In a letter to the new Prime Minister of Ethiopia, the agricultural expert Million Belay, makes 7 proposals to promote sustainable agriculture.
If I could have a chance to speak to the Prime Minister, I would discuss with him about the following seven issues.
1 I will tell him to endorse agroecology.
Despite a lot of hurdles, I feel that agroecology is on the march. Even though there is a lot of misunderstanding about it and uncertainty as to how to measure its success as compared to other forms of agriculture, there is a general consensus that it is the agriculture for the future. If we want to increase yield without compromising nutrition, health, the wellbeing of the environment and cultural values, this is the kind of agriculture that we should promote. Fortunately, a lot of research results, practices and ideas are shared and promoted among food producers, consumers, researchers and government. We have ample evidence in Ethiopia that it works. There is a big YES among a growing number of actors that agroecology can feed the world and at same time protect the environment. A recent endorsement of agroecology by the Committee on Agriculture (commonly known as COAG) of FAO, testifies to the fact that it is on the rise. The only continent where it is facing huge resistance is in Africa. However, the mushrooming of civil society networks in countries, including Ethiopia, holds a huge promise.
Despite a lot of hurdles, I feel that agroecology is on the march. Even though there is a lot of misunderstanding about it and uncertainty as to how to measure its success as compared to other forms of agriculture, there is a general consensus that it is the agriculture for the future.
2 I will encourage him to support the passing of the United Nations declaration on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas.
I had a chance to participate as an expert in the talks in Geneva where the declaration was negotiated. The basic reason for having this collective right is because peasants are mostly marginalized. They are poorer than other sections of society, their land is continuously being appropriated, the laws and strategies of many nations discriminate against them. Yet there are many existing human rights instruments and a need to bring them together under one document. I was astounded how South Africa and most Latin American countries have supported the declaration very strongly. Most African countries supported it. But, as usual, countries that abhor collective rights and any talk of People, Sovereignty, Community, Indigenous Peoples, Rights, Free Prior and Informed Consent, etc. were determined to fight it, line by line. I think we need to support this declaration as it brings all other declarations related to peasants together into one document and gives farmers the instrument to defend their wellbeing.
3 I will encourage him to identify and protect areas of crop diversity and their wild relatives.
I participated recently in a conference organized by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food on seed resilience. The first keynote speaker was Prof Jose Sarukhan from Mexico. He said, “The genetical diversity of native crops is the result of millenia of evolution under domestication. The diversity of their wild relatives represents millions of years of evolution under natural selection. Both are the most valuable and irrepleaceable source of responses for adaptation to changes in the environment, including climate change… I think Ethiopia and Africa also have these places where crop genetic diversity and wild plant diversity co-exist. The general attitude that we have towards ‘weeds’ is a big problem. Farmers have started using glyphosate to clear weeds and, setting aside its huge health impacts, it has the potential to wipe out this wild genetic diversity which we rather need to work to protect.
As to the in situ seed conservation (in farmers’ fields) and ex-situ seed conservation (in seed banks), Alejandro Argumedo, known for his work on starting active conservation on potato varieties in Peru, has a great idea. He calls it trans-situ, allowing gene banks and farmers’ fields to interact and maintain the diversity in crops. I think community seed banks do that as farmers borrow seeds, plant them in their farms and return them to seed banks.
4 I will caution him not to endorse artificial intelligence (AI) based technologies without a thorough understanding and public debate about their future impacts.
Behind every technology there is power play and control. As you know, with the advent of AI (non-biological intelligence) the future is up in the air. Intelligence is the ability to accomplish complex goals. Research is going on in labs in many rich countries, as well as in China and some African countries, to produce super robots to do a multitude of jobs currently done by humans or machines. This mind-boggling fusion of information technology and biotechnology is developing so fast that human intelligence is finding it difficult to keep up. Keeping up even with the advance in information technology is difficult for many of us. I do not hear a real debate about this in Africa, but leading thinkers all over the world are divided on this. Some consider it a menace and others see it as a saviour. I did not have a one-to-one discussion with him or read in full his vision around this but hearing our Prime Minster speak about this and his reaction to the first AI in Ethiopia, called Sophie, which was apparently produced by engineers, including Ethiopian engineers, tells me that he is all for it. I am not saying that Africa should sit on its hands while the rest of the world is developing a technology with the potential to control us but we have to be critical about it and really understand what the consequences will be.
