Globalization threatens benefits of an African ‘green revolution’

A prospective “green revolution” in Africa could boost land use and carbon emissions globally, according to a study co-authored by a University of British Columbia researcher.

The term “green revolution” typically describes the use of agricultural innovations – such as the development of new seeds – to increase yields, particularly in developing countries.

Past green revolutions in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East have spared land and carbon dioxide emissions. However, in an increasingly globalized economy, an African green revolution could lead to opposite outcomes, finds the study.

“Africa happens to be a carbon-rich region that has a large share of agriculture today and low yields. Innovation results in farmers responding by expanding land faster than in other regions,” says UBC Professor Navin Ramankutty.

The research showed that ramping up agricultural productivity in Africa from 2025 to 2050 could increase global cropland expansion by 1.8 million hectares and global carbon emissions by 267 million metric tonnes.

The study also contributes to a long-standing debate on the environmental impacts of green revolutions. While many researchers claim that agricultural productivity is inherently harmful to the environment, others believe it can be environmentally beneficial if additional crops can be grown on the same amount of land.

Despite the concerns, agricultural innovations in Africa could produce long-term benefits such as cheaper food, improved farming returns and reduced poverty.

Background

The study’s lead author is Thomas Hertel of Purdue University; it was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Co-author Navin Ramankutty is a professor of Global Food Security and Sustainability at UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues and the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability.

Past studies have typically adopted a regional, rather than a global, perspective. The authors examined the issue using a broad, analytical framework and global perspective.