In a bid to move “tens of millions of people out of extreme poverty” and “significantly” reduce hunger, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has teamed with the Rockefeller Foundation to launch a new “Green Revolution” in Africa.

These high-profile foundations have committed a combined $150 million toward fulfilling their admirable goals. But a look at the original Green Revolution, and its dubious record in Africa, raises serious questions about the wisdom of their effort.

Bill Gates.

Photo: Jemal Countess/WireImage

The Green Revolution started in 1943, when the Rockefeller Foundation sent a team of scientists to Mexico to develop higher-yield varieties of wheat, maize, and other crops. An act of altruism, yes, but the move by Rockefeller, then the best-endowed U.S. foundation, may have had other motivations.

For one, the U.S. was embroiled in World War II, and Nazi Germany had made overtures to Mexico. For another, the Mexican government had also nationalized the country’s oil supply in 1938 — a direct blow to Standard Oil, the Rockefeller family-owned oil monopoly with global interests. As University of Texas economics professor Harry Cleaver Jr. has put it [PDF], the foundation seemed to believe that “the friendly gesture of a development project might not only soften rising nationalism, but might also help hang onto wartime friends.”

At any rate, the Mexico project eventually succeeded. Financed by Rockefeller and later Ford Foundation cash, what became known as the Green Revolution essentially dispersed cutting-edge U.S. agricultural technology — “dwarf” grain varieties, petrochemical fertilizers, and large-scale irrigation systems — through much of Latin America and Southeast Asia. To make a long story short, where the program took hold, grain yields surged, the prices farmers fetched for them on global markets plunged — and small-scale farmers lost out.

Unable to compete with larger operations — which had the cash to buy the Green Revolution “package” of hybrid seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides and could access lavishly funded irrigation projects — smallholders began a mass migration to the cities in the 1960s and ’70s. In Southeast Asia, long held up as one of the Green Revolution’s success stories, the urban population swung from 20 percent in 1975 to 35 percent in 2000. The World Bank reckons that by 2030, more than half of Southeast Asians will be urban dwellers.

The agricultural modernization that has caused this large-scale depopulating of the countryside is often hailed as one of the great achievements of the 20th century. Yet the environmental and social costs of chemical-intensive agriculture have caused hand wringing even in mainstream policy circles.

A recent report from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization on “Women and the Green Revolution” comments bluntly (if blandly) on the issues at hand. The Green Revolution delivered higher incomes to “the better-off strata of rural society,” the report states, whereas “the poorest strata have tended to lose access to income that was available before its introduction.” The study goes on: “The introduction of high-yielding varieties of rice in Asia has had a major impact on rural women’s work and employment, most of it unfavorable.”

If the Green Revolution’s social record has been questionable, its environmental legacy is dismal. By promoting petrochemical fertilizer, the Rockefeller Foundation’s agricultural experts subjected the developing world’s soils to degradation and dependence on artificial fertility, conveniently shipped in by transnational agribusiness firms. Writing in The Fatal Harvest Reader, Jason McKenney describes how petrochemicals literally change the physical structure of soils, making them less efficient at storing water, air, and nutrients.

It’s no wonder that huge and expensive irrigation systems were central to the Green Revolution project. And heavy reliance on irrigation has compromised large swaths of arable land in India and Pakistan through the process of salinification, wherein salts build up in over-watered soil. Nor is it any wonder that most experts believe the program’s celebrated ability to deliver increasing grain yields has largely been tapped out. Lester Brown, who championed the diffusion of energy-intensive ag technology in the 1960s, has turned pessimistic. “The backlog of technology to raise grain yields is shrinking,” he recently warned.

No easy road to answers in Africa.

Photo: iStockphoto

Africa, for its part, has fared particularly poorly from the Green Revolution. Its farmers have suffered from the global drop in grain prices, but haven’t been able to effectively use the technologies themselves. It wasn’t for lack of trying, though. According to Devlin Kuyek of Grain, a Barcelona-based sustainable-agriculture think tank, “fertilizer use increased substantially from the 1970s onwards in sub-Saharan Africa, while per capita agricultural production fell. The green revolution’s high-yielding varieties fared no better.” Kuyek points to a key problem in applying large-scale, high-tech solutions to Africa’s diverse microclimates and soil conditions: “African soils are generally unsuitable to intensive, monoculture production because of insufficient or excessive rains, high incidences of pests and diseases, and other factors.”

Kuyek’s assessment of African agriculture is hardly unusual. Indeed, he quotes Joseph DeVries, the Rockefeller Foundation agricultural specialist who has been tapped to head the Gates/Rockefeller joint venture, on the challenges of using Green Revolution technologies in Africa: “Lingering low yields among African farmers for crops such as maize and rice, where adoption of improved varieties has been appreciable, call into question the overall value of the improved [seed stock] to local farmers.”

Why, then, is the Gates Foundation embracing the Green Revolution rubric in its big African ag push? Given the record, it’s difficult to say. Could the technophilic organization be betting that genetically-modified-organism technology can revive Africa’s agricultural fortunes? In spirit, GMOs fit in beautifully with Green Revolution philosophy, representing a technical fix dreamed up by outside “experts” and marketed by transnational agribusiness giants.

Granted, the promo material surrounding the Gates/Rockefeller effort studiously avoids mentioning biotech. That doesn’t mean GMOs aren’t part of the design. Both the Gates and Rockefeller foundations have already supported research into genetically modified solutions to Africa’s agricultural woes. And project manager DeVries is a long-time proponent of GMO crops on the continent.

Likely as not, Africa will continue to prove as inhospitable to GMOs as it has to other high-tech solutions. If its complex and varied soils have stumped Western experts in the past, perhaps it’s time to consult the people who know them most intimately: the smallholder farmers. Typical development projects see smallholders as impediments to progress, underutilized workers whose labor would be more efficiently used in an urban factory. A wise and novel approach might be to see small farmers as a resource — as experts in their own right.