Farmer, Author & International Organic Authority André Leu Discusses Expanding Scope of Regenerative and Organic Agriculture and its Existing Challenges
As two-term president of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (better known as IFOAM — Organics International), André Leu has logged hundreds of thousands of air and land miles on behalf of sustainable farming. From 2012 until the fall of 2017, his portfolio took him to dozens of countries where he met farmers, government officials, NGO activists, scientists and diplomats. He is a familiar face at various United Nations agencies as well. Somehow he also found time to write an essential book for Acres U.S.A. Press called The Myths of Safe Pesticides and its newest companion, Poisoning Our Children: The Parent’s Guide to the Myths of Safe Pesticides. It is safe to say that precious few people share the depth and breadth of Leu’s knowledge about sustainable agriculture around the globe. Along with devoting more time to his 150-acre fruit farm in tropical Queensland, Australia, Leu will bring his expertise to the presidency of Regeneration International, the education and advocacy organization of which he is a founding member. Thus, the talk below functions as both an exit and an entry interview.
How IFOAM Supports Organic Agriculture
ACRES U.S.A. When governments come to IFOAM for guidance, how does that relationship work?
ANDRÉ LEU. Whenever we come into these situations, we also work with our local people on the ground and bring them into the process. This is very important. This is where a lot of governments make mistakes — they try to copy the United States’ or Europe’s regulations, but if you try that it’s not going to work so well in Zambia or Peru. It’s really important that countries have regulations that work for the way agriculture works in their countries because what we really want to do is to make it easier for people to become organic rather than the opposite. This is very important to us, and it is one of the reasons that governments come to us. Governments can see how they can make mistakes, and make it very difficult for the average farmer to access organic markets because the requirements are so stringent or inappropriate to the way they produce. We have this expertise, and particularly our members have this strong local knowledge. We can work together, and being regular and consistent benefits the producers in the country, the exporters and the processors in their own domestic market. It can also get them into high-value export markets as well.
ACRES U.S.A. How many countries have the strong local expertise you can tap to help their farmers convert and get into those markets?
LEU. At the moment it is 127 countries. We have 950 member organizations in 127 countries.
ACRES U.S.A. Does this pose a great organizational challenge?
LEU. Of course it does! We’re trying to run an international organization with a budget of about $4 million (U.S. dollars). We’re very lucky that we have the best expertise, employing some of the best people in the world for this. We have an office that is run very well, and we are always working on how to meet these challenges with the least amount of organizational time and cost.
ACRES U.S.A. Over your two terms as president of IFOAM, how has the ground shifted concerning the definitions of the various approaches to sustainable food production — agroecological, organic, regenerative and so on?
LEU. Wearing my Regeneration International hat for a moment, the reason we chose “regenerative” is that we wanted to bring all the like-minded forms of agriculture together. Agroecology, holistic grazing, permaculture, organic — there are so many of them. It was important to have a neutral term as an umbrella. Now — once again wearing my IFOAM hat — what we’ve done with IFOAM is, yes we have standards, and standards are important, especially when people want to put products into markets. However, we have four principles of organic agriculture, and principles go above standards. One is the principle of health, two is the principle of ecology, three is the principle of fairness, and finally there is the principle of care. What we say is that any farming systems that work within those four principles are organic. We could say, for instance, that any agroecology system that is not using GMOs or toxic pesticides is organic whether it’s certified or not — the same goes for permaculture or holistic grazing. But if they start using things that we specifically prohibit like the two I mentioned, then they can’t say they are organic.
ACRES U.S.A. Were these principles crafted to make sure the perfect doesn’t become the enemy of the good?
LEU. Exactly. That’s a nice way of putting it. The reason why I say IFOAM is an umbrella organization is that we want to bring people in, not exclude people. We call ourselves a change agent because what we’d like people to do is continuously improve, bring in better systems.
ACRES U.S.A. Does IFOAM take a position on the Savory Institute and its work in holistic planned management in many countries?
LEU. IFOAM itself doesn’t take a position, but from my perspective I have a lot of regard for holistic planned grazing because I’ve seen it on every arable continent. I’ve seen it in the United States, I’ve seen it Latin America, I’ve seen it in Africa and in Asia. I know that when you look at the good practitioners it makes an incredible difference. What’s really good now is a guy named Richard Teague at Texas A&M University who is doing great research, and getting it published in peer-reviewed publications, showing the multiple advantages of holistic grazing. As more of this gets published, the critics will just disappear because there is now hard science showing the many benefits in terms of improving soil quality, improving productivity and also turning cattle, a major source of greenhouse gases, from a major problem into a major solution. These systems essentially sequester or mitigate more greenhouse gases than they emit. If we could move all the world’s grazing systems into properly managed holistic grazing, we could make a significant difference to climate change.
