Africa needs a brown, not green, revolution

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Two Canadian Foodgrains Bank-supported projects that promote conservation agriculture in Zimbabwe and Zambia have been featured in a new book about food security in Africa.

The projects, operated together with the United Church of Canada and Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, are included as case studies in The Hungry Continent: African Agriculture and Food Insecurity, published by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

“It’s an honour for projects we support to be included in the book,” says Alden Braul, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank’s capacity development manager. “Howard Buffett is well respected for his work promoting conservation agriculture in Africa.”

Being included is “recognition of the value of these projects towards improving food security for smallholder farmers in those countries,” Braul adds.

Through the projects, farmers use minimum-tillage and low-external-input farming systems, including applying mulch to improve soil fertility, preserve moisture and increase crop production.

“This revolutionary method of agriculture is spreading across southern Africa,” says Braul. “It provides a simple, affordable and environmentally friendly way for poor farmers to grow more food.”

Local partners for the projects are Christian Care in Zimbabwe and the Reformed Church in Zambia Diaconia Eastern Region.

A “brown revolution” for Africa

For Buffett — son of famed businessman, investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett — promoting conservation agriculture in Africa has become part of his life’s mission.

Through his foundation, the Illinois soybean and corn farmer plays a behind-the-scenes role in the global war against hunger, experimenting with ideas for helping poor farmers produce enough food to feed their families.

In a 2009 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Buffett traced his interest in fighting global hunger to his interest in preserving that continent’s environment.

In 2000, as he was photographing migrating animals from a plane, he saw scars on the ground where poor farmers had used fire to clear desperately needed land. He wanted to help stop that practice, but realized that he couldn’t protect Africa’s environment without first fighting its food shortage.

Buffett quickly realized that high-tech, mechanized North American farming methods, like those he uses on his own 2,500-acre farm, wouldn’t work in Africa.

“It takes a lot of fuel to run my equipment. And for inorganic fertilizer. And pesticides,” he said, noting that, “that can’t be the right answer” for poor farmers in Africa.

In an editorial in the July 16, 2010 Omaha World-Herald, Buffett praised the work, creativity and ingenuity of North American farmers, noting that they play a critical role in alleviating world hunger.

But, he added, “it would be erroneous to conclude that the (North American) approach to increased productivity should be applied across Africa.”

Noting that some think Africa needs a “green revolution,” such as happened in the 1960s and 1970s in Asia, he observed that that revolution was successful due to “government support, subsidies, irrigation, fertile soils and predictable land tenure systems.”

Africa, on the other hand, “suffers from some of the world’s poorest crop production as a result of weathered soils, poor farming practices, a lack of investment, and inefficient land use.”

What is needed, he went on to say, are “affordable and replicable systems,” such as conservation agriculture, that revitalizes the soil, prevents erosion and retains moisture.

Africa, he said, “needs a brown (soil) revolution, not a green revolution.”

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