble the likes of U.S. agricultural interests.  Last fall, for example, Cargill announced that it would invest $20 million in sub-Saharan feed production, increasing its presence in animal nutrition markets.  At this point, Cargill already owned a 75% share of NuTec Southern Africa – a venture that supplies vitamin and mineral premixtures to South African poultry producers.  Simultaneously, a Flordia company called Blumberg Grain began planning a network of grain storage systems for Western Africa in hopes that it might become an infrastructural hub for the region’s crop and food storage.  Likewise, farm equipment giant, AGCO, announced that it would spend $100 million in Africa in the next few years as part of its African growth strategy.  This followed an announcement that AGCO produced its first Massey Ferguson tractor in Algeria.

But wait – there’s more.  At the end of July, DuPont Pioneer announced the successful acquisition of an 80% stake in South Africa’s Pannar Seed Ltd.  Through this merger, Pannar will acquire access to DuPont Pioneer’s biotech seeds, genetics, and breeding programs.  DuPont Pioneer, on the other hand, will gain access to an African seed market present in 18 African nations.  To obtain approval from the South African Competition Appeal Court, Pioneer also committed 7.5 million dollars to establish a regional research center designed to bring new technologies and advanced ag research to Africa.  The companies told the press that the African continent offers approximately 86 million acres of land available for corn production.

This is good news for the Iowa based company because it specializes in the sale of patented GM and hybrid corn varieties.  Now, if they can only convince the rest of Africa that these advanced seed technologies are worth adopting…For those of you who have followed the spread of multinational ag businesses elsewhere, these investments might remind you of similar investments made last decade in South America.

If groups like AGRA can successfully identify and create large “bread-basket” regions, as they propose to do, American investors in DuPont Pioneer will have even better news. These breadbasket regions will also create demand for Blumberg’s grain storage, AGCO’s tractors, and, supposing that some of this grain is used to make animal feed, Cargill-Nutec’s premixtures.

While these investments and philanthropic endeavors will help distribute greater quantities of high-yielding seed to some farmers and increase trade throughout the region, they also facilitate a growing network of external benefactors.  In this context, it is often difficult to tell if Africa’s new green revolution and all of Africa’s sought after agricultural growth potential will better benefit the African people or external agribusinesses. Perhaps in some cases, benefits are not mutually exclusive.  Nonetheless, in order to properly understand who is benefiting where, more transparency is needed.

More transparency

In many cases, interest groups are selling the Green Revolution as a solution to Africa’s food and environmental problems.  Unfortunately, in the United States, the Green Revolution hasn’t always been very green.  During the Green Revolution, farmers began to plant high-yielding crop varieties in large monocultures.  While we did make several advances in yield production with selective breeding technologies, today our ag systems are more dependent on synthetic fertilizers, irrigation, and pesticides.  They are also less diverse.

In the eighties and nineties we introduced “innovative,” genetically modified seeds to these large monoculture systems.  These seeds are often modified to tolerate herbicides and poison insects.  Farmers who couldn’t afford genetically modified seeds had a difficult time competing in this system.  As a result, we also have fewer farmers overall.  To make matters worse, the use of GM seed in large monocultures has actually increased incidences of pest resistance, soil infertility, and nutrient run-off.  In many major ag regions there are now fewer songbirds, amphibians, honeybees, bats, insects, and native, non-agricultural plants.

While there are certainly innovations that can help people increase food production, I’m concerned that Africa will shortly become another marketplace for America’s GM seeds and agchemicals.  I often wonder why concerned investors and donors aren’t openly promoting a greener, more innovative and transparent approach from the get-go.

While researching this issue, I decided to investigate the ambiguously named “Scaling Seeds and Other Technologies Partnership.”  While the alliance includes respectable partners and seems committed to the idea of Africans growing their own food, I’m disturbed by what I perceive to be intentional ambiguities in their overall mission.

