As world leaders gathered in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt to hash out solutions to the problems caused by a warming climate, a top researcher and campaigner for food sovereignty in Africa said the battle against climate change will be lost or won dependent on the agricultural practices that farmers adopt.
Dr Million Belay, General Coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) and member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), said the increasing use of artificial fertilizers not only constitutes a danger for consumers, but it also deadens the soil and worsens the spectre of climate change.
“I think artificial fertilizers are much more dangerous than Carbon Dioxide in terms of Green House Gas emissions,” he told Timescape Magazine in an exclusive interview.
“They are twice dangerous,” he added.
Dr Million said he will be in Cameroon on November 28 where some one hundred experts from across the globe will be discussing issues of food sovereignty
Following are excerpts of that conversation….
What is the link between food and sovereignty?
There is a very strong link between food and sovereignty. Food sovereignty talks about controlling production, being self-sufficient, producing culturally appropriate food, and controlling the distribution and sale of food. It also talks about protecting consumers from the disruptions that are happening in the food system so it’s very, very close to the idea of sovereignty.
If the idea of food sovereignty is coming in, I guess it’s because of Africa’s reliance on imported food. How dependent is Africa on food imports?
It varies from country to country. If you go to the Congo, 80% of the food comes from outside. It’s the same thing in Gabon. If you go to Egypt, 50% of the food comes from outside. But it’s more than just the question of importation, even the means of production. What are you going to use to produce food? What are you going to use as a fertilizer? What are you going to use as seeds? In agricultural systems, you need to ask the question of where the pesticides and all that you are using to produce are coming from. The food can be from your garden, but the inputs come from outside. That means you are losing your food sovereignty.
So, what you are saying is that the use of imported inputs in the farming system poses a problem of food sovereignty.
Yes. Let me give you a recent and simple example. There is a fight between Ukraine and Russia now. The country exporting artificial fertilizers to Africa is Russia, even though it is mixed in Ukraine. So, to fight Russia, fertilizer supply to Africa is disrupted. Because of that disruption, the cost of artificial fertilizers has risen in almost all countries.
In my country, it has tripled. In Kenya, it’s gone up almost four times. Everywhere you go, the cost of fertilizer has increased. It’s a problem. What we are proposing is a circular system in our food system. It means you are getting food from a market closer to you. Now, because of the increase in the price of gas, the price of food everywhere has gone up. That is the broader implication.
What does that mean for food security in Africa?
It means that to be truly food-secure, farmers have to produce more food, healthy, nutritious food without impacting the environment and produce especially appropriate food-food that people like. That is what it is.
How can Africa produce more as you say without importing fertilizers? What is the alternative to synthetic fertilizers?
There are hundreds of ways of improving production. There are what we call bio-fertilizers. Bio-fertilizers are produced using different methods. For example, you can mix manure and water and add some of our biomaterials and everything that is found around your farm can improve your productivity. Composting is one of the methods and there are so many methods of composting. You can use vermicomposting also called worm composting. You bring the worms food and whatever they produce as excreta is excellent for the soil. It’s an excellent way of producing rich organic soil that contains a wide range of plant nutrients and it’s beneficial to microorganisms.
Have you carried out experiments in some African countries to determine that these approaches can produce the volumes of food needed to feed Africa and the world? The global population has just hit 8 billion people.
Just go to your country, Cameroon and ask that question. There are so many practices in Cameroon that I know about. And in Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ghana…they are everywhere-these programs. The problem is the media does not talk about them. The main narrative is that if you don’t pomp the soil with artificial fertilizers, and use pesticides, and bring hybrid seeds, and if you don’t orientate your agriculture to markets, you can’t produce food. That is what is pumped into our minds through the media, and governments also buy into that. So, it’s very difficult to get a space for another paradigm.
How dangerous are these artificial fertilizers not only to the food system but also to the human body and to the health of the environment?
I think artificial fertilizers are much more dangerous than Carbon Dioxide in terms of Green House Gasses. They are twice more dangerous. And if you talk to farmers, they will tell you the land is corrupted by these fertilizers. So, it deadens the soil, it kills the soil. The reason they kill the soil is that they kill bacteria –the microorganisms that make the soil fertile. If a woman is pregnant, do you feed the soil or do you feed the mother? If you feed the mother, the child will be healthy. Feeding the soil is feeding the mother.
How do you explain this to policymakers who may argue that you absolutely need these synthetic fertilizers to improve the quantities of food produced?
You can’t just pump chemicals into the soil and think that there will be no consequences. You need just ask scientists and they will explain to you how dangerous they are. In the US, farmers are going back to regenerative agriculture-you have to regenerate the soil. The problem really is that people get logged into the system and they find it harder to go back. That is why we are fighting in Africa before we get logged into the system.
What kind of argument are you bringing to the table with respect to a return to these natural methods of farming and in relation to the fight against climate change?
We are here to promote Agroecology which is a farming method that uses nature’s principles. It’s a method backed by loads of interdisciplinary scientific studies. We are here to promote agroecology as the best adaptation method in Africa, and also, we want climate financing to go to Agriculture.
How do you go about making sure that both policymakers and farmers look in the same direction with respect to agroecology?
Let’s be clear. Agroecology is not simply a return to the old farming methods that failed to produce enough food. It combines the knowledge of farmers and the knowledge of scientists. Generations of farmers have tremendous knowledge and let me say that I do not know any scientist who can claim to know about farming as much as the farmer. But we need new knowledge to add to that, and the reason is that today’s generation is opened to loads of information especially with new information technologies, in addition to the fact that the climate is changing, the seasons are changing, and the types of animals and plants are changing as well. So, we have two kinds of knowledge. You have knowledge from farmers, and experienced knowledge that comes from years of practice, but knowledge from scientific institutions is also important. So, the two sources of knowledge must come together to negotiate better knowledge.
How did you get engaged in this campaign?
My mother was a farmer. My father was a farmer. My cousins are farmers still, so each time I came back from holiday, I would join them on the farm, so I have that experience in farming. Then I became a teacher in a rural area and could see what farmers were doing and so I started to collect plants and learn from farmers. I was surprised at the level of knowledge they had about the environment.
Then I joined an organization called the Initiative for Sustainable Development, and then I started research in collaboration with farmers. Then I started using a different methodology. For instance, I would go to a landscape and study its history-what was it like sixty years ago, what does it look like now-what has changed in terms of its culture, its economy, its environment, etc.… and how they foresee the future.
So, I lived the experience. So that shaped my thinking and I, therefore, believe that we must fight for our farmers. And it started at the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa. When we started, only five organizations were involved. Right now, we have close to forty networks in fifty of the fifty-five African countries, and over 150 million Africans, so we must fight for these people.
Are farmers adhering?
I met a professor in the UK, and he told me that farmers have three enemies. One is the wizard. You can’t do anything with the wizard. The second is the one producing and managing pesticides. The third is the government. Government officials sit in their offices, and they have every solution to the farmer-similar solutions to everybody.
You will be travelling to Cameroon before this month runs out. Can we have an idea of what you will be going there to do?
In 2016, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa started a food systems conference. We decided to have it every two years. So, the 4th one will take place in Cameroon. Over 100 participants will be coming from all over the world to Cameroon to discuss issues of food sovereignty. We will be visiting rural Cameroon; people will bring along their spices, so we travel to a village about an hour’s drive from the Capital, Yaounde to cook with Cameroonian women.
Unfortunately, when the meeting starts on November 28th, Cameroon will be playing one of their World cup matches, we are told that nobody will be in that hall, so we will have to shift the program in order to accommodate that event.
This story was produced as part of the 2022 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.