Brown Food Revolution

Shannon Horst, the CEO of The Savory Institute, has a good editorial, Africa Needs a Brown (Not Green) Food Revolution, over at the Christian Science Monitor. Rather than more artificial fertilizer and genetically enhanced seeds, of exporting our industrial model to them, she argues for a more local model that improves soil and yields, and works with local environments and knowledge.

She’s definitely on the William Easterly side of things, and against a Jeffrey Sachs type approach – White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good over The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time.

Here’s the main part of Horst’s Green Revolution critique:

First, scientists are focusing on how to grow bigger, more, and disease- and pest-resistant plants. Their approach views the soil surrounding plants as a “problem” to overcome, rather than the very habitat in which they can thrive. The entire focus is on how to manipulate the plants rather than how to produce both healthy plants and healthy soil… Some 70 percent of Africa’s landscape is grassland – arid, semiarid, temperate, and some tropical. Kenya, for example, is 80 percent grassland. The practices and inputs required to use revolutionary seeds in these lands are destructive… Turning those lands into crop fields will have the same effect it produced on the Great Plains of the United States – the collapse of the grasslands and the soil, river systems, and the groundwater supplies that lie beneath them.

Horst also points out that human resources, embedded in cultures and specific histories, matter:

Most of Africa’s rural populations are pastoralists or agropastoralists who do not farm. Turning them into “productive farmers,” dependent on foreign seeds and other inputs, is not only destructive to their land, it is destructive to their culture. Millions have already been spent by US and European aid organizations throughout Africa on unsuccessful farming programs. Pastoralists in the Horn of Africa consistently say that these programs have also been culturally destructive.

In contrast, Horst and The Savory Institute push for a brown revolution, one that starts with increasing soil quality, and works with environmental and human resources on hand.

What Africa needs is a revolution that mobilizes people to focus on local inputs and practices that produce food that grows in healthy soil (maybe a “brown revolution”) and that enhances the social and economic fabric of the community and nation. Guess what? That brown revolution is possible and sustainable right now…

They have also achieved successful results over the past five years without spending one dime on expensive research into seeds, genetically modified organisms, root manipulation, climate change adaptation, herbicides, fertilizers, or pesticides, and without special planting or harvesting equipment.

Instead, they focus funds on educating local people in practices that blend some older pastoral knowledge and techniques of animal herding with new understanding of how grazing animals, soils, plants, and organisms coevolved and function in a healthy state. Savory’s approach also means building soils, using the seeds and simple tools already available to them, and enhancing the community’s social fabric.

A brown revolution resonates well with what I know of Lesotho, where development has had negative consequences (see James Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine) and where a lack of local employment and farming opportunities, coupled with poor soil and arid conditions, means most Basotho men go to South Africa to work in mines. For more (including photos), see our post on food coping in Lesotho.

So, overall, a very good editorial. There will be roles for fertilizer to improve yields and for plant engineering for greater drought and insect resistance, but imposing such outside solutions simply on the idea that this is what we believe will work, is simply not good enough.

Link to lots of articles that detail the William Easterly vs. Jeffrey Sachs debates.

Link to The Savory Institute – “Leading the Brown Revolution”

Link to the editorial “Africa needs a brown (not green) food revolution”.

One thought on “Brown Food Revolution

  1. Hear, hear! I worked at an eminent international NGO last summer, and was delighted that the same benefactors that support Alliance for a Green Revolution in Agriculture (AGRA, are also experimenting with *conservation agriculture,* a technique specifically aimed at revitalizing soils through “minimal soil disturbance, permanent soil cover and crop rotations.” (

    Proof of grants here:

    More excellent anthropology on the value of intensified, smallholding farming from Robert McNetting in the stupendous and readable Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture.

    Sorry I haven’t learned to put my links in live… soon will do!

    And thank you for this post. I have friends who work with that NGO to improve soil conditions in Tanzania, and the more people know how important this is, the better.

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