International consultant for the genetic improvement of plants with over thirty years of experience in the management of research for development in Africa and Asia. PhD in productivity of cultivated plants with specialization in Genetic Improvement, at the University of Perugia. Tireless traveler to promote biodiversity and the adoption of participatory methodologies for the genetic improvement of plants, mainly of crops such as barley, sorghum and millet, with particular sensitivity to gender aspects, adaptation to climate change, needs of farmers and consumers, and the management and efficient use of genetic resources. Stefania Grando’s career is like diving into a globe of stories full of fascinating cultures, virtuous stories full of humanity, revealing our common roots, of what we could define the family of mankind; stories also full of burning issues such as inequality, the cycle of poverty, hunger in the world. During his career he has collaborated with researchers in Australia, Algeria, Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tunisia, Uganda, Yemen and Zimbabwe . I had the honor of meeting her last year together with her husband the genist Salvatore Ceccarelli with whom she wrote the book Sowing the future focused on the crucial role that seeds have for our future, for biodiversity, to combat climate change. , for the global economy and not least for our health. A few weeks ago I decided to hear from Stefania about her and to carry out an interview that would embrace her personal experience in the round. Listening to his experience focused on helping “the poorest of the poor”, in finding solutions even for the most hostile environments, in creating human relationships of immense value to build together, without exception, a better future made me reflect on how much it is strong and extraordinarily beautiful is the contribution that a single prepared, determined and humble person is able to give to all humanity.
Let’s start from the beginning. How was your career born?
I started as a fellow at the University of Perugia where I earned my PhD with a research thesis carried out at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo, Syria. The university environment had discouraged me very much and therefore I decided that I would go to work abroad. I managed to get a position at ICARDA as a post-doc, in March 1987. The idea was to stay two years but then they became 25. I dealt with the genetic improvement of barley, first as a researcher then as manager of the barley project which he had mandated to improve the cultivation of barley in developing countries worldwide. This posed some challenges. The headquarters of the center was in Aleppo but I had to follow farmers in a whole series of countries: Asia, Africa and Latin America. Offer farmers different choices of barley. In June 2011, just at the beginning of the war that broke out in Syria, I had to choose to leave my post due to strong internal discrimination. I thought I would stay at the ICARDA until the end of my career but unfortunately it wasn’t like that. We then moved to France where I worked in the CGIAR Consortium office in Montpellier for about two years until in 2013 I had a position as Director of the Cereals Program at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT ) in Hyderabad in India, where I dealt with miles and sorghum in an area that went from India to West Africa. The year I finished the job I was 60 years old. There were five of us in the same position. Two women and three men. It may be a coincidence but only us women have not been renewed the contract due to age limits. So I went back to Italy and I decided to go ahead with the consultancy.
Despite the discrimination you have experienced, you have nevertheless moved on, you have never given up on pursuing your goals. Where does your tireless commitment, your total dedication and passion come from?
Working with my husband was fundamental. To continue to discuss, to talk, to ask ourselves questions, to fix what we do, never to be satisfied. This is what he sent us forward and what he keeps us going today as well. Personally, it all started with the choice to leave university. There my desire to know and to answer the questions I had was satisfied but it had no purpose that went beyond it. At the time, I was in charge of creating new varieties of barley but I began to wonder: what to do? To help whom? When I arrived in Syria I immediately saw the difference. There I could help people in need. The missions of these centers where I worked were to increase agricultural production for different crops or for animals in developing countries. What we have tried to do over time was to work for the most needy farmers. I made the choice to work for the poorest of the poor. In the social contexts in which I have been I have seen that often women and children are the people who suffer most. I felt that my mission was to direct research to help these people by looking for varieties with higher nutritional value, varieties that can be sold better in the market. This is where all the work done with the farmers started, from the most central to the most remote areas. When I speak of farmers, I am speaking in general: men, women, often also the family nucleus.
In these communities present in Africa and Asia there is strong discrimination against women. How did you manage to join and collaborate with them?
I have had several experiences about it. I felt welcomed by Syrian families who lived in the steppe, in the humblest conditions, where it is sacred for them to make foreign guests feel at home. It doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman. Instead, I found myself in a high-ranking family in Jordan, wealthy to excess, having to eat in the kitchen with the wife and daughter of the landlord while all my colleagues, men, in the dining room. This is the habit for them and it shows that where one would think there is more open-mindedness, in reality there is none. In every situation, in every reality I try to arrive with a clean mind, without preconceptions. But it took some time to develop this spirit of observation. As a young man, as soon as I arrived in Syria, I saw the situation of women in the villages that was different from that of women in the cities. I felt like screaming, my blood rushed to my head but then I realized that I would get nothing by doing that. My work was not the right context to raise certain issues. So not interfering in community dynamics is the first step. It is necessary to listen to both women and men, to listen to their problems even if in that moment they are not the reason why you went there. This allows them to understand that you are willing to help them, it allows you to win their trust so that you can also enter into your work and create a constructive exchange. Since for them innovation is important for the survival of the community and since their agriculture is carried out in extreme situations, for them, regardless of gender, you are welcome if you want to start a discussion to understand what to do together and improve the situation.