ACRES U.S.A. Has the carbon capturing potential of regenerative agriculture made an impression on the governments of any authoritarian countries such as China, where a decision by leadership can ripple downward quickly?
LEU. In terms of governments being influenced by the potential of organic agriculture to make an impact on climate change, the answer is yes. It is just starting to happen now. IFOAM has been very active in this since before the Copenhagen meeting on climate change in 2009. We formed a round table there on organic and climate change with help from the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization and FiBL, the organic agriculture research group funded by the Swiss government. With their help, we started getting good peer-reviewed evidence published to underpin what we say when we go to governments. That is really important. When you go to governments you can’t just say ‘we want the whole world to go organic because it’s a great thing’ and all that. You should come to them with good science that has been published and checked by other people — peer reviewed — to make sure it’s accurate. Then you’ve got evidence-based science, and governments become interested. With that science we’ve been very active in getting information out to governments around the world. One of the outcomes of this was at the Paris climate change meeting where the French agriculture minister announced the 4 Pour 1000 initiative. He made the point that if we could increase the amount of carbon contained in soils by 0.04 percent, we could halt the increase in carbon and bring it back to carbon neutral levels like we had before the Industrial Revolution. We could begin to reverse the effects of climate change. Not to discount promoting renewables and all the other important things we need to do.
Organic Agriculture in Different Countries
ACRES U.S.A. Since you began traveling the world and meeting farmers, have you seen a nation or a region where sustainable farming has penetrated the heart of agriculture rather than boring in from the edges of the commodity food production system?
LEU. The main place where I’ve been actively involved is in Bhutan in the Himalayas. It’s a country where instead of gross national product they measure gross national happiness. People may find that ridiculous, but when you look at the criteria and what they are trying to do, you see they say it’s not about how much money you make, it’s about how well you feel about your community. It’s about everybody having this feeling of well-being. It’s not about a few individuals who come in and get rich; it’s about the greater common good. For them, organic agriculture fits firmly within that. They want an agriculture that is healthy, that brings good returns to farmers, that provides healthful, high-quality food to consumers and that looks after the environment. That is why they decided they want to be 100 percent organic, and now they are close to it. The last survey they did showed there is really only about 2 percent of agriculture that uses chemicals in Bhutan. We’re working with them now on their organic regulations. They will become a 100 percent organic country. Their neighbor Nepal has also started down that pathway. For instance, nearly all the coffee grown in Nepal is organic now. Other countries are leaning significantly toward it, such as Austria. In Austria, 25 percent of the farms are organic, and that number is increasing. Denmark is doing exactly the same now. Denmark already has the highest amount of shelf space for organic products in the world, 30 percent or more. The government is facilitating the change strongly in Denmark. Everywhere I go now governments are looking at significant goals. My contacts in Japan say they want to have 20 percent of the farms go organic — it’s probably around 5 percent now.
ACRES U.S.A. Do you know of any countries facing environmental crises where people near the top of the government have made the connection between bad farming techniques and the crises?
LEU. What is interesting is that the governments that are most interested are generally the provincial or state or local governments rather than the federal government. The bigger the government, the further away, and concern drops away. In India the provincial heads of government can now see the damage done by the Green Revolution. For example, in Punjab they have the Cancer Train, because so many people have cancer. It’s an epidemic. They fill this train up to take them to hospital and back. Thousands of people, about 60-75 a day or more, plus family members, go on this train. The soils are destroyed. The rivers are wrecked; they are poisonous. The air is poisonous, and enough is enough. I’ve heard that governor, at an all-India organic conference held in Punjab, say they now have a plan to change 20 percent of the agriculture to organic. Organic is the best known. It’s the one with a proven track record; it’s the one with the proven markets. The Green Revolution has been an absolute disaster there. It left a legacy of children born with birth defects, and even all around the world we are seeing a rise in non-communicable diseases like heart disease, diabetes, depression and obesity. None of these are contagious. We now have the scientific proof showing the link to environmental toxins such as pesticides, chemical fertilizers and other additives put in our food, our soap and the combination of fat, salt and sugar that in some ways is as addictive as heroin.
ACRES U.S.A. Do you see Big Food, the industrial food colossus, emerging in the minds of ordinary people — not just activists and scientists — in various countries as a major culprit behind these maladies that afflict them?
LEU. Exactly and strongly. The reason we are the fastest-growing agricultural sector in the world is because of the amount of consumer concern over food.
ACRES U.S.A. Do we need to improve international watchdog mechanisms because of fraud and corner-cutting internationally?
