“People and nature ahead of profits for a small few” - Hans Herren

As  the ‘Money Flows’ report is released by Biovision, IPES-Food and the Institute of Development Studies, we speak to Biovision president Hans Herren on the big issues at the heart of agricultural research in Africa. We hear why funding is key, why real transformation has been impeded, and why agroecology is a truly sustainable paradigm on the rise.

Why release a study of the investments – or “money flows” – that go into agroecological research? Why do this now?

As we saw in the IPES-Food report From Uniformity to Diversity, there are a series of obstacles in food systems – what we refer to as ‘lock-ins’ – that prevent a transformation towards agroecology. This transformation was called for in the 2009 report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), and more recently also by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). At the centre of these lock-ins is the concentration of political and economic power. We therefore wanted to track the money flows controlled by powerful actors, and understand how they impact the choice of agricultural research for development  (AgR4D) projects.

Having been in agricultural research myself for over 30 years, I knew how much the availability of funding influences research. And with today’s compounded challenges of climate change, food-induced health problems and pandemics, pressure on biodiversity and land and water, we need a radical change in our food system. A change based on the principles of agroecology and the 10 agroecological elements defined by the FAO.

In a nutshell, what does this report tell us about investments in agricultural research for development? Should we be concerned?

The report highlights the insufficient funding for agroecology in Africa, and the great disparity between donors  in this regard– the funders studied here being the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Kenya Government. Over 50 % of Swiss-funded projects support agroecology. Whereas the Gates Foundation is stuck in the old ‘green revolution’ and industrial agriculture paradigm, and only  3% of its projects are agroecological. In Kenya the picture is mixed, but still only 13% of projects are agroecological. This is way behind what is needed to spark the paradigm shift to agroecology that we know is needed to make agriculture resilient and deliver in economic, environmental and social terms.

The study takes a very close look at investments by Kenya, Switzerland and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Why are these three cases so important?

These cases are a very good barometer of what is happening, perhaps with the exception of Switzerland’s SDC which, as I said, is ahead of many others in allocating funds to agroecology. In fact, most governments, both in developing and developed countries, still favour green revolution and “industrial ag” research, with the belief that this is the only way to produce sufficient food.  The same goes for the Gates Foundation and its Nairobi-based development agency AGRA, which also exerts great influence in the policy area.

Let’s take the example of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Why is Gates Foundation investment in agroecology so very limited? What’s happening here?

It's a matter of philosophy and being stuck in the old paradigm of the so-called ‘green revolution’ – despite all the cracks that have opened up in this approach over the past 60 years. It’s also the notion that technology will solve every problem – in line with the thinking of its founder and his background. So this philosophy is unfortunate. Yes, the ‘green revolution’ produced more food, but at what costs? and compared with what? We now know that the best option for sustainable agriculture and healthy diets is agroecology, because it is not only as productive, but its benefits extend way beyond the notion of “Kg per hectare”. Agroecology actually offers a pathway to meet almost all of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And crucially, it delivers the resilience we need in the wake of COVID-19, and to face many more challenges ahead!

This report is certainly not all negative. What are the bright spots for agroecology on the African continent?

Yes, the report shows that there is light at the end of the tunnel. The fact that a leader in ag research, Switzerland’s SDC, is engaged in this transformation, is actually providing a road map for other donors and investors to follow. There are also a number of continental initiatives, one from the heads of State from the African Union, that calls for ecological and organic agriculture: the EOA. It would be good to present the results of this study to the African Union and request that similar studies be conducted for other countries and perhaps the continent – so the African Union can guide investment policies.

The African Development Bank (AfDB) could also benefit from a change in its agricultural investment policies, as well as other intergovernmental agencies (such as the World Bank) or the European Union. This way they could reallocate their funding away from industrial, chemical-laden agriculture towards agroecology.

What needs to happen next if we are serious about investing in truly sustainable food systems? What does the report recommend?

What needs to happen is for investments in AgR4D to target agroecology, and only agroecology. Because the industrial agriculture and food model has shown its many weaknesses and failures to assure food and nutritional security in a positive social and environmental context.

Specifically we need to develop a “transformation strategy”, based on local and multi-stakeholder assessments. We need to change the way we measure success, or rather factors beyond Kg/ha. We need to connect research from the local to the global, for the short-term and longer-term challenges. And we must also allow for a generational change in research… bring in newly trained scientists into the system! Support them with long term grants and government core funding for the reformed national, regional and international research institutions! And as for governments, international agencies, the private sector and foundations, they all need to rally around agroecology as the way ahead – we can’t afford more food security crises in the future. Because post-Covid, we need a “new normal”, not the old one.

Let's use this unique opportunity to learn lessons and implement the changes which will put people and nature ahead of profits for a small few. This report could not have come at a better time. We can do agroecology… so let’s do it!

The full ‘Money Flows’ report, related fact sheets and additional resources are all available online.