Toward a Greener Revolution: An Excerpt from Nourished Planet

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The following is an excerpt from Nourished Planet: Sustainability in the Global Food System, published by Island Press in June of 2018. Nourished Planet was edited by Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, and produced with support from the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition.

Dr. Sieglinde Snapp works alongside innovative smallholder farmers in countries in Southeast Africa with the goal of redefining what a “greener revolution” can look like for the region and for the world. An agronomist by training, she is a Professor of Soils and Cropping Systems Ecology at Michigan State University and the Associate Director of the Center for Global Change and Earth Observations.

Dr. Snapp focuses on understanding the principles of resilient cropping system design and biologically based soil management, and she has pioneered the development of multipurpose crops including perennial wheat and perennial pigeonpea. Dr. Snapp is also well-known for her extensive experience with participatory action research and her commitment to co-learning. She developed a widely-used trial design called the “mother and baby trial design” as a means to support participatory research, communication, and innovation.

Food Tank sat down with Dr. Sieglinde Snapp to hear her thoughts on opportunities and challenges facing food systems in Southeast Africa as well as the value of participatory approaches to research.

Food Tank (FT): What initially inspired you to pursue a research career in applied soil ecology and to focus on Southeast Africa?

Dr. Sieglinde Snapp (SS): I would say I was initially inspired by both passion and fate. I’ve always been interested in the African continent and wanting to help under-resourced farmers there. My family also adopted African American kids, so we always sought to educate ourselves and the kids about the African side of their heritage. When I finished my PhD, I was hired by The Rockefeller Foundation for a position in Malawi, in Southern Africa. I have had the real privilege to continue working in that region ever since. I have students working in many parts of Africa, but I have maintained a particular focus on Malawi because of my personal connections to the country and the region, including my adopted kids from there. I consider myself very fortunate to have such a strong relationship with one place for so many years. Over two decades, now, I’ve really begun to understand everything from the politics to how the soils respond under smallholder agriculture.

FT: What do you see as the most actionable opportunities for positively transforming food systems in Southeast Africa? In other words, what gives you hope?

SS: I’m inspired by the increasing rate at which people are developing the capacity to do things for themselves. In countries like Malawi, which was a dictatorship in 1993 around when I started working there, we now see a growth of civil society and a dramatic increase in education such that pretty much all children go to school. These long-term capacity changes are what really transform systems.

Within that larger context of education and civil society, we’re helping to catalyze a significant and growing interest in crop diversity. My work is in trying to provide concrete alternatives to the monolithic kind of agricultural development that the Green Revolution adhered to. I like the concept that they use in India of a ‘Rainbow Revolution,’ where you include diverse crop options instead of a monolithic focus on grain. Agriculture should value diversity, including diverse ways to support soil building and a diversity of crops, that can help farmers cope with a rapidly changing world. There again is why education is so important: because farmers have to be able to harness diversity to adapt locally. Markets change constantly, climate variability is increasing, and the rate at which the world is changing is only accelerating.

FT: Can you explain what it looks like to engage in the alternative research methods you champion, including participatory research and co-learning?

SS: To me, process is as important as outcomes. I work to build capacity for farmers by providing options rather than one-size-fits-all silver bullets. I think that’s the only real, lasting kind of agricultural transformation.

Whether we’re talking conservation agriculture, organic agriculture, or whatever system, they all involve participatory practices and processes, whether or not they’re labeled as such. Tilling equipment is a practical example. Organic farmers have to be really good at weed tillage, which means they constantly are experimenting with new tools and methods. The equipment that a community might have access to won’t always be appropriate for all soil types, so they need to adapt and collaborate. Farmers have to literally weld their own solutions and interact with equipment dealers to source what they need. I don’t think I know a small-scale farmer in America who isn’t also a welder. Farmers live in participatory communities that prioritize co-learning, so adapting to do my research in a way that makes sense to the people I’m working with ends up producing better research.

In Malawi, I work on pigeonpea, a shrub that provides a lot of services in addition to food. It’s basically ‘agroforestry-plus,’ because it does much more than produce a grain-like pulse. Pigeonpea is a tropical legume that is one of the main pulses grown in India and is increasingly grown throughout southern Africa. We think it’s much more effective at improving soil organic matter than many other options because it grows into a shrub with a big root system and grows into the dry season, which means it captures more sunlight. Our focus on it came out of exploring, alongside farmers, what folks are trying in their fields. Farmers were testing different legumes in some of the regions we work in, and the farmers who were the most interested in soil fertility were using pigeonpea. They cut the bushes back at the end of the season and effectively turned it into a semi-perennial crop, which we agronomists didn’t even know you could do! The agronomy recommendations for pigeonpea just talk about growing it as an annual, one-year crop in most regions, but these farmers had adapted it. They were getting a two-year crop before tilling it in. By co-learning, we were able to spread this innovation. Our research improved in quality because these farmers were doing experiments alongside us.

