Sir Gordon Conway's One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World? is the authoritative text for the 21st Century iteration of what Raj Patel (2013) calls the "Long Green Revolution." In it, Dr. Conway outlines an approach for ending hunger and poverty by reaching out to the world's hungriest people--peasant farmers.
One Billion Hungry is an expanded update of Conway's earlier work, The doubly Green Revolution (Conway1997). During the 15 year hiatus between books, an explosive combination of global warming, peak oil, water scarcity, agrofuels, grain-fed meat, land grabbing and financial speculation has ushered in a new era of high, volatile food prices and widespread peasant dispossession and impoverishment. Notwithstanding record global harvests following an average annual rise in food per capita of 12% over the last twenty years, in 2008 and 2011 over 1 billion people went hungry, triggering food riots and full-scale rebellions. The resulting human suffering and political instability have called the legitimacy of the global food system--and the Green Revolution--seriously into question.
One Billion Hungry attempts to re-establish the imperative of the Green Revolution under conditions of global markets, monopoly concentration and the privatization of pretty much everything--including the hallmark public research of the original Green Revolution. Conway laments these developments, but ultimately accepts the liberalization of food systems and avoids questioning heroic assumptions of endless global economic growth. This steers One Billion Hungry to the standard Green Revolution proposal: to feed 9 billion people, we must double food production by 2050.
For Dr. Conway, the routes to world food security are: technological innovation, fair and efficient markets, "people," and political leadership. He's right, but just how these routes are traveled is where followers and critics will part ways. Situated at the nexus of productivity, resilience, equity and stability, Conway asserts that "sustainable intensification" will end world hunger by using less land, less water and fewer chemicals--along with more biotechnology and more free markets. The bulk of the 439-page tome is a dry, not entirely uncritical, reaffirmation of high-yielding varieties and biotechnology, as well as many profiles of what most agroecologists would consider good agricultural practices (Sustainable Rice Intensification, Integrated Pest Management, soil & water conservation, intercropping, etc.). Conway claims that because the problem of global hunger is so great, we will need all solutions--as well as enabling conditions--to raise the incomes of the world's 2.5 billion smallholders and feed the world.
Dr. Conway is spot-on about the need for enabling conditions, but he skips lightly over the structural determinants inherent in today's corporate food regime and underplays their regressive impact. He invites us to believe that despite the overwhelming financial power of neoliberal markets and chemical-based plantation agriculture, a doubly Green Revolution will somehow provide complimentary opportunities for agroecology and peasant farmers, bringing an end to hunger without changing the agrarian status quo.
Gordon Conway clearly cares very deeply for the struggling farmers of the world. He knows that the Green Revolution's packages are ineffective on the fragile lands to which smallholders--who feed over half the world--have been marginalized. Without sound agroecological management, Green Revolution inputs are not sustainable; they degrade agroecosystems and destroy livelihoods. (Given the increase in severe weather events, without extensive agrarian reform, nothing will save smallholders on extremely fragile lands... though Conway does not consider land distribution an "enabling condition.")
In the wake of the Green Revolution's widespread failures, successful, peasant-driven agroecological practices have raised yields and increased resiliency for millions of farmers worldwide. Incorporating agroecology into the Green Revolution is a good idea for someone who is trying to re-green it. But do peasant farmers using agroecological practices need another Green Revolution? Or is it the Green Revolution that needs them? What conditions and mechanisms would specifically enable development of agroecological peasant agriculture? One Billion Hungry fails to reflect on these critical questions.
Despite Dr. Conway's path-breaking work in IPM and ecological resilience, he provides little agroecological analysis. The "Farmers as Innovators" chapter is largely limited to the experiences with which he is personally familiar. References to the vast literature chronicling forty years of agroecological research are sparse, outdated, and do not recognize the development of a science that has expanded from the field to the food system (Gliessman 2013; Sevilla Guzmán and Woodgate 2013). There is no mention of the remarkable agroecological successes in food security and national-scale resiliency in Cuba (Rosset, Sosa and D. Lozano 2011; Chan and Freyre Roach 2012), or of how social movements have effectively spread sustainable practices across Central America (Holt-Giménez 2006), East Africa (Wilson 2011) and Brazil (Petersen, Mussoi and Dal Soglio 2013). These are the tip of the iceberg for agroecological transformation and cannot be ignored, precisely because they soundly contradict the Green Revolution paradigm.
The intrinsic weakness of One Billion Hungry is its lack of a frame for understanding the agrarian transitions of capitalist agriculture. The rise of the agrifood monopolies and global markets driving the differentiation and dispossession of the peasantry take place on the margins of Conway's explanations, even though he knows that the farmers he must reach are losing their seeds, soil, land and livelihoods as a result of the expansion of the large-scale, capitalist agriculture the Green Revolution "enables." Dr. Conway insists that with a doubly Green Revolution, things will be different. This time the monopolization of agriculture's genetic resources will lead to more, not less agrobiodiversity; global markets will enrich, not impoverish peasants; agroecological methods and landraces will be supported on par with the support given to chemicals and GMOs; research funding will be equitably directed to soil building, conservation and non-proprietary materials... The book's conclusion consists of a 24-point to-do list that elides the conflicts that exist between these recommendations.
The arc of Dr. Conway's experience has drawn him into the technocratic vortex of the Green Revolution's episteme in which conventional assumptions regarding agriculture and society are accepted as fact. One Billion Hungry's chapter on "Political Economy" avoids asking `who owns what? who does what? who gets what? what do they do with it?' (Bernstein 2010, 22). The "theory of change" is an analytical tautology affirming a "highly productive, stable, resilient, equitable and sustainable" Green Revolution in order to have another Green Revolution. The implicit hypothesis: that only a doubly Green Revolution will save the world from hunger, is never seriously tested. Conway's lack of systemic analysis lead us back, lemming-like, to the predictable conclusion: Despite the egregious failures of the Green Revolution, to end hunger, we need another one.
One Billion Hungry signals important shifts in global, capitalist agriculture. Introduced by the Rockefeller Foundation and led by Norman Borlaug, the original Green Revolution was driven by crop breeding and petroleum. Research centers were publicly financed and high-yielding varieties were public goods. The World Bank's downsizing and restructuring of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research in 1996 opened the Green Revolution to private financing and modern genetic engineering. That the Gates Foundation replaced Rockefeller as philanthropic flagship reflects the ascendance of proprietary technologies. Ironically, Conway, an agricultural ecologist, has succeeded Borlaug, the crop scientist, as the new champion for the triad of genetic engineering, sustainable intensification and free markets.
The Green Revolution is entering its seventh decade. By the time global population levels off in 2050 the promise to end world hunger by dint of a continuous flow of new crop varieties and external inputs will span a century. One Billion Hungry is not a revolutionary call, but a plea for kinder, gentler industrial agriculture during a period of late agrarian capitalism in which smallholders and the planet's natural resources are being systematically ravaged by global monopolies.
Gordon Conway wants to feed the world while satiating the global appetite of the beast in whose belly he sits. Outside the Green Revolution, many are clamoring for its passing, and for a farmer-led, agroecological revolution.
By Eric Holt-Giménez, Ph.D., Executive Director
Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy
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