News & CommentaryArchive
Jun 02, 2010
The Brown Revolution
It’s often discussed that philanthropy has a fad problem. Philanthropic attention tends to gravitate to the “new”, and even when these “hot” areas show success, they are infrequently carried to scale. In other cases, donors simply declare victory and move on, leaving programs that require on-going funding to spiral downward into failure.
Agriculture is one area that has been a victim of philanthropy fads. Investment poured into the sector during the 1960s and 1970s and yielded perhaps the greatest success in the history of global philanthropy: the green revolution. But the success of the green revolution in Asia led many funders to focus on other sectors, believing the problem was solved. As a result, investment in agriculture and agricultural research declined and progress on improved varieties of global staple crops slowed—and the green revolution never reached Africa.
Recently there has been some movement on this front. The Gates Foundation in particular has become vocal about agriculture in Africa in particular, initiating the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and bringing other funders on board.
But the neglect of the agricultural sector has exposed us all to a counter-revolution, a brown revolution. This brown revolution could plunge the world into another era of massive food insecurity, and not just in Africa. You see, while philanthropy is subject to fads, nature isn’t. The bacteria and viruses that afflict staple crops continued to innovate while the attention of philanthropy and development agencies wandered. Thus we have the emergence of virulent strains of crop diseases and pests that are immune to the various improved seed varieties and agricultural chemicals developed during the green revolution. If you look at the emergence of these various diseases and pests together, the picture is quite frightening.
First, two diseases of bananas have begun spreading rapidly around Africa. There are no known varieties of bananas or plantains resistant to either Banana Bunchy Top Disease or Banana Xanthomonas Wilt, caused by a virus and a bacteria respectively. Thus, according to the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, the diseases have the potential to “wipe out” the banana and plantain crops in Africa.
Another common staple crop around the world is cassava (also known as manioc and yuca among other names)—it ranks third globally as a source of calories, behind only wheat and rice. Cassava crops across the continent (and ultimately around the world) are threatened by the rapid spread of a new virus known as brown streak. The virus renders the cassava crop useless, even as animal feed, and according to experts its spread is “unprecedented.“ Note that another cassava disease led to a major famine in the 1920s.
If the cassava and banana crops fail, there’s always wheat right? In fact, the global wheat crop is threatened by the emergence of a new variant of stem rust, known as Ug99 (because it was first seen in Uganda in 1999). A few weeks ago, scientists in South Africa reported that Ug99 had appeared in South Africa, the first time it’s been seen outside of East Africa and Iran. Even worse, the new rust has become even more virulent since it emerged. Now that it’s in South Africa, the rust can much more easily spread to the Middle East and South Asia as it can hitch a ride on prevailing wind currents. As the rust spreads—killing up to 80 percent of a wheat crop—farmers around the world will have to replace the varieties of wheat that they use. The only problem is that there are no known varieties of wheat that are resistant to this new variant of stem rust.
The threats to global agriculture are not limited to the developing world. In the United States, farmers and scientists are increasing alarmed about the rise of RoundUp-resistant weeds. One of the major gains in agricultural productivity in the US and China has been the use of what are known as RoundUp-ready crops. These are varieties of staple crops that have been genetically engineered to be be immune to a cheap and relatively safe herbicide, RoundUp. This immunity meant that farmers could spray their entire fields with herbicide and kill just the weeds, not the crops—and that has led to gains not only in productivity but also has limited soil loss and chemical runoff from farms (since tilling is not necessary). The emergence of “superweeds” means that this strategy will no longer work, productivity will fall and costs will rise. Quoted in a New York Times story on the issue, Andrew Wargo III, president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts, says, “It is the single largest threat to production agriculture we have ever seen.“
Overall, it’s a very scary picture. Hopefully counteracting this new brown revolution will become a new fad in philanthropy. We’ll need all the investment we can get to fight back against the brown revolution.