Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Alexander Müller, Study Leader of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) hosted project, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food (TEEBAgFood). He will also be speaking at the summit.
Food Tank (FT): What has made you stay involved in food and agriculture for so many years?
Alexander Müller (AM): My answer is twofold.
The political one is that the way we are producing food is one of the most important and pressing issues for sustainability and human wellbeing. It has major positive or (unfortunately very often) negative impacts on natural resources, it shapes the landscape worldwide, it generates income for billions of people, and it is linked with knowledge, education, social equity, and global justice. If we do not transform today’s agriculture into real sustainable food systems, we will not achieve the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and we will not eradicate poverty and inequality. It is a truly cross-cutting issue and is important for everyone.
At a personal level, having dinner with friends, and even people you do not know, and sharing a bottle of wine is one of the things I enjoy a lot. It shows the importance of food for human relations and our culture.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
AM: The fact that agriculture is now embedded in the framework of the SDGs. Achieving sustainability goes beyond vested interests, which are very strong in the agricultural sector. The commodification of agriculture is not a way towards sustainability!
FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?
AM: Access to information and the new possibilities of decentralized information systems allow communities on the ground to develop their business and get access to markets. In addition, consumers can obtain information about their products. We need a system that is independent and works in a transparent way.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?
AM: Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher from Ethiopia won the Right Livelihood Award in 2000 “for his exemplary work to safeguard biodiversity and the traditional rights of farmers and communities to their genetic resources.”
For the past 30 years, Tewolde has been a key driver to overcome hunger and starvation in Tigray, an area of Ethiopia where—according to reliable sources—in the 1980s and 90s, millions of people were starving or hungry. He initiated the Project Tigray to demonstrate that food security could be better achieved by building on farmers’ traditional knowledge, adapting to available local resources, and creating jobs. He introduced the use of compost, a new technology to most of the farmers in the region.
As a result, the government adopted a policy guideline based on his success: “Ensure that essential ecological processes and life-support systems are sustained, biological diversity is preserved, and renewable natural resources are used in such a way that their regenerative and productive capabilities are maintained, and, where possible, enhanced.” What a modern and forward-looking guideline!
FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?
AM: We also have to eat every day!
FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with?
FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?
AM: Access to food for everyone! The world produces enough for everybody, but we are wasting around 30 percent of all food produced. What a scandal!
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
AM: Every bite can change our food system—better make an informed choice.
FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?
AM: Hunger and malnutrition. But based on sustainable systems and not land degradation and destruction of biodiversity.
FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?
AM: Linking nutritional guidelines to sustainability.