Interview with Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher
A sustainable future rooted in the past
Biologist and biodiversity specialist Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, from Ethiopia, has accomplished a great deal in his home country and has played a pivotal role in the drafting of international instruments to protect biodiversity. He predicts that today’s agroindustry paradigms are about to change. Interview: Gabriela Neuhaus.
You have been advocating careful stewardship of biodiversity on our planet for years. How did you get started?
Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher: I grew up in a rural area, in a small farming family. Since I was often ill as a child, I was frequently left to play on my own, with nobody to keep me company but the surrounding plants. I developed a fondness for nature, which drove me to study biology in college. This was when I learnt about biodiversity issues for the first time. Later, when I worked as professor and head of the college of natural sciences at the University of Addis Ababa, I was asked to manage the Ethiopian genetic library. I accepted the position and have been involved in the subject ever since.
For the past twenty years, you have worked at every possible level to preserve biodiversity. What has been achieved thus far?
Our biggest success by far has been greater international awareness that reducing biodiversity amounts to digging our own grave. Such an awareness would never have been possible without the Biodiversity Convention and its related instruments. We need to look back at how previous generations lived within the environment. It sounds a bit abstract but there was a time when I couldn't even mention things like traditional rights of village communities or the rights of farmers because negotiating partners from the northern hemisphere saw this as a risk. This has now changed thanks to agreements sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Why are awareness campaigns so important?
Urbanisation is taking hold and people are becoming increasingly cut off from all other forms of life. This was shown in a study where children were asked whether milk came from a glass or from a cow. Most of the children answered "from a glass" not because they were dumb but rather because that is where they get their milk. Even if most people think that milk comes from a glass, there is no such thing as milk without the cow. In an increasingly urbanised society, people lose touch with biodiversity, which is why it is so important for them to realise just how increasingly complex the problem is. They also need to understand that protecting life is ultimately in our own best interests.
Awareness is also important because there is only one Biodiversity Convention but no binding international legislation. I do believe, however, that things will change in the next twenty years: there will no longer be just one world power but rather several. International law will become more important as soon as this happens.
Nowadays, international agreements to preserve biodiversity often go against specific interests.
Since the Reagan and Thatcher era, it has become fashionable for even government action to be guided by the interests of companies. Companies dominate the world. If my company maintains a genetic library, it is to serve private interests. After World War II, and particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, general interest in planting a wide range of crops faded because people believed that they had already found the solution. Genetic material was then gathered into genetic libraries. It made sense and was simple. However, simple solutions tend to create complex problems: genetic libraries do not work in the way that people had hoped; many have been privatised; governments provide very little funding to maintain biodiversity in agriculture. However, with climate change, we will become increasingly dependent on biodiversity as a means of adjusting our crops to changing environmental conditions to keep food on the dinner table. The future does not look very bright: first of all, we have a significant loss of both biodiversity and government commitment. At the same time, we need genetic material more than ever before. I hope that we realise this soon.
With privatisation, a great deal of faith has been placed in genetic engineering as a means of ensuring that plants adapt to changing environmental conditions. This blind faith is frightening: like a man who cannot swim but nevertheless leaps into a raging river only to be engulfed by the current. I would really like to share their faith but I honestly believe that if we leave things up to the private sector, then our food supplies will be at great risk.
Why is biodiversity so important for poorer countries?
Farmers in most African countries use their own seeds. What you have destroyed in Europe and America is still alive here. The loss of agrobiodiversity is a much more serious problem in the northern hemisphere than in our region. I am not saying that Africa is not affected – since the loss of biodiversity is a global problem – I am saying that the problem is more intensely felt in industrialised countries: when a crisis hits regions that have lost agrobiodiversity, it won’t matter how wealthy they are: a pile of gold is no replacement for food!
And yet: Multinational seed producers are determined to position themselves as the main suppliers of seeds in the southern hemisphere. And the pressure is on, particularly in Africa, to increase output on smaller plots of land.
Yes – and there is no doubt that these companies will continue in their efforts. However, thus far, they have had little success in Africa. I do not believe that the situation will change anytime soon. The real driver of change will be the climate.
