Platform for African – European Partnership in Agricultural Research for Development

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Opinion: Selling the past as innovation in Africa

Originally published on Food Tank on February 11, 2021. by Timothy Wise. 

Timothy A. Wise is a Senior Advisor on the Future of Food at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and a Senior Research Fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute. He is the author Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food (New Press, 2019).


Rising global hunger in recent years has prompted calls for a broad reckoning over what is wrong with global food systems. Our changing climate has added urgency to the crisis. Many experts warn that our current agricultural practices are undermining the resource base — soil, water, seeds, climate — on which future food production depends.

A growing number of farmers, scientists, and development experts now advocate a shift from high-input, chemical-intensive agriculture to low-input ecological farming. They are supported by an impressive array of new research documenting both the risks of continuing to follow our current practices and the potential benefits of a transition to more sustainable farming informed by collaborations between farmers and scientists.

The new initiatives have been met with a chorus of derision from an unsurprising group of commentators, many associated with agribusiness interests. Agribusiness person Kip Tom, then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), last year accused former FAO director Graziano da Silva of being in cahoots with a “cabal” of environmentalists bent on rejecting “20th century agricultural technologies—including advanced biotech seed varieties, modern pesticides and fertilizer.”

As Timothy Wise argues in a new paper, “Old Fertilizer in New Bottles,” such accusations flip the innovation narrative on its head in two crucial ways. First, they are willfully ignorant of the scientific advances in agroecology and the growing consensus that business as usual is no longer an option. Second, they present those 20th century agricultural technologies as effective innovations for the future when in fact they are innovations of the past, with a checkered record of success. These are now failing anew under the banner of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

The PR assault on agroecology

The adage widely attributed to Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi says, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” If those are the four stages of social change, the movement for agroecology seems to have reached Stage Three.

That fight is loud in the media. A drumbeat of inflammatory headlines on recent articles drives home the messaging that anyone opposing the advance of agricultural technologies is condemning poor farmers to backwardness and poverty: ”Financiers of Poverty Malnutrition and Death;” “Luddite Eco-imperialists Claim to be Virtuous;” “Keeping Africa on the Brink of Starvation.”

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