Joe DeVries is a breeder – and Vice President of AGRA. What are the chances and risks of a ’green revolution‘ in Africa? A discourse between Jan Rübel and him about productivity, needs, and paternalism.
Dr. Joe DeVries is Vice President of AGRA, where he is responsible for the program development and Innovation. He is an expert in crop improvement and genetics.
What have you accomplished in Africa up until now?
We discovered that the farmers were not failing to incorporate new technologies because of a decision they had made. They were simply not getting the chance to improve their productivity by using enhanced seeds or better crop production. The key to our strategy is to take advantage of science and better technology, but that is only available to a few researchers. The farmers are far away and the African landscape is broad, so the initial plan was to bring the seeds directly to them. We originally started talking to some of the world’s largest seed companies in 2003/2004 to see if they were interested but their response was, ‘Africa is not our thing - not right now.’
So, the Multinationals were not getting involved; what happened next?
We asked ourselves: Is it so complicated that African companies cannot do it themselves? And we found out that there are a lot of African agribusiness entrepreneurs who wanted to do this – but they weren’t given the chance. Bank interests are too high and they refuse to meet people who develop new things. There is this historical divide in Africa between the public sector and private sector and AGRA served as a kind of link between the two. We ended up spending a lot of time introducing seed entrepreneurs to public crop breeders.
'In some countries 30 percent of children suffer from malnutrition'
Since the beginning of AGRA in 2006, can you estimate in figures what has been achieved?
We track these numbers with our own data analysis team. So far, we have invested in the development of more than new crop varieties and 114 private African seed companies. In 2017, these companies were able to supply 141,000 metric tons of seeds. That is a huge difference compared to what it was before - night and day. At the village level we also created about 20,000 agricultural trade shops where they stock the seeds, tools and fertilizers. Thus, we provided physical access.
Okay, there was a lack of choices. But why are we talking about starting a revolution?
Well, we know from statistics that things are not good. We have huge population growth. In fact, populations of most African countries after 50 years of independence are four times what they were at that time. Pretending that this continent will be able to feed itself sufficiently in the future without something changing in the way it goes about its agriculture is a non-starter. There needs to be an improvement of productivity on the farming level. Otherwise, Africa will become more and more dependent on imported food, which will remain unavailable to the poorest population, but it also denies them the opportunity of being able to feed their own country …
… to create jobs …
… exactly. In some countries where we work, 30% of children suffer from malnutrition. It is a dire situation. This is not something we can take lightly.
AGRA focuses on supporting small farmers. Critics say that they are facing risks in the middle of this green revolution.
The term ’green revolution‘ is in need of upgrading or updating. The criticisms of the original green revolutions in the sixties were valid because the crop seeds that were developed in many cases lacked good local adaptation, which meant that farmers were obligated to use more agrochemicals to protect their crop against diseases. We have learnt from this experience. You know, I am a crop breeder. When people come and say that biotechnology is the new way to feed the world, my response is that, to date, the biggest change has been involving farmers. We call it farmer participatory plant breeding in order to get that adaptation combined with higher yield potential. Thus, we take an agroecology-based approach; we go to the fields and look for insects. Finding insects in a healthy crop is an indication that these are the best genes in that crop for resisting the insect. These are all conventionally bred crop varieties - there is no GMO. But there is a level of genius about African crop breeders that I love to see being tapped into now. Because they are people from the villages, they do not come from the outside. They grew up on farms where they have seen their parents suffer from low crop yields and high losses due to insects, disease, drought or floods. Now, they see that there are actually viable solutions. This is once again based on using science in a way that is derived from information from local communities about what they need.
'This is how the world is feeding itself'
Maybe people are scared because they hear you say that agriculture must be business-led, and it makes them think that big companies will come and push smallholder farmers away.
When you start by creating a group of customers based on their genuine needs, you give at least the system the best chance of matching the right demand with the right supply. Working with local entrepreneurs, we probably gave up to the opportunity to go bigger in the early stages. But this is the right way. The big companies are looking, obviously, and in many cases, they start to invest. But in the meantime, the governments have begun to show interest in what is happening to their agricultures. Some of the most liable conversations we have with governments at this stage are around the regulatory environment: what quality of seed do we want to reach the farmers? At this stage, farmers are being well considered and taken care of by the system.
Farmers would have to buy hybrid seeds instead of using their own traditional ones. Does that not create a new financial dependence?
Unfortunately, I would say that this technology needs to be renewed every year. The question is whether you really ever want to deny farmers the option to buy that product. It is offered as an opportunity. Look at the world – this is how the world is feeding itself. When it comes to maize, sorghum or millet, tomatoes and other vegetables, all of them are hybrids. The people who say, ‘Oh, not in Africa’ – what do they want? Are we going to make a museum out of African agriculture and say that this was for everybody else? That is not an option.
Is it paternalistic?
Yes, a bit. We have to face realities on the ground. If the farmers we work with told us, ’No, we don’t want this stuff around here‘, then we would have made this correction. We are here for farmers. I am an agriculturalist myself, and the last thing I want is to disappoint or offend a farmer. Instead, they absolutely want that.
There is a demand for hybrid seeds?
They need these seeds more than anyone else in the world does. These can add ten or twenty per cent to their yield – and they are eating most of the food they are harvesting. They do not even sell them at this stage. If they are ready to go and buy hybrid seeds that are very expensive for them, how am I to deny them of this? We did not simply go and put out any random hybrid seed. First, we talked to the farmers to see what they wanted. After we developed this, we saw a significant decrease in disease.
Is it necessary to regulate seeds via laws?
Yes. All of the breeding work that we have supported as AGRA is done with the involvement of the national governments, so it is a public breeding programme. Once they have a new product, we ask them to licence it, but they remain the owners. You do need legal protection to make sure that no one comes and steals it. It can be made available to other duly registered seed entrepreneurs who want to grow and sell it.
And what happens to the farmers who decide to continue with their local and traditional seeds?
They are perfectly free to do so, and many of them do.
'Food systems respond to demand, and this depends on purchasing power'
Are they not excluded from markets then?
There is not one market. There are African varieties of rice or sorghum that are so unique and flavourful that they never go out of demand. These are crops that have such a tremendous appeal for anybody who is eating the food. Actually, we see a market form around this. However, the downside is that they are low yielding. Hence, it is difficult to feed the whole country with it.
So, you do not see any negative side effects?
The danger would only arise if the traditional varieties were to be cast away and not preserved. But it is part of our key strategy to help the national crop breeding teams collect and preserve the local varieties.
How do you ensure that?
Part of the funding that we provide is used to collect, document and store the seeds at a national level. Additionally, several donors have wisely stepped in to support the gene bank in Norway.
What role do human rights play at AGRA?
The role of appropriate and more productive agricultural technologies in allowing a local society to feed itself is of such a great importance that I personally view it as a human right.
Some say that there is already enough food and that it is only a question of access. Are they correct?
This is such a simplistic description of the situation. What if the people locally don’t have the money to buy the food that could otherwise be transported to them? Food systems respond to demand, and demand depends on your purchasing power. If you are a poor farmer who generates no cash and still has need for additional food, how are you signalling to the market that the food is needed there? There is still a chronic undersupply of food and if we don’t solve this issue, it is simply going to get worse.
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