More than a billion people eat fewer than 1,900 calories per day. The majority of them work in agriculture, about 60 percent are women or girls, and most are in rural Africa and Asia. Ending their hunger is one of the few unimpeachably noble tasks left to humanity, and we live in a rare time when there is the knowledge and political will to do so. The question is, how? Conventional wisdom suggests that if people are hungry, there must be a shortage of food, and all we need do is figure out how to grow more.
This logic turns hunger into a symptom of a technological deficit, telling a story in which a little agricultural know-how can feed the world. It’s a seductive view, and one that appears to underwrite President Obama’s vision for ending hunger. In an interview with an African news agency, he shared his frustration over “the fact that the Green Revolution that we introduced into India in the ’60s, we haven’t yet introduced into Africa in 2009. In some countries, you’ve got declining agricultural productivity. That makes absolutely no sense.”
In a squat beige Seattle office building, the world’s largest philanthropic organization has been thinking along the same lines as the president. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with an endowment of more than $30 billion, has embarked on a multibillion-dollar effort to transform African agriculture. It helped to set up the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in 2006, and since then has spent $1.3 billion on agricultural development grants, largely in Africa. With such resources, solving African hunger could be Gates’s greatest legacy.
But there’s a problem: the conventional wisdom is wrong. Food output per person is as high as it has ever been, suggesting that hunger isn’t a problem of production so much as one of distribution. It’s true that African soil fertility is poor, though, which might explain why President Obama feels that the continent needs a Green Revolution.
At best, however, the first Green Revolution was an ambiguous success. As John Perkins writes in his magisterial Geopolitics and the Green Revolution, it was instigated by the US government not out of a direct concern for the well-being of the world’s hungry but from a worry that a hungry urban poor might take to the streets and demand left-wing changes in the Global South. The term “Green Revolution” was coined by William Gaud, administrator of USAID in the late 1960s. Referring to record yields in Pakistan, India, the Philippines and Turkey, he announced, “Developments in the field of agriculture contain the makings of a new revolution. It is not a violent Red Revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a White Revolution like that of the shah of Iran. I call it the Green Revolution.” Steeped in the cold war, the first Green Revolution was designed to prevent any other revolutions from happening.