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Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher

Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher gives his perspective on agricultural sustainability
Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher gives his perspective on agricultural sustainability

Feeding the world and restoring the land

Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher is Director General of the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia.

Over recent months much attention has been focused on encouraging the governments of the G8 nations to 'make poverty history' by ensuring fairer trade, increasing aid and cancelling debt. While the aims are clearly laudable, insufficient attention is being given to what form the aid should take and what model of economic and agricultural development countries in Africa should pursue. Fairer and more equal distributions of resources will not be enough if we do not fundamentally rethink the way we farm, in rich and poor countries alike.

Since the start of the agricultural revolution, every century has seen changes. But the rate of change is accelerating, and we are at great risk of bringing in new, more extreme changes before we have appreciated the impact of the changes that have already been made. Yet the environment that sustains us - that provides life and food - cannot adapt to our rapidly changing demands. It is unfortunate that we are doing so much that is wrong; we are like little children playing with very dangerous toys.

Living for tomorrow?

The culture that has given us industrial agriculture is changing the global climate and destabilising even the little that remains of the biosphere's natural ecosystems. If this trend is not checked, the likelihood of reducing poverty, let alone the re-emergence of sustainable agriculture that can continually feed the world, will be limited. The Kyoto Protocol is a timid attempt to reduce the impact of climate change. But the United States of America, the country that produces a quarter of the emissions responsible for climate change, has rejected even that timid attempt. Without immediate action, what chance have we got to continue our lives as we now know them? I believe, very little.

Assuming that we could curb climate change, we can only achieve sustainable food production by adopting agricultural practices that both provide for our needs and strengthen the agricultural ecosystem. Could organic farming do this for us? I believe the answer is yes, but only if we take it seriously. We need to research management systems which support rather than disrupt natural cycles, thereby improving the functioning of the ecosystem as a whole, including those parts of it that are not cultivated.

Can this be done? Why not? Previous farming communities have been doing it for thousands of years. With our increased knowledge, we should be able to do it better. For example, the Environmental Protection Authority has started working with farming communities in Tigray, northern Ethiopia to rehabilitate exhausted land, and we have obtained reassuring results. These communities carried out physical soil erosion control activities (terraces, check dams across gullies and trench bunds). They restricted free-range grazing to small areas and cut and carried grass and other leaves to feed their animals. Trees and grass cover was returned to the land.

Rooted in the past

This was nothing new to the communities, it was all based on traditional practices, but the breakdown of their local community organisation had prevented them from acting collectively to benefit from it. Through our work, we encouraged them to revive their community organisation. They agreed a set of bylaws to enable them to do that and, with our assistance, recognition of these by the district governments was obtained. We also trained the communities on how to prepare and use compost and latterly, we have introduced them to transplanting for their long season crops (finger millet, sorghum, maize) to maximise the growing season, even when the rainy season becomes short and erratic as it has done in recent years.

The change in their life and environment has been dramatic. The hills are green with trees and shrubs and the soil is now protected by cover crops. In the degraded environment of mountainous Ethiopia, organic farming gives better yields than chemically based farming and for less investment.

You can, of course, legitimately ask if organic agriculture can feed the burgeoning population of our world today, which is far larger than the global population before industrialisation. But more justifiably, can this newcomer - industrial agriculture - continue feeding the world for the coming 10,000 years? Unfortunately, research in the last five or so decades has focused overwhelmingly on selecting varieties that maximise yields under irrigation and chemical fertilisers. And I believe that too many hopes are pinned on biotechnology. Each of us can dream, of course. But dreams cannot become food. I do not know of one successful transgenic crop developed for the marginal areas of the poor and used extensively enough to prove itself. If a commensurate amount of research were conducted on selecting varieties that maximise yields under increasing soil fertility from organic management, I have no doubt that the results would be comparable.

I will forever be the son of a peasant farmer who grew up in the countryside. But I am also a scientist for, with the benefit of modern education, that is what I have become. For these two reasons, I personally believe it is important to focus on the problems that are often ignored by the majority of educated people: the unsustainable use of our land. For me the best perspective on this is obtained from a farmer's field. It is the best place to see the world because it keeps you focused on the land, on living things, on the processes that determine your crops or your domestic animals which are the same as those that determine human life. For this reason being a farmer, as it were, brings you down to earth. It makes you see the earth for what it is: a place of great bounty but one that is also extremely vulnerable.

Date published: September 2005


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