An interview with Dr. Million Belay on the IPES-Food Report ‘From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems’.
Dr. Million Belay is founder and director of the Movement for Ecological Learning and Community Action (MELCAEthiopia), co-founder and coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) and member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).
What makes this report different from other reports released over the years?
The report provides unbiased view of industrial agriculture and agroecological systems. It reviews the latest evidence on the outcomes of the industrial and agroecological production models and identifies eight political lock-ins which made it difficult to change the system and shows how it can be changed if there is a will. It uses a political economy lens to look at industrial agriculture and exposes how the interests of few actors is keeping the system as it is.
How do you explain the significance of the report particularly for civil societies advocating food sovereignty?
The report has been researched and written by people who not only have scientific background but also have a deep understanding of the capitalist system. It is well referenced. The panel members also have an understanding of agroecology and its possible impact on diverse social and ecological contexts. In that light, the report has a huge potential to support policy advocacy by civil societies across the globe. Civil society is commonly accused of basing its advocacy on ill researched agenda and coming with shallow arguments for issues that it relies on, including agroecology. It is viewed as anti-science. Therefore, reports like this, coming from an independent body, can serve as a great armor to counter against the narrative of industrial agriculture. It is also a very timely report. Agroecology is starting to be accepted by key international platforms as the norm instead of just a marginal idea or approach. This report will help strengthen that movement and contribute to speed up the transition to a more sustainable food system.
What was your role in the production and development of the report?
IPES-Food is an independent panel that does not entertain anyone’s interest, be it government, civil society or companies. It is open for its members to suggest topics of interest that need to be explored. The panel members will examine and comment on the suggested topics for further research. If the topic is accepted by the panel members, IPES-Food will put its resources to further investigate the topic. Then the panel members will review the draft report of the researcher and give comment. My role in the panel has been suggesting topics of interest and commenting on the reports as well as making sure that what is written speaks to African context or concerns. I work with farmers and I interact with them regularly. If what the report says and what I see at the grassroots is in disparity, it is my job to suggest what I think is right to the panel.
What’s your expectation about the report’s impact on the food systems in Africa?
There are two ways reports often end up. They may be cherished and celebrated for a while and then die out or forgotten only to be picked up when one wants to write about the issues raised in the report. Or they may be used to contribute to the changes that we want to see. The responsibility of making the most of this report falls on every one of us working for a shift toward diversified agroecological systems. If we use it properly, the report’s impact will be very important for this transition. After the release of the report, the panel has started discussing what steps we should take to further speed the transition to diversified agroecological systems. There is a plan to present the report at key events in Africa and approach key actors to look at the findings and the recommendations of the report. The Panel may also work with Regional civil society groups like AFSA to spread the message as well as make critical interventions in key events. For example, the Panel will participate in the Food Systems meeting that we will be having in November this year.
The report is calling for a fundamentally different model of agriculture/a paradigm shift. How should Africa respond to this call?
I can say that we Africans are lucky because, unlike some continents and countries, we have not moved far away from the agroecological farming systems. Except for South Africa, it is only a small percentage of our farms that have turned into industrial agriculture. However, we are fast moving toward the industrial food systems. This is what concerns us most. Instead of strengthening our diversified agroecological systems, we are following a path that has failed in many nations. The good news is that Africa can easily shift to diversified agroecological systems. That is why it is paramount to actors like AFSA to understand the content of the report, contextualize its findings and recommendations and work hard to educate our decision makers and consumers. There is a growing and cutting-edge science that is supporting agroecology and there are a number of practices elsewhere that Africa can use to improve its agroecological practices. So we have an opportunity from growing evidence and practice but we have a threat from initiatives like the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa which are trying to lead African nations on the road to industrial agriculture and to the destruction of the social, cultural, economic and environmental destruction of our continent.
How is AFSA planning to use the report to further strengthen the food sovereignty movement in Africa?
Within AFSA we need to use this report to support our case for agroecology. We must use the evidence generated in this research to make our case well-founded. For that to happen, we need to strengthen the capacity of our member networks and we need to spread the key messages of the report to our constituencies. As a platform, AFSA is in a position to spread the key messages to African decision makers and citizens. In November, we’ll be hosting a food systems conference (Changing Food Systems in Africa: agroecology and food sovereignty and their role in health and nutrition) in Addis Ababa. The report is directly related to that conference. Members of the IPES-Food will be making key note speeches which will help us shape the outcomes of the conference.
What would your message be for African decision makers regarding the report?
I would like to encourage African leaders and policy makers to read the report and see for themselves that there is a better way of feeding the growing population in Africa without harming the environment and the people. This is a report produced with a rigorous research and is peer reviewed. It is a credible document that can help policy makers to make the right decisions.
The report has summarized its key messages in one page. How would you summarize the report’s key messages in your own words?
For me the main thing from the report is that the industrial system is not working. It is raking havoc in every area of human and other forms of life. It is working for those who benefit from it but it is malfunctioning both for the environment and the people. It keeps on going due to the political lock-ins but there are leverages that we can use to change the status quo. The report clearly puts agroecology as a better system for both people and the environment. Agroecology can both feed us as well as keep our environment and us healthy. Therefore, there is a need to change and this change has to come soon. We have to work to make agroecology the main system, not the fringe that it is now. For this, we have to mobilize farmers, consumers, business and decision makers.