How did you manage to involve the women of the villages in these discussions?
These are contexts in which we often only discuss with men. In some of the areas where we have worked, women cannot move alone, not even from one house to another. And this is also the reason why education is reserved for sons as the schools are often 10 km from the village. Even if women are not involved in certain contexts, the fact of spending time with them, with the family, leads you in some cases to be able to listen to everyone and everyone. It happened for example in the north of Egypt. I happened to have been accepted by the family and therefore to be able to move on to the step where they also introduced me to the wife of the head of the family. There I had the opportunity to confront myself and see what the problems can be from a female perspective. In the context of genetic improvement, therefore in the selection of new varieties of millet, sorghum or barley, I was able to see what the different needs are. Often men give you characteristics related to the market while women think about the family so she looks for products that can last longer, products that have more nutrients and that can be used by both children and adults.
Last year Salvatore told an episode that struck me a lot. He said: “We are very uncomfortable in this period where there is talk of skin color, races and religions which contrasts a lot with our experience. For example, to arrive in Aleppo and offer condolences for the death of Stefania’s father, two Muslim peasants traveled 200 km by bus which means sitting on the side of the road and not knowing where you will go ”. How have these encounters changed your life? Do you remember others?
We were very fond of both them and their families and still are. We only had a few exchanges of emails in the following years because the area of Syria they live in went under ISIS. We only know that they are alive. What Salvatore described was an episode that to say moved is an understatement. I left Italy just in the period when there began to be more multi-ethnicity. So once back I immediately noticed the differences in treatment towards people from North Africa or the Middle East. Another episode that impressed me occurred in a Bedouin family in Northern Egypt where I went several times a year. It was the third time they saw me and just in those days John Paul II died. The head of the family showed that he had a knowledge of Christianity that embarrassed me because I knew very little about Islam. I wished there were other people there with me, especially those who speak badly of Muslims. It hurts me to hear these things. After this confrontation he went to his room and returned with a silver bracelet. He said to me, “This was my mother’s. And I want you to keep it. I was delighted to talk to you today. Thank you for everything you are doing for us ”. He blew me away completely. I was sending him new varieties of barley for him to test, I was doing my job, nothing special. For them it was a lot. I have had so many other experiences. Recently I have seen people in Africa that I had met once or twice remembering me. They remembered my country of origin, they came to see me at the hotel, always bringing me something as a gift. They have an extraordinary generosity. Often what they give you they take it off. There is a saying, a way of acting in many Arab countries towards guests: if you look at someone and say that the dress is beautiful, they give it to you. Another incident in this regard occurred in Syria east of Aleppo. There was a farmer who was the guardian of the field where we worked and every time he saw Salvatore arrive and I came to meet us with his teapot to bring us hot tea, especially in the coldest periods. One day his wife gave me a dress typical of her typical Syrian rural part that she had just bought. I have met people with very big hearts.
These wonderful human bonds that you have created reflect your sincere commitment to concretely help others. In this regard, you and your Australian colleague coined the concept of “smart food”. What is it about?
In India, I mainly dealt with a program dedicated to sorghum and millet, important foods in developing countries because they are very nutritious. In recent years, however, they have been put aside. Miles have been replaced with rice and wheat, sorghum with corn and therefore with crops that produce less nutritious foods and require more water and chemical interventions. Both private and public research have invested for years on a few crops that can produce food in larger quantities and at low cost in order to feed more people even if things have not gone as they had professed. Malnutrition and hunger in the world are increasing. Furthermore, if the quality of the food is low, the problem of malnutrition will persist. However, wheat, rice, corn are still the most used and requested raw materials because they have become of economic interest for seed companies and for food processing industries. I and a colleague of mine from ICRISAT in India, aware of all this, have decided to start a campaign to bring sorghum and millet back to the fields, which are not only nutritious foods for people but also have a low environmental impact and are profitable for the farmer. From this reflection, the concept of “intelligent food” was born, a food that is good for people, for the environment and for the economy. Moving forward we have tried to evaluate other foods and include them in this definition. Evolutionary populations, mixtures, barley and legumes are now also part of it.
(For further information: below is the link of the TEDx that Stefania held in Varese entitled To save the planet we need intelligent foods)
How much do you think it is possible for 2030 to actually achieve the second goal of the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development “to eliminate hunger in the world”?
