‘Industrial agriculture is outdated’

After climate change and hunger in the countryside of many developing countries, COVID-19 is just another phenomenon that proofs that industrial agriculture is not future proof. A study conducted in Africa reveals that only money flows behind the ‘green revolution’ make this industrial model a success. And an economic success only.

Money FlowsOnly a small fraction of agricultural research funding coming to Kenya and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa is used to support agroecology and other sustainable, regenerative approaches. Money flows in Africa’s agricultural development sector are mainly reinforcing damaging industrial models. This concludes a report by Biovision International, IPES-Food, and the UK-based Institute of Development Studies.

Only 13% of projects by Kenyan research institutes are agroecological. Another 13% focus on replacing synthetic inputs with organic alternatives.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the biggest philanthropic investor in agri-development allocates only 3% of its support to sustainable, regenerative approaches – or agroecology. At the same time, as many as 85% of their project funding goes to the development of industrial agriculture or increasing its efficiency.


Olivia Yambi, co-chair of IPES-Food, stresses the need for a change in funding flows and unequal power relations: “It’s clear that in Africa as elsewhere, vested interests are propping up agricultural practices based on an obsession with technological fixes that is damaging soils and livelihoods, and creating a dependency on the world’s biggest agribusinesses. Agroecology offers a way out of that vicious cycle.”

Biovision president Hans Herren says: “with the compound challenges of climate change, pressure on land and water, food-induced health problems and pandemics such as COVID, we need change now. And this starts with money flowing into agroecology.”

At the moment, donors neglect the potential of agroecology, mentions Olivier de Schutter, co-chair of IPES-Food, and UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. “Private investors are not very interested in supporting small-scale farmers that grow food crops for local communities’ needs, and especially that produce smaller volumes of less uniform things.”

Focus on export

He also points at the need for countries to pay back foreign debt. De Schutter thinks this is a major impediment to the development of a more agroecological farming system. “The foreign debt is labeled in strong currencies and this requires that these countries export on global markets — you can’t pay this back growing cassava or sweet potato. Therefore there is a tendency to focus on export crops, rather than on crops that can satisfy local needs; and there is a tendency to support farmers (and types of farming) that can have access to global markets and to global supply chains, following the requirements of the big commodity buyers and food processors.”


De Schutter explains that agroecology should not be confused with organic agriculture. “Agroecology is not certified, it does not have a label. It’s a set of agronomic practices that reduce the use of external inputs and maximise the use of local resources, by betting on diversity at field level and that relies on poly cropping schemes, which lend themselves less well to mechanisation and economies of scale.”

Agroecology did not yet get a fair chance on a breakthrough

The benefits of agroecological solutions should be well known by now. Already in 2009, a report of the FAO concluded that ‘in the majority of cases, organic systems are more profitable than non-organic systems’. Underlying studies revealed that even with fewer yields and higher production costs, organic remained more profitable due to 400 percent higher market price, but also that lower production costs caused a significant difference in net returns even without premiums.

Agroecology did not yet get a fair chance on a breakthrough while most research money goes to traditional, industrial agriculture. Not only in Africa but also in Europe. Already in 2015, a study from the UK-based Organic Research Centre pointed out that less than 10% of research funding goes to agroecological and organic research.


Besides the unequal position in research, agroecological solutions are also marginalised in the media. The influence of advertisers on the content of agricultural magazines and programs can not be overestimated, as I describe in my essay Smarter Farmers. In Africa, also corruption in the media plays a role.

© Marc van der Sterren  |  Farming Africa

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