LEU. We have some very good consumer-conscious organizations. The Organic Consumers Association is one of the best for that, and the Center for Food Safety. You have organizations in the United States that work on behalf of consumer consciousness for Americans but are actually followed all around the world. The Organic Consumers Association is highly regarded internationally, and other countries have formed their own versions of it. Cornucopia Institute as well does an excellent job. It’s online, and people can see things from drones flying overhead, dairies or whatever, where it’s the middle of the day and there is not one animal outside grazing. It’s important to have organizations like Cornucopia and the Center for Food Safety that investigate and let the world know. They are our conscience, and they need to be supported.
Aiding African Agriculture
ACRES U.S.A. Do you ever encounter the Gates Foundation, and can you speak about the influence of billionaire philanthropists who roam the world pushing agendas that may not turn out especially beneficial to farmers?
LEU. Gates is a good example of that. Everybody thinks it’s this wonderful, benevolent organization that’s saving the world. They are very active in Africa, and they are very good at getting governments on their side for their African Green Revolution, as they call it. There they are trying to get farmers who are largely what we call organic by default — not organic by management — into buying fertilizers, pesticides and GMO seeds. It’s the same market economy that has destroyed farmers around the world as they went into debt to buy these products. They push microfinance as this wonderful tool to help farmers buy things. The reality of microfinance is that now these farmers who were too small to go into debt to the finance industry are now captured and go into debt. Then what happens is the crops fail, they can’t pay back their debt, and they lose their land. I’ve seen this in many cases. On the other hand, there is no evidence showing that these communities are better off. A good example of this is Malawi. Malawi was the poster child of this new green revolution. First they got an increase in yield and they thought, how wonderful, this is the way to go. After the government gives out free fertilizer and free pesticides, at some point the farmers have to start paying for it. Then they go into debt because they can’t afford it. Then the yields plummet because they can’t get access to these chemicals.
ACRES U.S.A. We’re talking about people who may not even have telephones or bank accounts, and now they are in debt?
LEU. That’s right. Microfinance is not always this wonderful thing it is made out to be, more often than not it puts people into debt. When you are now working to pay your debt, you are a slave to debt. Whether we like it or not, this is the model for most farmers in the world, both in my country and the United States. They are always running a certain amount of debt. When the bank has to take the farm and the value of the land becomes less than the debt, they become tenant farmers on their own land. Back in Africa, you see them in the shantytowns on the edges of the cities scavenging for goods in rubbish heaps or working in factories to make ends meet. The model needs to be changed so that farmers can stay on their farms.
ACRES U.S.A. What finally happened in Malawi?
LEU. At the moment Malawi, East Africa, southern Africa and parts of West Africa are in the middle of the worst drought in recorded history. Malawi has gone from the poster child the chemical companies bring out to speak at all these UN events to the basket case. The World Food Program has to go in now and bring in food aid, but they’re not getting enough. They are experiencing what is called “donor burnout.” Since there are all these major issues going on right now, people just can’t donate to all of them. The issue in Malawi is people starving to death. You remember the Live Aid concerts in the ’80s to relieve the Ethiopian famine? It was a drought and people were starving. That was a drought where thousands of people died, and it was nothing as severe as the one at the moment. After the Live Aid effort helped them through and the good seasons returned, one of our member organizations, the Institute for Sustainable Development, started working in northern Ethiopia at a place called Tigray. It borders Djibouti where the Red Sea starts, that area. That’s a pretty dry area where they regularly had droughts during which thousands of people died. One of the reasons they had severe droughts or crop failures was degradation of the land through overgrazing — eroded, topsoil washed away. They worked with the local community to restore the whole environment, not just the farms but also the whole environment.
ACRES U.S.A. What steps did they take?
LEU. The first was managed grazing. They didn’t stop grazing because people needed it for milk and such. All the hillsides began to regenerate. They were able to have more animals than in the past. At the same time, they worked with the local farms to fix up erosion gullies and in many cases turn them into ponds for fishing. They encouraged them to build up the organic matter in their soils by planting edible legumes such as fava beans. They then had those as a very good protein source in their diet. The planted alternate rows of the fields with legume trees to work as windbreaks, and they planted insectary plants that bring in the beneficial insects and birds to eat up the pests. They mixed crop waste and manure in biodigesters to make biogas. As a result, they had clean cooking so they no longer had to chop down trees for firewood. They used it for light at night so they could read to their children. They could also use it for running small electrical generators and small machinery. So they got all the benefit for the biogas, and that slurry they once used to compost got put out in the fields. The net result after several years of doing this was that the yields more than doubled.
ACRES U.S.A. How are they doing now?
