Innovator Insights: Biodiversity, the Climate Fix with Philippe Levesque of Agrarian Revolution

Game-changing ideas don’t happen in a bubble. They’re formed by an acute awareness and in-depth understanding of what real people are experiencing in their everyday lives.

Innovators aren’t just creating solutions to the world’s most pressing problems, they’re creating new ways of thinking—and here at Ashoka Changemakers, we thought those insights were worth sharing. So, we asked some of the future leaders of social innovation from across North America to share their thoughts on some of today’s most important issues. Each featured innovator was selected to attend the 2014 American Express Emerging Innovators Leadership Boot Camps.

Before starting The Agrarian Revolution, a project that promotes and shares agricultural know-how with communities in developing nations, Phillippe Levesque was struck by the amount of hard-working farmers around the world who were unable to adequately provide for their families. Sharing knowledge became the cornerstone of his project, and we asked Levesque to share with us his own observations on the current state of environmental policies.

Changemakers:

A recent United Nations report again raised concerns over the ongoing and irreversible impact of climate change, using some of the strongest language to date. A lot of talk has been focused on adapting to these changes, as the window for prevention may have passed.

If we are, in fact, dealing with irreversible alterations to our environment, what types of innovative thinking is necessary to adapt to a changing landscape? What kinds of solutions are called for?

Levesque:

Since my organization deals with food and agriculture, I will answer this question from that angle.  

For thousands of years, wherever humans have gone, they have adapted to the local condition through biodiversity. They learned to eat plants and animals that lived locally and selected food based on perceived benefits, e.g. larger size, nutrition value, etc.

But with the arrival of the modern world, cities and the need to feed groups on a large scale came agro-economics and large-scale farming. Farmers sought to turn crops into a very uniform product for logistical reasons, for example, the ease of harvesting and distributing, forgetting that a crop without diversity is one that is prone to diseases and vulnerable to changes in the climate.

Farmers were soon reminded of this by crop failures, but instead of putting biodiversity back into their crops to make them more resilient, they resorted to pesticides, controlled environments (greenhouses, tunnels) and now genetic modifications. There are many problems with this system: a tremendous usage of energy, making it very expensive to implement and maintain; detriments to the planet; and it is not proven to be safe.  

It is clear that our only salvation, as the climate changes, will be to return to biodiversity. In natural terms, variation means resilience. We still have native elms and chestnut trees in North America because of the natural diversity among the trees. A small proportion of them had a natural resistance to the serious diseases that befell them, and so they survived. And the forest in which the trees grew also survived because it contained a number of different species. Take this example and apply it to your own personal gardens. Planting with diversity in mind almost always insures success in some form.

Some people advocate for going back to ancient crop varieties that were not as uniform and were more resilient. We believe it would be best to select and breed for a modern world using the old gene pool, i.e. improve selections that exist to make them more productive in the climate that we have today and that we will have tomorrow. Through these selections, plants will adapt to our conditions. It is increasingly important do this on a local scale, too.  

Lastly, as consumers, we also have to adapt our tastes. We have to learn to eat what grows best where we are and eat more seasonally.  Crops should be grown according to the climate, not the other way around. At the moment, we try to recreate climate by irrigating heavily, using black, plastic, tunnels and heating systems, most of which are counterproductive for the planet. For example, where rain is less plentiful than necessary, farmers could learn to grow sorgho instead of corn or amaranth instead of rice.  But that would also require the good will of consumers to change their eating habits!

This is what our project, the Agrarian Revolution, seeks to do. We want to give people the knowledge they need, not only to grow their own food, but to select and save the seeds for the long term and introduce them to new plants that could be useful to them. We also want to bring them alternative ways of farming that are more efficient and successful.

Changemakers:       

What’s currently missing from the discourse at the local and global levels? How can we make space for new insights into the conversation?

Levesque:

In terms of agriculture, the discourse is encouraging, and what I have already mentioned is already being taken into consideration.

The elephant in the room for me personally is demographic explosion. Why don't we ever talk about the fact that there are already too many people on the planet? Why don’t we do something about it?  I understand the beauty and innate nature of having children, but shouldn't we think about how we are going to find space and feed everyone?  

Governments are always terribly reticent to talk about population control. In fact, they positively encourage population growth in countries—here in Canada, for example—by giving child care benefits.  The planet does have a limit to the number of humans it can support, and there will come a time when we are going to fight for resources if we aren't careful with our population growth.

Changemakers:

What’s the most important thing to impart to future generations regarding protecting the environment? What do you think their role will be as climate change takes further effect?

Levesque:

One of the most important things now is to preserve biodiversity, which means we need to conserve what's left of our wild spaces and ecosystems. We know so little about the world that surrounds us, and if we destroy it, we lose our greatest teacher.  We must not only conserve ecosystems, but study them, learn from them, understand how their balance works and use that knowledge as an example to follow.  We must not wait until the last tree of the last forest crashes to the ground to wake up to the importance of our wild habitats. We must act now and then impart nature’s great importance to future generations so that they, too, preserve it. But we must set the example, or it will be impossible to convince our children of the veracity of our speech.

I often hear the argument that we need more land to grow more food and that the loss of habitat is inevitable. But the ways in which we farm are so inefficient, it would be easy to improve our farming methods and feed the world with what's already cleared.

We need to consider our eating habits, too.  Why grow a grain, feed it to an animal and eat a small proportion of that animal when we can eat the grain directly?  We do realize that not everyone is going to become vegetarian overnight, and indeed animals are useful for other things than mere food. But some animals are more demanding than others.

At the Agrarian Revolution we promote the more resilient husbandry animals and integrate them into the farm as an integral part of the system, e.g. manure, power, etc. In this sense, animals are more than just a potential piece of meat.

We must learn to be humble and respectful with nature; that is what we need to impart to the next generations.

Want to hear more insights from innovators like Phillippe Levesque? Check out Ashoka Changemakers’ Emerging Innovator’s Toolkit, and get involved in the conversation by following #emerginginnovators and @changemakers. And be sure to check back as we feature more Innovator Insights!