What is our position as a country with regard to Gene Drives? According to Pat Mooney, the term ‘gene drive’ refers to a technique intended to engineer the genetics of entire populations of a species by a single release of engineered ‘selfish’ gene constructs. The ‘selfishness’ of the genes refers to the way they pass one or more traits on to most or all of the next generation. Normally, offspring of sexually reproducing organisms have a 50:50 chance of inheriting a gene from their parents. Gene drives aim to make it a near certainty that, within a few generations, all of an organism’s offspring will bear that gene. Recently some insiders planted strategically by industry have pushed the African Union to accept gene drives. Where will this blind acceptance of technology lead us?
To pick one issue, I think the general agreement is that future technologies based on AI will have a huge impact on labor. Where are we going to put the increasing number of African youth if we endorse AI? I agree with the PM that the biggest disruption will come in agriculture, as the vision is to develop machines that gather data from the farm and do the farming with more efficiency. This is called precision farming and it is already happening. Where will the poorly educated and poorly integrated youth go if AI takes over our agriculture. I think there is a danger that disgruntled youth will burn the systems in our countries to the ground if we do not have sufficient protective mechanisms against this.
5 I will warn him of going the industrial agriculture way as we may find it difficult and costly to change course when we want to.
One of the most appreciated parts of the IPES-Food report, From Uniformity to Diversity, is the identification of the eight “lock-ins”. One of them is called path dependency. In our context, this means farmers slowly but surely leaving their way of farming and moving into using agrochemicals and hybrid seeds and orienting their agriculture to market. Once they are in, the soil and the plants will get ‘addicted’ to agrochemicals and hybrid varieties. This is already happening across the board in Africa. Ethiopian farmers tell me again and again that their farm is corrupted. It will not produce unless an artificial fertilizer is applied to it. Farmers are using pesticides profusely to fight off pests and weeds which are increasing due to the decrease in the soil and plant resistance.
What is worrying is that there is limited discussion about this and the strategy is to put more farmers under this scheme. There is even a drive in Ethiopia to encourage farmers who have their farms side by side to put them together and plant a single variety on a bigger scale; large scale farming done by many small-scale farmers. This is despite a growing amount of research warning against large scale agriculture and advising for diversity. Even though there will be an increase in production for some years, this will taper off and the agrochemicals that they use will harm their health and that of the environment. Farmers will be exposed to the vagaries of price fluctuation in the markets. In general, their resilience will be compromised.
6 I will really urge him to put urbanization as one of the top agendas in his policy.
Urban areas are marching on in Africa, winning more rural lands and hosting a number of slums. Young people are flocking to urban areas for new opportunities. That young people should flock to cities is expected and to some extent needed. More youth in farming families might mean more fragmentation of land. Rural to urban migration has also a positive impact on population control. Those who have fled to urban areas and succeed also send money to their families, and this has helped many rural families to cope with social and environmental stresses. But urban areas are poorly planned and are not prepared for this influx of young people. There is a social, economic and environmental crisis wherever you go. I think urban issues will be the leading sustainability issue in the near future in Africa. We have a huge chance to correct this through better strategies and learning from others and if we do not do that fast enough, we will definitely pay a heavy price in the future.
7 I will advise him to consider the complexity of the social and ecological environment in his government plans.
We live in a world where we have little idea of what is going to happen tomorrow. If anyone can tell me that they would have predicted what was going to happen in Ethiopia seven months ago, they would be a liar. The country was on the brink of civil war and disintegration. I was praying that the current government finds some way of stabilizing the country. No other group could have done it as they lack the control of state machinery, including the military, and the acceptance of the people. As I said, what the Prime Minister and his Front did saved the country. This is just an example of how we are not sure of the direction of our country, our continent, or even the world, both socially and environmentally. Climate change exacerbates this uncertainty.
So what kind of food system do we need in this time of uncertainty? I think it should be based on diversity. We have to manage somehow the connectivity that is created through the spread of mobile phones and social media. We need to manage the lock-ins that we are driving ourselves into. We need to understand and actively participate in the control of the incoming technologies. We need to use both the knowledge of our farmers and that of science. Yes, we need to produce more food for an increasing population but we can do this using agroecology. A farmer in Togo recently told me that he produces twice as much food on his farm than farmers supported by government-led extension. The techniques are out there and what they need is policy and research support, and linkages with markets. We can feed ourselves while protecting our health and cultural values as well as the environment surrounding us.
Million Belay is the founder of the MELCA (Movement for Ecological Learning and Community Action), an Ethiopian NGO, and the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA).