André Leu

IFOAM’s André Leu to Keynote NOFA Summer Conference: Reversing Climate Change and Improving Farms

by Nicole Belanger

André Leu is both a farmer and an advocate. With his family, André operates a 150-acre fruit farm in tropical Australia. Once defeated and run down, his farm is now a lush and productive permaculture landscape, a system designed to minimize inputs and labor and maximize productivity, nutrient recycling and biodiversity.

For over 10 years he has been influencing international climate change policy, not only drawing attention to the role of soil in absorbing carbon to mitigate existing climate chaos, but also demonstrating how organic agriculture can help farmers and societies adapt to the effects of climate change. After the November 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference, he sees this as a critical time to galvanize nations to agree to include shifts in farming policies in their agreements and pledges and to see those pledges from idea to action.

International farming, education and market connectivity are important parts of his work, both as a farmer and educator, and also as the president of the board of directors of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) - Organics International.

André draws a clear connection between organic farming and a strong, viable, and sustainable path forward. “My message is one of hope. By changing farming we can reverse climate change and at the same time improve farms and make sure the world has a good future.” He is one of our two keynote speakers at the 2016 NOFA Summer Conference, August 12-14 in Amherst, MA. The other is farmer, educator and food justice activist Leah Penniman.

His farm: “A regenerative agro-ecological system”      

Leu comes from a farming family; his fondest childhood memories are times spent with his grandfather among their fruit trees. As a teen in the early 1970s he visited a pioneering organic farm in his native Australia with tropical fruits, flowers and vegetables. “For me, it was an incredible paradise. I’d just never seen anything like it. That was the moment when I said that’s what I want to do and the type of farming I want to do. I set about getting my first bit of land and that’s exactly what I do.”

Now André is on his third piece of land, which his family settled in the early 1990s. His farm is a high-yielding, low-input system, with yields equivalent to the best conventional growers in his area. Beyond just organic, Leu refers to his as a “regenerative agro-ecological system”. He will share many of the tips and techniques he utilizes on his own property, adapted for Northeast climates and ecosystems, in his Friday morning Intensive seminar, to be held on Friday, august 12.

“When you get the system up, a lot of the work in the farm now is done by the ecological system,” notes Leu. “It lowers the amount of work you have to do as a farmer since you don’t have to spray or anything like that.” On his property, he focuses on mineral balancing, utilizing cover crops and perennials to manage weeds and provide organic matter and nutrients for the system, and providing habitat for beneficial insects to control pests and disease. He periodically strip mows areas of his land to get organic matter into the ground. Not wanting to eliminate beneficial habitat, he alternates rows, leaving mature ground cover as refuge and cutting it once the mowed area matures. He also boasts that he hasn’t had to spray organic approved pesticides for over seven years.

“I just love farm work,” says Leu. “Most people think I’m mad, but I regard it as a lovely mental holiday from what else I’m doing. Those of us who’ve chosen farming have a love of farming. The farmers will know what I’m talking about. The joy of being on the tractor is something only another farmer would understand.”

Climate Change: “We’ve got to get down and do the work”

Actively involved in setting climate change policy for over 10 years, André has participated in each United Nations climate meeting since Copenhagen in 2009. His message is this: We can reverse climate change through organic agriculture and we have the data to back up this assertion.

In November 2015, countries from across the world gathered to negotiate pledges of action to stem the tide of climate change at the Paris COP21 meeting. Leu was inside the negotiations, actively putting forward the benefits of organic agriculture for both climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Together with his colleagues at Regeneration International, Leu is advocating for the 4 per 1000 Initiative put forward by the French government. The aim of the Initiative, according to website 4p1000.org, is to “demonstrate that agriculture, and agricultural soils in particular, can play a crucial role where food security and climate change are concerned.” Essentially, the idea is with a sufficient increase in the amount of carbon stored in soils, it is possible to stop the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

“At first we were lone voices,” states Leu, “but for us it is important that as the information got out more and more people have become interested, more and more organizations. By Paris the conversation had changed. For the first time the issue of soil carbon was a major part of the climate change talks.”

While the Paris agreement does not explicitly include agriculture to increase soil carbon, 28 of 195 countries that signed the Paris agreement have committed to increase levels of carbon stored in soils through agriculture. The countries include France, Mexico, Iran, Ukraine, Japan, and Canada, to name a few. “Where we are now is very encouraging and it’s a huge leap from where we started,” says Leu, “but there’s still a lot more work to be done to get the right language and to get these countries and their agriculture departments to understand that increasing soil carbon means a fundamental change in the way we do farming, grazing and agriculture. We have still got a long way to go. The fact that countries have committed towards this and started this process is to me very exciting.”

A gathering of parties will take place in Morocco in November of 2016. In the lead up to the gathering, organizations, nations and other actors are making presentations internationally to draw attention to the 4 per 1000 Initiative with the aim of securing strong action from nations who have agreed to participate as well as get commitments from nations who have not yet joined the Initiative. “We’ve got a document signed in Paris, but now we’ve got to get down and do the work and make that document happen. Negotiating and signing a document is actually the easy part,” quips Leu. “The critical part now is to get people to actually do what they’ve signed. The real work starts now.”

Leu also points out that not only are the farming practices that encourage accumulation of soil carbon good for mitigating atmospheric carbon, they also “increase resilience and adaptation, the ability to capture and store water, to resist droughts, to resist damaging rains, the types of changes to climate that we’re seeing at the moment. It is equally important to be able to adapt as well as mitigate.”

International Work: “Out of poverty to relative prosperity…”

IFOAM Organics International is involved with a wide variety of projects, from helping small farmers build their crops and find markets to affecting policy with governments and trade groups. Leu has been on the board of directors since 2008, serving as its president since 2011.

In places all over the world, IFOAM works with small family farmers to improve production systems, but, more importantly in André’s view, also to net the right price to be profitable. He provides the example of Uganda, where about 200,000 small family farmers have gone from abject poverty to having good food, health care, and the ability to send their children to school and university. He sees this work as helping “people get out of poverty to relative prosperity in their communities and turn their lives around through a combination of teaching better organic production techniques and getting paid a higher return for what they produce.”

Leu also trains farmers internationally himself, traveling extensively throughout Asia, the Middle East, the Americas and Europe. “My higher degrees are in adult education and training,” he shares. “I’ve worked with farm organizations for many years and still do. I like training farmers. That’s why I am happy to come to NOFA.”

André Leu and Leah Penniman keynote the 2016 NOFA Summer Conference, August 12-14 in Amherst, MA. Join us for three days of organic immersion, with 200 workshops to empower and educate, to build skills and confidence. Our children and teens conferences provide space for young people to cultivate their vision for an organic future. Before the conference begins, five intensive seminars will take place, including Regenerative Agriculture, Biodiversity, soil health & carbon sequestration, lead by André Leu. Scholarships, work exchange and groups discounts are available. Find out more at www.nofasummerconference.org.