By Onyaole Patience Koku: Abuja, FCT, Nigeria
Always let the farmer have a voice.
This is such a great honor that I can hardly believe I was even considered for it. In my world of planting, protecting, and harvesting, it’s the closest thing we have to a Nobel Peace Prize.
Named for the late Dean Kleckner, the original chairman of what is now the Global Farmer Network, the award seeks to recognize a farmer who has demonstrated leadership, vision, and resolve in advancing the rights of farmers to choose the technology and tools that will improve the quality, quantity, and availability of food around the world.
For much of the last year, I’ve traveled from my home in Nigeria to promote these values. I’ve also written columns on why African farmers need GMOs, the importance of crop-protection products such as glyphosate, and the value of telling our stories on social media.
Behind everything is that main idea: Always let the farmer have a voice.
Sadly, our voice often gets lost in the noise of ordinary life. We’re so busy trying to grow crops and raise families that we not always take the time to engage with the wider public. As a farmer who produces both seed corn and grain corn, I know how hard it can be to even think about anything else.
Adding to the challenge, consumers understand less about food production than they did a generation ago, partly because fewer of them are directly involved with it but also because the science and technology becomes more sophisticated every year.
We’re explaining less and less at a time when we have so much more to say.
If we don’t tell our stories—and make the case for the tools we need—then nobody will.
Yet it’s even worse than that. Our silence creates a vacuum that others are eager to fill. Their words won’t be our words and their interests will clash with our interests. They often live in faraway cities and rarely set foot on real farms, but they’re determined to order us around on our farms.
They’ll insist that we do our jobs with 20th-century technologies. They’ll deny us access to products that protect our crops from weeds, pests, and fungus. They’ll overwhelm us with press releases and protests.
But we can’t merely play defense against these aggressors. We also must go on offense.
We can share the good news about biotechnology. We can describe how GMOs allow us to grow more food on less land, helping us feed the planet and conserve the environment at the same time. I’m especially excited about CRISPR, a gene-editing method that holds the potential to spark a new Green Revolution.
We can tell the truth about crop protection and the vital role it plays in keeping our crops healthy and our food clean and delicious. In Nigeria, this technology allows us to defeat the twin threats of a weed called “aya aya” and a bug with a menacing name: “fall armyworm.” We aspire to make the continent of Africa a global breadbasket, as opposed to an agricultural basket case—and crop protection is essential to this ambition.
Finally, we can join discussions about farming and food wherever they take place: with our friends and relatives, with people who start conversations online, and at the conference centers where the mighty gather to talk about agriculture.
Dean Kleckner knew how to use his voice. He became a powerful advocate for farmers who wanted free trade and access to modern technology. He also had a vision for an organization that would amplify the voice of farmers. The Global Farmer Network, of which I’m a proud member, is his legacy. The rest of us should learn from his example and follow it.
I’m going to keep on traveling and writing—and now I’ll do it as the recipient of a Kleckner Award, using the voice that I have to make sure farmers are always heard.
Ms. Onyaole Patience Koku co-founded and manages Replenish Farms where they grow mostly maize under irrigation in Nigeria. Patience is an outspoken advocate for making sure that all farmers have access to innovative technology and is a member of the Global Farmer Network, where this column originates, www.globalfarmernetwork.org