How to feed Africa’s growing population: Lessons from India’s Green Revolution

As countries in Africa increasingly focus on building resilient food systems and becoming self-reliant, governments can learn from other developing countries. In the 1960s, India experienced a so-called Green Revolution, which yielded more food production and made it more self-sufficient but had dramatic consequences for the environment and its people. What can African countries learn from India’s successes and mistakes to build resilient food systems?

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      The Egyptian presidency is putting the critical need for sustainable agriculture and climate-resilient food systems high on the agenda of COP27. There are diverse views on how to achieve this globally. While many African countries aim for agricultural growth and food self-sufficiency to feed a growing population, India’s example shows that this ambition has its drawbacks and should go hand in hand with building climate resilience.

      The (not so) Green Revolution in India

      For a long time, food production in India faced varied challenges due to the growing population, lack of technological advancement, land reforms and severe droughts. This situation gave rise to a period in the 1960s dubbed the Green Revolution. While the revolution was arguably one of the most significant changes in India’s agricultural sector, it also had devastating and long-term impacts on the environment and, ultimately, the livelihoods and health of people in the farming sector.

      With 65% of the population living in rural areas, India is mainly an agricultural economy and employs nearly 58% of the people in agriculture. The Green Revolution focused on using chemical fertilisers, heavy irrigation, adopting technology that promotes high-yields and producing high-yield varieties of seeds (HYV seeds) such as wheat and rice. The revolution led to an increase in the production of wheat from 50 million tonnes in 1950 to 95.1 million tonnes in 1968.

      While an increase in food production helped India prevent famines and become self-reliant by reducing its dependence on food imports, the Green Revolution had uneven and disproportionate impacts across different geographical locations and socio-economic groups. Farmers with low incomes and little or no landholdings were pushed into non-farming activities.

      Poor farmers were unable to buy the new technology and had to rely on heavy loans. Ultimately, rich farmers became richer and poor farmers became poorer. The distress and overwhelming debt incurred by the poor farmers led to a national catastrophe of several hundred thousand farmers committing suicide since the 1970s. To this day, the persistent rural inequality and skyrocketing levels of debt among Indian farmers have caused nearly 3000 to commit suicide from 2021 until mid-August this year.

      In addition, the application of chemicals, heavy usage of irrigation, and technology promoting high-yields had negative impacts on the environment. Traditionally, Indian farmers had practised organic husbandry and crop rotation that allowed the land and soil to retain their nutrients for a long time.

      Many indigenous crops were cultivated but were replaced by the introduction of HVY monohybrid seeds that could better withstand fertilisers. The high usage of chemicals further changed groundwater levels, contaminating the water and soil and affecting the health of people. The ‘cancer train’ carrying cancer patients from farming villages in the state of Punjab to hospitals in the bigger cities of Rajasthan is a case in point.

      Several civil society organisations in India advocate for sustainable agricultural practices generating research and evidence, providing training and empowering marginalised communities, particularly women. The ‘seed guardians’ in Odisha and women farmers in the Malwa region of Punjab, who have adopted organic farming methods to fight against what they call ‘cancerous farming practices’, provide examples of the important role of women in the agricultural sector. Bina Agarwal, an Indian development economist, has further reinforced and highlighted the critical role women play in national food security as producers, consumers and food managers in the household.

      India and Africa: A partnership with potential

      Similar to India in the 1960s, the population in African countries has grown significantly and is expected to double by 2050. However, unlike India, which increased its agricultural production by focusing on inputs and technology, Africa is yet to decide which course to take. Furthermore, Africa imports $35 billion in the agricultural sector every year and this number is expected to grow and reach $110 billion by 2025.

      The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, economic strains caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and Africa’s vulnerability to climate change demand urgent action. African countries need to focus more on sustainable innovation and research to achieve food security with a special focus on soil and water protection.

      As opposed to India’s Green Revolution, which ultimately harmed the environment, Africa would need to adopt a more integrated approach that takes social and ecological vulnerabilities into consideration. For example, sustainable water management innovations could enable countries in Africa to increase their agricultural productivity. Additionally, investments should be made in greener fertilisers more efficiently. Further, it is key to ensure that smallholder farmers, the majority of farmers in Africa, can truly benefit from subsidies and agricultural input policies.

      Both India and Africa are rich in natural resources and have the capability to become more food secure. Also, India can potentially set the tone for emerging economies’ climate action. It recently finalised and approved its climate action plans. In its commitments, it aims to reduce its emissions per unit of gross domestic product by nearly half from its 2005 levels and enhance its focus on renewable sources of energy, including solar, wind, nuclear and hydropower by 2030. These targets are a positive development, considering the agricultural sector in India contributes to 14% of the total greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, greater cooperation and learnings from the programmes and initiatives of civil society organisations, including women groups and communities, will help strengthen and build resilience.

      Although it remains to be seen whether India’s climate action plans will be successfully implemented, the updated plans also emphasise a sustainable and healthy form of living. Ahead of COP27 in Egypt, both India and countries in Africa have highlighted the need for developed countries to increase their commitments to climate finance and technology support to specifically help them adapt their agri-food systems to climate change.

      Opportunities for Africa to become more food secure and less dependent on crucial food imports exist, but they require innovation at both the policy and financial levels. Governments should design policies keeping in mind the context and representing the farming community.

      For example, in addition to supporting greener and organic fertilisers, agricultural policies should prioritise farmers’ specific input requirements. India and Africa’s partnership has grown considerably over the past decade, and they have collaborated on key sustainable development projects such as the International Solar Alliance. Furthermore, countries, including India and South Africa, committed to strengthening their collaboration to tackle climate change at the recently organised BRICS high-level meeting on climate change.

      And lastly, the G77 brings together India and all African countries to promote and enhance their interests, particularly joint economic issues, and strengthen their capacity during UN negotiations. During one of the group’s consultations, held in June 2022, member countries emphasised the importance of achieving food security in developing countries. India and Africa should make the best use of these joint initiatives and dialogues based on their shared priorities and jointly push for the need and support for sustainable agri-food systems in both regions at the upcoming COP27.

      The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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