From the Green Revolution to the Biotechnology Revolution: Food for Poor People in the 21st Century

A Director's Forum with Gordon Conway, President, The Rockefeller Foundation

Mar 12, 2003

In this Director’s Forum, Rockefeller Foundation President Gordon Conway discussed ways Africa can feed its population, particularly by better utilizing science and technology. Conway suggested that Africa can accomplish this without repeating the environmental mistakes of the first Green Revolution. According to Conway, if the world misses today’s opportunities to help Africa significantly increase its food production in a sustainable way, the rest of the world—not just the African people—will suffer the consequences.

The first “Green Revolution,” while it helped Asia greatly, missed Africa almost entirely. It was a “one size fits all” prescription---the revolution focused on food staples such as rice and wheat, grown primarily on irrigated land while many of the poorest African farmers live in arid regions and farm dry, sandy, or salty soils without access to the water needed for most of the new crop varieties. The failure of the Green Revolution in Africa proved one thing---improving agriculture requires more than technology. It also requires good governance, wise policies, infrastructure and investment.

The Doubly Green Revolution

According to Conway, this time around, we need to make environmentally sound investments---“a Doubly Green Revolution.” What we must do differently is to increase overall agricultural production while helping small-scale poor remote farmers get their surplus product to market to generate income that will eventually move them into the non-farm economy. In addition, Conway sees four sub-revolutions necessary for the coming Green Revolution in Africa:

  • New ways for agronomists to work effectively with farmers to identify obstacles and opportunities
  • Better and more integrated uses of existing resources
  • Ways for African farmers to benefit from the global market
  • Ways to manage the continuing revolution in science and technology—including but certainly not limited to, biotechnology.



Biotechnology

Three different types of biotechnology have already been introduced with success in Africa-- the process of tissue culture, marker-aided selection, and genetic engineering (the most controversial of the methods). To insure that biotech crops will be of long-term benefit to both farmers and consumers, three things are required: a strong scientific community to help select the best and most useful biotech applications; policies that encourage advanced research in the laboratory and regulatory systems on the ground to ensure safety for humans and the environment; and a better understanding of biotech. Conway emphasized that developed nations must work with African farmers, scientists, governments, and consumers to help them develop the required capacity to use these new sciences comfortably and well for the benefit of their own people.

The Central Dilemma

The central dilemma according to Conway is the enormous inequalities between the developed and the developing countries. Developing nations simply cannot afford testing and regulatory systems that would meet the consumer standards of the developed world. “If safety requirements are not to inflate the price of food out of the reach of the poor, new strategies for institutional management and sharing of scientific and technological capabilities will be required,” Conway said.

Intellectual Property

To make the four sub-revolutions possible, we must deal with the threats that intellectual property legislation pose for sharing new agricultural research and technology with the nations that need it most. The trend toward private control of agricultural discoveries and the shift in academic research away from public objectives toward corporate objectives has made the work of public agencies responsible for virtually all of the products available to the poor considerably more difficult. Conway suggests that there needs to be a strong voice asking “How will this new law, treaty, policy, or technology affect the poor?”

Conway is convinced that to be successful, the new revolution will require both public and private sectors working together. To support that strategy, he described two new Rockefeller Foundation initiatives designed to bring U.S. universities, corporations, African scientists, NGOs, governments, businesses, and farmers together in the effort to help the African continent feed itself. The Public Sector IP Resource for Agriculture (PSIPRA) and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation are focused on adjusting the way intellectual property rights operate in connection with poor and developing countries, not on getting rid of IPR.

In conclusion, China and India have made enormous strides in terms of food security ---now China is actually exporting food and India is moving toward self-sufficiency in food. This won’t happen in Africa without investments from richer countries like the U.S.---investments in science, policy changes, and money. These investments will provide a return greater than a better-fed healthier populace, it will pay off in terms of prevention of rogue states, civil wars, and exported violence.



Drafted by Lauren Crowley

Sharon Coleman, Director of Communications, 202/691-4016

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