London — Rather than alleviating poverty, a farming revolution aimed at increasing and modernising agricultural production in Africa could be harming the poorest, according to a new study.
The University of East Anglia research details how changes brought on by modernisation programmes disrupt subsistence practices, deepen poverty, impair local systems of trade and knowledge, and threaten land ownership.
The "green revolution" of the 1960s and 70s - when policies supporting new seeds for marketable crops, sold at guaranteed prices, helped many farmers and transformed economies in Asia - has also become increasingly popular in Africa where up to 90 percent of people in some countries are smallholder farmers.
In Rwanda, government, donors and development institutions such as the International Monetary Fund have hailed the strategy as a success for the economy and in reducing poverty.
But in interviews with villagers in Rwanda's mountainous west the researchers found only a relatively wealthy minority had been able to keep up with modernisation, while the poorest cannot afford the risk of taking out credit for the seeds and fertilisers required for modernised agriculture.
Farmers' fears of harvesting nothing from new crops and the potential for the government to seize and re-allocate their land means many choose to sell up instead, the study, published in journal "World Development", found.
"Similar results are emerging from other experiments in Africa," said Neil Dawson, a senior research associate at the university and the study's lead author.
The farmers traditionally cultivated up to 60 different types of crops, planting and harvesting in overlapping cycles to prevent shortages and hunger but are now forced to use new seed varieties, to specialise in single crops and part with traditional agricultural practices.
Dawson said modernisation policies may increase production of crops for exports but many of the poorest smallholders are stripped of their land, their main productive resource.
"Agricultural development certainly has the potential to help these people, but instead these policies appear to be exacerbating landlessness and inequality for poorer rural inhabitants," he said.
"This indicates that policies need to be refined to help the poorest people too and not just benefit the national economy," Dawson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Many of these policies have been hailed as transformative development successes but such assessments lack evidence of the impact on villagers, said Dawson.
The findings tie in with recent debates about strategies to feed the world in the face of growing populations, such as the influence of wealthy donors and multi-national companies in pushing agricultural modernisation in Africa, he added.
- Reporting by Astrid Zweynert; Editing by Ros Russell