LEU. I recently got in touch with the ISD folks and asked them how Tigray was holding up under the drought. They said, “Look, they’re fine. They’re doing okay.” What was really interesting came two months later when she sent me a preliminary report about a research program they’re doing. It’s called push-pull. It’s a way of integrating a cover crop with your cash crop at the same time. You use it for pest control, increasing water retention, nitrogen and a lot of other benefits. You can get dramatic increases in yield by bringing this into different farming systems. I get the report and I look at the first page. It says the yield increases weren’t as big as we hoped because of the drought, and they were disappointed. I looked at the figures and thought it was absolutely incredible! Here is a drought where millions of people had their crops fail and now need food aid, and Tigray got a yield increase! That should be in headlines. The other thing I want to say is that because organic farmers don’t go into debt to buy chemicals, the farmers in Tigray have a surplus of money at the end of the year. They can save and buy things. They’re building nice houses, their children are in school, and they can afford medical costs whereas before they had no money and people died. One story I heard was that the women started to buy new clothing. I thought, okay, what is so great about that? It was explained to me that because they were so poor, women had holes in their clothes and they felt indecent. They couldn’t go out in public. Once they could buy nice clothing, they could go out and socialize. And that brings us back to the point of community. Once they had been so poor to the point where people died of hunger or the children would leave for the city as soon as they got old enough. Now, because they regenerated the forest, they have another activity — making honey. The young people are coming back now to run beehives and work on the farm because they have a future in their community. They can earn more money than they can in the city. That is the model that we need to scale up globally.
ACRES U.S.A. It is wonderful, hopeful and exemplary. Unfortunately it seems like a chunk of Africa the size of Benelux has been bought up by land investors for massively scaled agriculture, mirroring the consolidation of farmland here in the United States.
LEU. It’s disastrous. First of all, it’s not their land to buy up, since native peoples have traditionally owned it for thousands of years. The term we have for what’s happening in Africa is “land grabbing.” You have governments that are corrupt, and they just go ahead and sell that land to big investors, and then people are kicked off the land without any compensation. The justification is, “Oh, they’ll get good jobs on the farm.” And they’ve lost everything. Those that do get jobs have to work under pretty poor conditions, and they are spraying all those toxic chemicals without any training, without any protective clothing. A whole host of diseases appear along with birth defects the children have to start off life with. It really is a poor model. They’re not even growing food; they’re growing commodities, things like palm oil used to make soap and biodeisel. The only time palm oil is put in food, it’s in the types of industrialized food we call obesogenic.
Sustainable Land Trusts for Organic Agriculture
ACRES U.S.A. Here in the United States, in Iowa, there is something called a sustainable land trust. They buy a piece of land and lease it to a farmer under something called an organic easement, meaning it can never be farmed industrially. The terms of the lease are generous to encourage young farmers. Do you see anything like that going on overseas?
LEU. The best one I know is called Common Land, and in various countries they have worked with farmers on about 4 million acres. They want to restore ecosystems on parts of this land and at the same time they operate organic/regenerative farms on the rest of it. That’s the biggest one. There are smaller, more local initiatives. Most of these initiatives have to fight for funding. It’s very hard to get enough money to buy land to do this with. The other important initiative to stop land grabbing is a United Nations organization called the Committee for Food Security. IFOAM, along with a lot of other non-governmental organizations, worked with that agency to put into place a series of voluntary guidelines about land tenure. It outlines what should be done and how governments ought to act. Of course no government would accept it if it was made compulsory. Many countries watered down these guidelines from what we originally wanted. The document is not as strong as we wished, but it’s a start. You can take it to governments and say, “You signed this, but you are not doing it.” Essentially it’s the governments that take this land from their own people and give it to these foreign companies.
ACRES U.S.A. It’s not hard to imagine that some of these deals will rear up and bite back, since the industrial techniques will wreck the topsoil, then a drought will hit, you’ll have pests and desertification, and then they’ll want to get rid of the land.
LEU. This is already happening. They don’t care. The people who grab this land are not there because they want to look after the land and it’s precious to them. They want to make money off of it. If it’s not productive they’ll grab some other land and work that until it’s destroyed. The only driver for them is a return to shareholders.
ACRES U.S.A. After years of traveling the world for IFOAM, what are you hoping to do for Regeneration International?
LEU. My hopes and goals for Regeneration International are for it to become the global change agent that facilitates a fundamental shift from one type of agriculture to another. We need to move from agriculture that presently constitutes a significant cause of climate change and environmental destruction while fueling the epidemic of non-contagious chronic diseases. It also destroys farming communities globally. Our goal is an agriculture that will have a major role in reversing climate change while regenerating our soils, environment, health and communities while promoting democracy and making a considerable contribution to the well-being of our planet.