"Nutrition is a human right"

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.

Ich bin ein Alternativtext
Traditional seed on a market in Tanzania. © Karel Prinsloo / Arete / Rockefeller Foundation / AGRA

Joe DeVries

Frank Schultze / Agentur_ZS

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.  

 

 

Ich bin ein Alternativtext
Booth at Burkina Faso selling hybrid seeds. © Jörg Böthling / GIZ

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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A contribution by Kerstin Weber and Brit Reichelt-Zolho (WWF)

Biodiversity and sustainable agriculture ensure the nutrition of whole societies. But there is more: These two factors also provide better protection against the outbreak of dangerous pandemics. Hence, the question of preserving ecosystems is becoming a global survival issue.

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The Forest Maker and his director

Double interview with Tony Rinaudo and Volker Schlöndorff

Tony Rinaudo uses conventional reforestation methods to plant millions and millions of trees – and Volker Schlöndorff is filming a cinema documentary about the Australian. The outcome so far: An educational film on behalf of the BMZ (Federal Ministry for Economic Co-operation and Development).

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The state of food security in Cape Town and St. Helena Bay

A study by Markus Hanisch, Agustina Malvido, Johanna Hansmann, Alexander Mewes, Moritz Reigl, Nicole Paganini (SLE)

Post-Covid-19 lockdown: How food governance processes could include marginalised communities - an extract of the results of an SLE study applying digital and participatory methods.

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(c) Nina Schroeder/World Food Programme

Green from the growth container

A contribution by Maria Smentek (WFP)

If there is a lack of fertile soil and rain, hunger breaks out quickly. Maria Smentek from the World Food Programme (WFP) explains how farmers and pastoralists can counter climate change with hydroponic-systems.

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(c) Thomas Lohnes / Brot für die Welt

The hype about urban gardening: farmers or hobby gardeners?

A contribution by Stig Tanzmann

Urban gardening is becoming increasingly popular in northern metropoles. People who consider themselves part of a green movement are establishing productive gardens in the city, for example on rooftops or in vacant lots. In severely impoverished regions of the global South, urban agriculture is a component of the food strategy.

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How the self-help approach empowers smallholder women

A report by INEF and Kindernothilfe

Supporting groups of smallholding women substantially contributes to strengthen rural operations economically. The organisation and associated group activities can help to reduce extreme poverty and improve the food situation.

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Gender equality: Essential for food and nutrition security

A contribution by Carsta Neuenroth (BfdW)

The majority of producers in developing countries are women. Although they contribute significantly to the food security of their families, they remain chronically disadvantaged in male-dominated agriculture in terms of access to land, credit, technology and education.

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Success story allotment garden: Food supply and women's empowerment

A contribution by Nadine Babatounde and Anne Floquet (MISEREOR)

To prevent malnutrition among young children and strengthen the role of women in their communities, Misereor, together with the local non-governmental organisation CEBEDES, is implementing a programme on integrated home gardens in Benin - a series of pictures.

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Hunger must not be a consequence of the epidemic!

A contribution by Michael Brüntrup (DIE)

Even though COVID-19 poses a threat to the health of humanity, the reaction to the pandemic must not cause more suffering than the disease itself. This is particularly relevant for poor developing countries, where the impact of the corona crisis on food security is even more severe!

 

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Developing countries hit doubly hard by coronavirus

A contribution by Gunter Beger (BMZ)

In most African countries, the infection COVID-19 is likely to trigger a combined health and food crisis. This means: In order to cope with this unprecedented crisis, consistently aligning our policies to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is more important than ever, our author maintains.

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Hier steht eine Bildbeschreibung

Statement from GAFSP Co-Chairs: GAFSP and COVID-19 Pandemic

A contribution by GAFSP

COVID-19 has unprecedented effects on the world. As always, the most vulnerable are the hardest hit, both at home and - especially - abroad. A joint appeal by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ) and the Department for International Development (DFID).

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An investment in Africa's future

A contritbution by Essa Chanie Mussa (University of Gondar)

Rural youth need viable livelihood opportunities to escape out of poverty and realize their aspirations. How could they be helped to fully unleash their potential? This is an aloud call that needs novel strategies among governments, policy makers, and international development partners and donors.

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(c) Privat

Borderless food security

A contribution by Christine Wieck

Enabling smallholders to trade across regions and borders promotes food security and economic growth. Although everyone is calling for exactly that, implementation is still difficult

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© GIZ

Actual Analysis: The locusts came with the crises

A report by Bettina Rudloff and Annette Weber (SWP)

The Corona-Virus exacerbates existing crises through conflict, climate, hunger and locusts in East Africa and the Horn of Africa. What needs to be done in these regions? To face these challenges for many countries, all of these crises need to be captured in their regional context.

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"Extreme is the new normal"

A report by Alexander Müller and Jes Weigelt (TMG)

As the climate changes, the population of Africa is growing and fertile land and jobs are becoming scarcer. New ways are currently leading to urbanisation of agriculture and a new mid-sized sector in the countryside

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© GIZ / Angelika Jacob

This is how developing countries can adapt better to droughts

A contribution by Michael Brüntrup (DIE) und Daniel Tsegai (UNCCD)

Droughts are the natural disasters with far-reaching negative consequences. While rich countries are still vulnerable to drought, famines are no longer found.

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(c) Christof Krackhardt/Brot für die Welt

Together and resourceful against worldwide hunger

A contribution by Brot für die Welt

Climate change disturbs the climate in Ethiopia. The answer from small farmers in the northern region is convincing: diversify!

 

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(c) Nina Schroeder/World Food Programme

Hunger is caused by people, not the climate

Interview with Jacob Schewe (PIK)

A study by the World Bank predicts that millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa will have to leave their homelands because of climate change. We have spoken with one of the authors

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UNFSS Pre-Summit: What did it achieve?

Interview with Martina Fleckenstein (WWF), Michael Kühn (WHH) and Christel Weller-Molongua (GIZ)

After the summit means pre-summit: It was the first time that the United Nations held a summit on food systems. Martina Fleckenstein (WWF), Michael Kühn (WHH) and Christel Weller-Molongua (GIZ) reviewed the situation in this joint interview.

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How do you campaign “Food Systems”?

Interview with Paul Newnham, Director of the SDG 2 Advocacy Hub.

The UN Food Systems pre-Summit in Rome dealt with transforming the ways of our nutrition. How do you bring that to a broad public? Questions to Paul Newnham, the Director of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 Advocacy Hub.

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Food system transformation starts and ends with diversity

A contribution by Emile Frison and Nick Jacobs (IPES-Food)

While having failed to solve the hunger problem, industrial agriculture appears to be causing additional ones both in environmental and health terms. Emile Frison and Nick Jacobs call for a transformation.

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What do you expect from this Pre Summit, Mr. Haddad?

Interview with Lawrence Haddad (GAIN)

Nutrition experts from all over the world are coming together in Rome. They are not only distilling 2000 ideas to improve food systems - they are also preparing for the big UN summit in New York in September. An interview. 

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Mr. Campari, how do we create sustainable food systems?

Interview with Joao Campari (WWF)

Journalist Jan Rübel spoke with Joao Campari ahead of the UNFSS Pre-Summit. The Chair of Action Track 3 highlights key challenges in transforming existing food systems towards sustainable production and shares his expectations for the Summit.

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