Stéphane Le Foll: The Obelix of Agriculture?

On April 28, my colleague from Regeneration International (RI), Precious Phiri, and I found ourselves for the first time in our lives in Meknes, Morocco, trying to navigate in a world of broken French, lots of Arabic and jet lag that I couldn’t seem to shrug off.

We had come to Meknes to be part of the 4 per 1000 presentation organized by the governments of France and Morocco during the SIAM (Salon International de l’Agriculture du Maroc), hoping to find answers to the many questions we had around the next steps for the 4 per 1000 French initiative: Soils for Food Security and the Climate.

RI and the Organic Consumers Association (OCA)  have been actively involved in the promotion of the French initiative that seeks to build up the soils’ organic matter at a rate of four parts per 1000 every year as a way to make the soil what it once was: a carbon reservoir. The initiative’s proposed solution sounded fabulous and the fact that the government of France was supporting it was unprecedented. But we still had many questions on how the initiative was going to be implemented, its governance, financing and administration.

We expected that the meeting, called “What governance and roadmap for the 4 per 1000”? was going to become our Oracle of Delphos. High expectations indeed. In the end, we may not have found all the answers we wanted, but the meeting cleared up any doubts we had. Even better, and unexpected, we left the meeting highly inspired and ready for action.

A ministerial meeting, a pseudo-diplomatic debate that inspires and moves to action? At first it sounded like science fiction. But I soon learned if one of the speakers at such a meeting is French Minister of Agriculture Stéphane Le Foll, anything is possible. Listening to him present, he reminded me of super human strength-possessing Obelix, the sidekick to the cartoon hero Asterix.

A country’s initiative pushed by a minister’s charisma

It’s not a stretch to say that Le Foll’s charisma and personality have been the driving forces behind this initiative. Le Foll shocked the world when he said that agriculture could provide a solution to climate change. He again took everyone by surprise when he explained, in a very simple statement, that the key was in something as simple and straightforward as the good old scientific process, taught in every elementary school science class, of photosynthesis.

Le Foll’s charisma was on full display at the meeting in Meknes. After a long conference with Ministers of Agriculture and representatives of about 30 countries, Le Foll wrapped up the meeting with a powerful message, a call to action that leaves no room for a timid response:

“If we ask ourselves where oil and carbon originally came from, the answer is from the soil. We pulled them out of there during the industrial revolution and via consumption. So by putting carbon back in the soil, we are closing a cycle. Every time we think of fighting climate change, we must always remember the fundamental role of agriculture in reversing climate change. After all, you cannot separate carbon storage from food security.”

Le Foll was intentionally forceful at calling out major countries that were present at the meeting but are not yet signed on to the 4 per 1000 initiative, in particular Brazil and India. (India’s Minister of Agriculture was the only official present who advocated for organic agriculture, and one of the few speakers at the meeting who didn’t into the trap of advocating for the use of more fertilizers to increase yields for a growing population).

Le Foll explained the structure that will be put in place for the governance of the 4 per 1000 initiative. He said that the initiative has to be dynamic and easy to implement, but at the same time it must be backed up by a very detailed, meticulous body of research. In other words, there has to be a balance between action and research that allows for the initiative to be fluid, without losing its consistency.

To accomplish this, the initiative will establish three bodies: 1) a consultation body; 2) a scientific body (14 scientists from different parts of the world have been chosen, with a very clear gender balance); and 3) consortium that will serve as executive body (to avoid conflicts of interest the members of said consortium will belong to the non-profit world). RI recommended one of our steering committee members, André Leu, who is also president of IFOAM Organics International, to serve on the consortium—a move that was met with a favorable response from the directors of the French initiative.

These bodies will be set up during 2016. The goal is to have them up and running before the COP22 climate meeting in Marrakesh, in November. The 4 per 1000 initiative will be part of the final formal document for implementation of the Paris agreement.

Le Foll had it right when he said that putting carbon into soil is closing a cycle, that it is going back to the original order of things. That statement contains in a nutshell the basic idea behind regenerative agriculture, a simple concept, that just like 4 per 1000 has nothing but positive multiplying effects.

With Le Foll’s drive and everyone’s participation, we hope the 4 per 1000 initiative is finally adopted, endorsed and fully funded starting November. We may need thousands of Obelix to make this task possible, but we do know now that we have Asterix on our side.

Ercilia Sahores is Latin America Political Director for Regeneration International.