We are far behind when it comes to food, malnutrition and hunger. A report on the state of food security and nutrition in the world, published annually by five United Nations agencies (FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO), reports that until 2014 there has been a gradual decrease in malnutrition in the world . Since 2015, the number and percentage of undernourished people have started to grow again, suggesting that the second goal of the Agenda will not be achieved. Furthermore, it should be noted how agricultural research has been managed internationally. Unfortunately, centers like the ones we worked in relied on public funding, most of which are now reduced to zero. On the other hand, funding from private foundations is increasing but they involve a big risk: they decide what to finance and where they want to go, with no room for comparison. The priorities they set are always based on food that can be produced in large quantities but not very nutritious that does not solve the problem of malnutrition and, as we have seen, not even of hunger in the world. It is also a method that sets aside small farmers who cultivate in extreme conditions but who pay attention to many factors as mentioned above: the nutritional value, the absence of chemicals, the adaptation to the soil and therefore respect for environment and their emancipation and independence from seed producers.
How do you think Stefania could solve the inequality in the distribution of funds?
Unfortunately, a problem is that it would take a serious commitment from donor countries not to fix what is produced in their own country, but to help countries produce independently. I’ll give you a theoretical example: if a European country provides funds to Ethiopia to develop the agricultural sector but then the agency of the donor country decides that all interventions and constructions must be designed and built with professionals and materials from their own country, you understand that the funds will not really be invested in Ethiopia but will return to the country they come from. I have seen so many wasted funds. It takes better coordination as well as better willpower. I have also seen officials despise rural farmers and call them backward. There is no retrograde farmer. There are those who have more means and those who have less. They also know that fertilizer would be good for plants but they don’t have it, they don’t have the money to buy it. In recent years we have tried to help them. Participatory research and the use of evolutionary populations have been fundamental in making farmers independent and helping them with crops.
Have you also seen positive contributions?
Sure, many. Both Salvatore and I have managed to do everything we have done thanks to the Italian government. I met staff who worked in the ministries with a great desire to support everything we did. There are positive examples, the problem is to see how they balance. What worries me is this change in contributions and access to funds. The transition from a predominantly public system to a predominantly private system. It can help you in terms of efficiency but it does not help the poorer range.
The inequalities present today are truly profound.
Consiglio la lettura di un libro uscito nel 1989 di Graham Hancock Lords of Poverty in cui parla del problema degli aiuti internazionali ai paesi in via di sviluppo. L’ho letto almeno tre o quattro volte in periodi diversi. Ogni volta che lo rileggo lo trovo sempre attualissimo perché riporta gli stessi problemi, più o meno accentuati e sono sempre gli stessi. I soldi vengono dati per poi essere ripresi. Abbiamo sempre pensato di avere un modello di sviluppo efficace e di imporlo ad altri alle nostre condizioni ma il nostro modello di sviluppo è davvero migliore di quello degli altri? Per come siamo mi pare di no. La rivista Nature l’anno scorso, così come tanti studi anche più recenti, ha messo in relazione la diminuzione della biodiversità e la distruzione degli ecosistemi all’insorgere di pandemia. Questo è il nostro modello di sviluppo.
We have to reverse course, each of us. The issue of world hunger cannot leave us indifferent. Furthermore, we cannot continue to consider ourselves the center of the world and selfishly think only of our well-being because, as we have seen, interconnection exists. What is your experience about it?
I consider myself lucky to have been born where I was born. Although being a woman may have limited me in some things, I still had access to education, food, everything I had access to to get to where I am now. So then you feel you have to give something back to humanity, especially to those who haven’t had the same luck as you. What is the difference between a person who was born on a certain day in Italy and another who was born on the same day in Ethiopia? The substantial difference does not exist. The potential is the same. The problem is the possibilities, the circumstances in which we grow up. It has been shown that nutrition in the first 1,000 days of birth is crucial for a person’s intellectual development. If you were born into a poor family and do not have access to nutritious food during those 1,000 days, you will have less intellectual development. This means that you will never get out of poverty. Education will be limited, so you will have a hard time finding a high-paying job and your children will have the same problem.
This sad scenario, this reality that you can decide not to see since not in front of your eyes is something we are all responsible for. What can we concretely do as citizens to contribute to change?
As consumers there is a lot we can do. First of all, choose the food we buy well, know the origin well and encourage virtuous production chains, small farmers. There are already some examples that show how impactful it is on both our health and the environment to favor less processed foods and encourage the purchase of seasonal products. It is also important to maintain diversity in what we buy and put on the table because this allows the farmer to cultivate biodiversity. Our intestines are also rich in biodiversity, so the more we offer different varieties of nutritious food, the more we prevent the onset of diseases. There are so many things we can do. We have great power and we must use it to the fullest.
Cover photo. India, Rajasthan. Visit to farmers who cultivate pearl millet in some of the driest areas of India. September 2015