FT: What do you see as the most significant challenges to your vision of a sustainable intensification-driven “greener revolution?”

SS: I think one of our biggest challenges is to deal with our propensity to focus on silver bullet solutions. Wanting a one-size-fits-all answer precludes a focus on adaptation, on being willing to take the long-term view, on building local capacity, or on supporting farmers’ own innovation.

Another challenge is that people come in assuming that fertilizers and both input and output markets are accessible everywhere. It’s true that things like cereals do really well when there’s fertilizer available, but they get you on a track where you have requirements you have to meet every year, like having a stable supply of fertilizer. Corn is especially nitrophilic, which means it’s dependent on massive amounts of nitrogen being added, on top of its requirement for intensive weed management, which usually means herbicide. If you are only relying on one solution, and one that happens to be very fossil fuel dependent, then if you don’t end up with access to those inputs at some point, you’re trapped in a zero-sum game. If on the other hand, you build diversity into the system instead, you automatically remove your reliance on these shaky systems and move onto a development trajectory that is more in keeping with the Rainbow Revolution idea.

That said, lack of investment in infrastructure, including education, roads, and access to markets, is also a challenge. Since smallholder farmers are the main producers of food in countries like Malawi, a general lack of investment makes it very difficult for them to make a living, let alone to invest in protecting the natural resources like so many of them want to. Even when they’re on the edge of survival or, as often happens in the U.S., are on the edge of losing their farms, our conventional system puts all the burden on the farmer.

A final challenge I’ll mention is a rhetorical one: our discourse is unbalanced. For example, people have this idea that organic farming is only for the elite. It’s not just urban consumers who are poor, though. There is also a significant rural poor both right here in the developed world and across the rest of the world. One of the best ways to get poor people out of poverty is to give them enough money to support their agriculture. Many, many organic farmers have told me, ‘look, with organic, I finally have a system of farming that provides enough margin to pay my medical bills.’ Moreover, farmers are very much interested in a system that’s less toxic. There’s so much focus out there on GMOs while we ignore toxicity. We’re growing more and more corn around the world and across southeastern Africa, for example, and that means more atrazine and other really toxic chemicals. Farmers want to protect their well water. We have a system where it’s only farmers who get sick or who are about to lose their farms who feel pushed to take the risk to go organic. Here we have a way to address rural poverty, yet we say ‘it’s only for the elite.’ I think we need to reframe.

FT: To support healthy agroecological systems in a developing country context, what do you think is the ideal balance between the roles of the major players, including governments, agroindustry, and traditional international development actors including multilateral funders like the World Bank, civil society organizations like One Acre Fund, and research groups like CGIAR?

SS: I think we need a pretty equal balance because governments can get things wrong. I worry about countries going the route that Rwanda went. In Rwanda, the federal government decided to push for monoculture. The Ministry of Agriculture mandated that farmers could only grow a limited number of crops. The intention was to increase profits by having regions specialize in particular crops and becoming economies of scale. I thought peasant farmers would do what they wanted regardless, until the government started throwing people in jail. Farmers were forced to physically uproot the crops they were growing that didn’t fit with the government plan. One of my students happened to be there, was caught in the middle of it, and wrote a paper on the situation. The country is now moving back on track, but the Rwandan story is a really important example of why you need balance amongst all of these partners.

Government needs to have a strong university system to provide a check and balance against bureaucrats and to provide education via extension services. Civil society actors need to be allowed to maintain a free press so that they can critique. Agroindustry is a very important part of this also balance, as are the big research groups.

FT: How can readers who are not directly employed by international research and development institutions productively engage with these issues?

SS: I think the easy answer is to focus on advocacy not just for relief efforts such as direct feeding or food safety nets, but also for policy changes that can support governments becoming more democratic and open. We can support policy here in the U.S. that stops dumping food abroad and instead links it to investments in education and increased pressure for a stronger civil society and for strong constitutions. People need to be engaged with their legislatures and with NGOs that are on the broader side of supporting education rather than just filling immediate needs.

We also need to have more advocates for forms of agriculture that support the environment. We see a lot of talk about sustainable intensification, and I’m known for my work on it, but almost all of our plant breeding efforts and research efforts in the U.S. tend to still be on only the intensification side of the agenda. We’re not thinking enough about, and haven’t invested enough in, the environmental side. Researchers, universities, and CGIAR centers should be investing in the sustainability equation because no one else will do it. Unfortunately, in the end, we often get caught up in the short-term and the drive for modernization and for very simple systems because that is the model that looks easiest to replicate in the short-run.

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