The Scaling Seeds Partnership promotes the commercialization and adoption of what it calls “key technologies” to strengthen Africa’s input and seed sectors.  They also promise to enable policy and regulatory reform to increase access to innovative seed technologies.  While, thus far, partnering groups have helped distribute and develop higher-yielding hybrids, one must wonder where these policy and regulatory reforms will take Africans.  Several of the Partnership’s champions, including Bill Gates, are also well-known champions of and investors in giant American agribusinesses.  Commercialized seed is typically poor quality when saved from year to year.  It is also typically planted in huge monocultures and dependent on a number of damaging inputs. Will promoted changes to the regulatory and political structure also pave the way for American inputs like Dupont-Pioneer-(Panneer)’s innovative biotech seeds? Or is an 80% ownership of an African seed company out of the range of consideration for projects that support African self-sufficiency?

And with regard to the words innovative, inputs, and key technologies, aren’t Africans deserving of more straightforward terminology?  Do marketers realize that GM seeds are not the only innovative technologies we’ve developed in the last twenty years to increase food production and security?  The words “innovate” and “technology” often seem poised to charm us out of a need for further explanation.

The United States government and philanthropic groups like AGRA can do better by regularly clarifying exactly what types of innovations, technologies, and businesses they support.  Instead, we’re left to wonder.   Are Africans or private foreign stakeholders deciding which innovations American donations (or investments?) should support?

As we’ve seen in the past, innovations can be bad or good.  The development of the atom bomb was innovative.  The development of agent orange was also innovative.  Neither of these innovations brought improvements to human lives.

Innovations and technology can also be good.  Fortunately, we do know how to make agricultural systems more productive without using grey-area technologies like herbicide dependent GM seeds. We have gotten better at selectively breeding crops, aerobic composting, crop rotation for improved pest management, marker assisted selection, cover crop mixtures to reduce fertilizer use, seed banking, slow drip irrigation, permaculture, using technology to trace and identify food sources, rotational grazing, and strip cropping.  Unfortunately, it’s often not clear whether groups put these types of innovations at the fore-front of their movements to sustainably feed the world.

The distinction between these agricultural innovations and innovations that are likely to create dependencies on chemicals and powerful patent-holding companies is important.  Failure to make these distinctions is misleading.

Perhaps it is even more important when recent reports debunk the over-exaggerated benefits of technologies like innovative GM seed.  According to a report issued by Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists called “Failure to Yield,” the increase in crop yields during the last several decades should not be attributed to innovative GM seed technologies, as the biotechnology industry often claims.  Gurian-Sherman estimates that improvements in both traditional breeding practices and ag practices account for 85% or more of the yield improvements observed, with genetic modifications contributing only 10-15%.  With this in mind, Gurian-Sherman encourages farmers to keep these numbers in perspective and to use other innovations to help boost yields while reducing the need for unnecessary inputs.

So when Monsanto or Syngenta or the United States government decides to “invest” in African agriculture and Africans become increasingly dependent on foreign systems, we need to ask better questions and start demanding better answers.  While funding selective breeding centers for locally adapted plant varieties (that remain in the public domain) is probably beneficial, investors typically don’t make distinctions between this type of research and research geared toward expanding patented seed distribution. Funding that introduces expensive patented seeds into rural ag systems before these systems are ready to handle such items will likely only increase regional disparities, and, as we’ve seen in America, environmental headaches.

While I wish organizations like AGRA luck in an endeavor to help sustainably feed a growing population, I urge both government and private ag philanthropists to be more transparent:  post itemized lists of purchases and suppliers and use transparent wording. This means distinguishing between investments in African companies and multinational companies as well as between GM and non-GM seed. We want to see Africa feed itself, especially if it can avoid the pitfalls we’ve already made elsewhere.  Indeed, I wish African farmers more luck than many American farmers have had!

http://www.agra.org/ Viewed:  August 7, 2013.

http://blogs.desmoinesregister.com/dmr/index.php/2013/07/31/dupont-pioneer-acquires-80-stake-in-south-african-seed-company/article Viewed: August 8, 2013.

Vance, Andy.  Ag Investment in Africa Intensifies.  Jan. 7, 2013.  Feedstuffs.

http://www.misereor.de/fileadmin/redaktion/Whose_Alliance_The_G8__the_Emergence_of_a_Global_Corporate_Regime_for_Agriculture_May_2013.pdf Viewed: July 13, 2013.

One thought on “Investigation #5: Innovation

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