Andreas Kohli spoke with Al Imfeld
Agriculture is “an art and a struggle”, says Al Imfeld (79). The novelist, journalist, theologist, sociologist and tropical farmer has spent his whole life dealing with social issues, nutrition and agriculture, and he is a holistic and provocative thinker.
Mr Imfeld, you first visited Africa in 1954. Since then you have repeatedly travelled to all of the continents. What do you consider to be the most burning issue as far as nutrition and agriculture are concerned?
We currently find ourselves in the middle of radical change that is manifesting itself mainly at the social level and is also initiating a transformation in agriculture. We are experiencing a world-wide process of decolonisation. Not only men and women, but also flora and fauna are finally getting rights and being liberated. We all have to find a place in this new constellation, and become aware that decolonisation must also embrace our minds and our souls. Things like this take time. But novel developments that could lead to a breakthrough are often suppressed and – worst of all – fundamentally demonised with all means possible.
Can you give us an example?
In Africa, the rural population is pouring into the towns and cities and – as they often say – into the slums. Governments and aid organisations want to send them back to the countryside. A pointless enterprise. Instead of chasing these people away, we should consider creating a combination of town and countryside, and develop urban agrarian models that go beyond mere gardening. Farmers and town planners, urbanists, architects and ethnologists have to start thinking about this task – jointly, and not in isolation from one another.
Are you advocating a new type of polyculture in production and modes of life?
Enlightened Western agricultural approaches claim to be modernising and making farming more scientific by clearing away the bushes and shrubbery, and making everything straight and clean. Fields have been adapted to machines and artificial fertilisers, thus making them monocultural – in other words: without any interaction with other organisms. This kind of agriculture is one-sided, focussing entirely on higher yields and growth.
In the future we will also have small-scale agricultural enterprises alongside large-scale farms. This doesn’t mean, however, that today’s small operations should be preserved at all cost, for they, too, are based on a mindset that is disappearing, as well as a “pre-colonial” concept of the traditional extended family. Furthermore, most small enterprises are also monocultural and subtly suppress newly emerging developments.
What direction do you think agriculture ought to take?
Instead of cultivating vast areas with the same product, farmers – like medieval alchemists – ought to return to mixing and combining: not separating, but uniting. They should plant polycultures, not monocultures. Fields for cereals, followed by clover to allow the soil to regenerate; and, alongside these, trees and hedges for fruits and birds, as well as soil conservation and shade. Field crops (potatoes, manioc and yams) will play a far greater role across the globe. In the Andes, there are more than 3,250 different types of potato. And a Cameroon-German research team under Peter Ay1 has discovered that the Western Cameroons alone have more than 10,000 different types of yams. That leaves an unbelievably huge amount of genetic material to cross and combine.