As far as the genetic wonder plants touted by multinational seed companies are concerned, I have yet to see anything that is able to compete with our own homegrown seeds and increase output. The only improvements, perhaps, have been herbicide-resistant plants, which allow us to spend less time weeding, and Bacillus thuringiensis plants (BT plants), which are resistant to specific diseases. What is really needed is another Green Revolution similar to the one that took place in Asia. However, that requires chemicals that no one in Africa can afford. Crude oil prices have risen so much that in the medium-term not even industrial farmers in Europe and America will be able to afford chemical fertilisers. The technologies that will enable chemical fertilisers to be produced at a reasonable cost without crude oil are still in their infancy. This means that we need to take another look at pre-industrial technologies that allow the soil to replenish itself with natural nutrients and adopt fertility management approaches.
If contemporary intensive farming techniques are unsustainable, should we then go back to the way things were done in the past?
Back in the 1960s when I was working on my thesis in the U.K., a great deal of research was being done to gain a greater understanding of the soil’s natural nitrogen cycle and find ways to improve it. With the triumph of chemical fertilisers, this research was discontinued. The time has now come to resume this research effort. I am convinced that scientists will begin focusing on natural ecosystems as a means of maximising soil productivity without the use of external inputs.
Agricultural activities in the future will be more scientifically-intensive and – unlike the Green Revolution – locally diversified. Corresponding research projects have already been launched to study local conditions.
If there was an unlimited supply of crude oil and no climate change, it is likely that we would end up poisoning the entire planet. This is because no soil can endure continuous long-term exposure to new chemicals, season after season. In other words: in the future, use of chemicals in agriculture will decrease. Global warming and high crude oil prices are only accelerating this process.
That sounds like a radical departure from current agricultural practices. Is such a change even possible in the near future?
The change can take place in a very short time, for three reasons. First of all, old knowledge locked away in books can be revived in agricultural regions where there is little biodiversity. Secondly, there are still countless regions in the world with diversified agriculture where old knowledge is still alive. Thanks to global means of communication, this knowledge can be spread to other regions. Thirdly, the circumstances will force researchers to move in the direction of reviving and improving upon old knowledge.
It will be much more difficult to reintroduce plants in fields where they have disappeared. It took thousands of years for these plants to take root and only a century for us to destroy them. However, a wide range of genetic resources still abound. Ethiopia, for instance, has remained practically untouched by reduced biodiversity. Many of your old plant species continue to grow in our region and have therefore not been lost. And we still have genetic libraries, which will enable us to replant lost species. While it is not a hopeless endeavour, it will certainly be a very challenging one.
Reintroducing lost farm animals will be much more difficult since we have no genetic libraries and the genetic base of traditional races is much smaller than the one for plants. However, let’s be honest: plants are much more important than animals. People can live from crops and do not really need to eat meat.
Biodiversity in the wild will also disappear very quickly – this is a major risk. For reasons that I do not really understand, tropical rainforests have produced a much smaller level of new biodiversity than in cooler regions. If climate change leads to warmer temperatures, this could have a further negative impact on biodiversity. With our cultivated land, roads and railroads, wild animals and plants remain confined to limited areas, which makes it difficult for them to spread to cooler regions. Then there is the phenomenon of desertification, which prevents species from fleeing from overheated regions. So, the world will lose many more species. We have already passed the point of no return and things will only get worse if we do not drastically change course.
What are the most urgent measures that need to be taken in order to preserve biodiversity, at least in agriculture, and maintain food security?
The first thing that needs to be done is to make a real effort to preserve the current level of agrobiodiversity. Maintaining the status quo would already accomplish this. There is no single recipe, several factors come into play: genetic libraries need to be stocked and maintained; those regions that already have diversified agriculture should continue doing what they are doing – this is also feasible. And above all, researchers need to throw old assumptions formed at the time of the Green Revolution (which are still widely held today) out the window. Agricultural production and research need to be adapted to suit current and future realities.
Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher studied biology in Addis Ababa and Wales. Among other things, he taught at the University of Addis Ababa and worked as head of the Ethiopian genetic library. He is currently the General Manager of the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia. Since the 1990s, he has sought to raise awareness at the international level of the importance of preserving biodiversity. He has always been in favour of anchoring the community rights of farmers to their genetic resources and against the patenting of living material. At the negotiations leading up to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which started in Cartagena in 1999 and continued in Montréal in 2000, he represented the majority of the G77 countries seeking to protect themselves from gene technology and preserve biodiversity. This was done in the face of strong opposition from the United States and the EU. In the year 2000, at age 60, Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher received the Right Livelihood Award “for his exemplary work to safeguard biodiversity and the traditional rights of farmers and communities to their genetic resources”. In 2006, he was awarded the UNDP’s “Champions of the Earth" prize.