It’s complicated, but not hopeless

It’s complicated, but not hopeless

31/10/2013
Jelle Goossens
Jelle Goossens
Communications officer
016/74.50.33 | 0485/08.29.60

On September 19 we at Vredeseilanden actually had a media figure as a guest: Bram Govaerts, bio-engineer and clever person with CYMMIT in Mexico: the international Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. The Flemish press briefly swarmed towards him when Bill Gates and Carlos Slim co-invested in the “MasAgro” initiative. You may have read about their work on seed improvement. However, after our session we can safely state that the really pioneering aspect of MasAgro was not in the papers. So you will have to read it here.

Let us start with a short presentation. CYMMIT is an international organization with 22 “branches” throughout the world. Their mission? “To sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat systems to ensure global food security and reduce poverty.”

The organization’s capital is their vast seed bank. It contains a genetic treasure of 28.000 maize varieties and 170.000 wheat varieties. Based on that, scientists cross new varieties for the entire world. Half of all maize grown in developing countries comes from CYMMIT, as does 70% of wheat in South America. Worldwide they trained over 10.000 scientists to continue that work.

Everything is done free of patents. The premise of CYMMIT is that seeds are of everyone and of no-one. A thesis we sympathize very much with but that is not without controversy these days.

Long live the crisis (and side-lined politicians) The interesting thing with CYMMIT is the transition made by the organization over the years. Until a few years ago, the organization was searching a new breath. Captured in an ivory tower, we may say: we do research on seeds, however what happens with them afterwards is not our problem.

A number of simultaneous crises in Mexico made the tide turn. There was the food crisis in 2008, which hit Mexico hard. The country imported half of its maize from the US, but there maize was being massively stoked to biofuel because of the high petrol prices. Consequence: an explosion of prices, expensive tortillas, riots in the streets. In the same period the US started implementing a stricter migration policy against Mexicans. Many immigrants returned disillusioned to the countryside in order to build up something there. At the same time the president realized that re-election was not in it for him. Therefore he wanted to use his last political capital to start up something of which the impact would be visible only after his term: he launched a plan to make Mexico self-sufficient again for its basic food, maize. Or how side-lined politicians may be surprisingly useful…

That’s how the MasAgro initiative saw the light. It is not one organization but a platform in which MasAgro is the match maker. At different places in the country innovation hubs are set up where agro-businesses, farmers, researchers (of CYMMIT and other), NGOs and government staff for agricultural extension jointly experiment on different domains.

Lego-agriculture Logically, one of those fields is the improvement of seeds. How do you achieve species that are re-sistant to heat and drought and at the same time yield good returns? Through the hub formula, various small seed businesses can share research sites so they can cope with the competition of the seed giants. At the same time there is a direct feedback between farmers and researchers, thus importantly increasing the possibility that new varieties may effectively fit into the small-scale farmers’ practice.

Another extremely interesting initiative is the innovation hub around smart mechanization. There, the work area is the development of agricultural equipment through an open source model. The large majority of farmers globally must still do with a small parcel of land. Yet there is barely equipment available on the market that is fit for this kind of businesses. The smart mechanization initiative unites engineers and farmers to develop modular farming machines that can be adapted lego-wise for several objectives. As with all other hubs, the knowledge that comes forth from it is open and not to be patented. Companies can work with it if they like to develop derived products that are affordable and manageable for small-scale farms.

Why this is relevant for Vredeseilanden? Enough examples, the idea is clear by now. But why is the story of Bram and MasAgro relevant for Vredeseilanden? For various reasons, it appears to me.

In the first place, because the changing role of CYMMIT runs parallel with that of our organization. NGOs like ours also mainly focused on the production side of agriculture, because producing more is always good, or isn’t it? Not so, because where there is a supply there is not automatically a demand. And even if the market is there, you have to meet quality demands, volume demands etc. If you can’t get on the market, you get stuck in the stage of survival farming.

Thus we also evolved from traditional implementer of agricultural projects to moderator, match-maker in so-called multi-stakeholder processes (hint: do put this one on a Scrabble board). Here also the starting point is to unite farmers, agro-food businesses, distributors and researchers around the problems that occur within a specific agricultural chain. Our work is not limited to coaching farmers’ organizations but it extends to building trust and understanding between the partners.

It is a constant struggle to keep cooperation going and to achieve results. Such processes have an own, unpredictable dynamic, which clashes with the traditional planning logic in development cooperation. For MO* we already wrote in 2012 why we believe that development cooperation must make a “mindshift”. For, as Bram indicated during our discussion: you have to dare to let go of control. Some partners that are in the project at the beginning may later appear not to be all that relevant perhaps, but that is just part of the process.

This brings us to the second point: the importance of a systems approach that recognizes the complexity of reality and works with it. “Why have a BMW if you don’t have a license?”, Bram summarizes. You may have perfect seed but if it doesn’t fit in the ecological system or if there is no market for it, you’re nowhere. Bram himself is busy with Conservation Agriculture, in which agriculture is approached as a system. The aim is not to maximize the harvest of one crop but to build a stable agricultural system that over the years generates very decent and constant yields through various crops. You do that by disrupting the soil life as little as possible, by making maximal use of the organic matter, by closing cycles and building combinations with other crops (e.g. by combining maize with beans).

In this context, Bram gave the example of a farmer who in fact didn’t want a better yield. He stored the harvest in the bedroom of his house. Stocking even more production there would not benefit the relation with his wife. Under those circumstances, introducing improved seeds is not a priority; improving storage options for the harvests is. If you don’t succeed in involving all those perspectives in your problem analysis, you remain stuck in short-sighted linear thinking patterns. What may look like details at first sight, later appear to make the difference between success and failure. For this reason, teams at CYMMIT are composed not only of agricultural engineers but also of anthropologists and communication people.

Thirdly, the vision on technology development used by CYMMIT is very inspiring. In my opinion, the principle of innovation hubs whereby engineers and farmers build a common pool of knowledge that may then be translated freely to concrete products is the model for the future. The Open Source principles that have pushed software development for years already can have a similar effect for “hardware” development. The smart mechanization initiative is a good example thereof, as is the open seeds bank managed by CYMMIT.

We have reached a moment when knowledge protected by patents has become a clog on our progress. However it can be different if you start from open knowledge. The more people can experiment freely with it, the more knowledge is built. The more freely the knowledge to be used is built, the more new business will arise that create wealth by implementing that freely available knowledge. This is peer2peer economy in practice, as propagated worldwide by another Belgian, Michel Bauwens.

Grasping complexity Both CYMMIT and Vredeseilanden are constantly searching for ways to grasp the complexity of development. Because that is what it is: a Mikado of players, interests and values that is difficult to untangle… Only in the newspaper or on television miracle solutions for poverty and food security exist: now it is micro-credit, then it is the GGOs or GSMs that will solve “it”.

Alas. In 2012 the American philosopher David Weinberger wrote the book “Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room”. Summarized: the world is so complex that no instance, big or powerful as it may be, can still tackle the “big problems”. The only hope to reach solutions is by creating “clever spaces” where you try to grasp the complexity by linking different players and the knowledge they carry with them.

So yes: the world in which we live is complicated, the problems and challenges we face are rather gigantic. We thank Bram Govaerts for making time and for telling us from his practice why the situation doesn’t necessarily have to be hopeless.

Jelle Goossens - Vredeseilanden