Leading scientist says agroecology is the only way to feed the world

By Ken Roseboro
Published: December 27, 2011

Category: Organic / Sustainable Farming

Agroecology Scientist

To access all the articles in this month's issue of The Organic & Non-GMO Report, SUBSCRIBE NOW.

Hans Herren, Ph.D. is an internationally recognized scientist specializing in sustainable agriculture. He is president of the Millennium Institute, a non-profit development research and service organization dedicated to sustainable development. Dr. Herren co-chaired the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science & Technology (IAASTD), an initiative sponsored by the World Bank and United Nations in partnership with the World Health Organization that assessed global agriculture and recommended agroecological solutions to world hunger.

Dr. Herren has earned numerous awards that recognize his research achievements. These include the 2002 Brandenberger Preis for improving the living standards of Africa's rural population, the 2003 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, and the 1995 World Food Prize for his work developing a successful biological control program that saved the African cassava crop, and averted Africa’s worst-ever food crisis.

Dr. Herren’s work in agroecology in Africa has been credited with saving millions of lives by enabling African people to produce the food they need. He developed the “push-pull” system that uses simple but powerful bio-control strategies to effectively manage corn pests, resulting in large increases in yields.

There is much discussion today about the need to “feed the world” because of the growing global population. What do you think needs to be done in order to ensure there is adequate food for everyone in the world?

HH: The issue is less on how to feed the world than how to nourish the poor and hungry. Today we produce 4600 calories per person per day, so there is enough food to feed twice the present population. The problem is that we produce mostly cheap commodities rather than quality food. These cheap products, in addition to being of low nutritional value, are based on a few crops that carry a large ecological, social, and economic footprint. What is needed is to support farmers in developing countries to grow their own healthy food by providing information, know-how, financial support for inputs, and support for them to access markets, among others.

Food security is achieved when availability, access, stability, and utilization are assured equally for all. There is also a need for new and participatory research into sustainable agricultural practices, based on the principles of agroecology and organic farming, which would free farmers from dependence on external inputs such as chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

Some agricultural “experts” are calling for another Green Revolution. What are your thoughts on this?

HH: What we need least is another Green Revolution. What is needed now is to move forward with the lessons learned from the Green Revolution, taking forward what has worked and leave behind most of it, since the Green Revolution has left agriculture dependent on external inputs that are non-sustainable and becoming more and more expensive since they are based on oil, a finite resource, and also synthetic fertilizers, also based on finite natural resources.

The way forward is to understand and work with the system in a holistic and integrated manner. Silver bullets, reductionism as often promoted by the agri-chemical industry are not solutions.

The IAASTD report recommends, as you do, the need for a holistic approach to agricultural production. What do you mean by this?

HH: By this we mean to always consider agriculture multi-functionality, the fact that it is realized in the overlapping areas of the environment, society, and economy. Agriculture is not simply the production of food as seen under the Green Revolution: agriculture produces a number of essential eco-social system services, which we need to consider when making any decision about the food system, from production to consumption. This is also the reason that we have been promoting a payment to farmers for these ecosystem services, providing additional income to farmers that take the route of sustainable production.

The IAASTD report received very little press in the United States. Prince Charles said at a conference in Washington, DC last year that the findings from the report seem to have “vanished.” Any thoughts on this?

HH: The report was not well received by the US, Canada, and Australia, where major commodity exporters, major producers of agriculture inputs, such as seeds and fertilizers, and the largest food processors are based.

However, the report received a good response from UN agencies such as UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), UNEP (United Nations Environment Program), and also the natural resources department at FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organization), some governments and in particular civil society groups and foundations. For example, the African Union has adopted ecological/organic farming as one of the agricultural practices that need to be promoted across Africa to help achieve food security sustainably in the face of the climate change challenges.

Do you think that organic/agroecological methods can help feed the world?

HH: Agroecological, eco-efficient, and organic agriculture, which are among the several good agricultural practices under the label “sustainable agriculture,” cannot only nourish a world population of some 9 to 10 billion people, but are the only approaches that will be able to do it in the face of climate change, natural resource scarcity, and growing demand challenges. Unless we have the resilience provided by these systems at the basis of our multi-functional production systems, we will face major problems.

So the solutions are at hand, there is evidence from the field for now over three decades that sustainable agriculture cannot only nourish the world, but can do so for the long haul.

Are organic and agroecological methods one and the same?

HH: Not exactly, for the reason that organic is a simplified form of agroecological farming practices, which does include also social elements, that are not yet part of organic. Also agroecology is the science that underlies agroecological practices, including the social and economic sciences, in addition to the natural sciences.

There are no certification needs in agroecological practices, contrary to organic, which follow a strict set of rules that vary from country to country.

What is your opinion of genetically modified crops?

HH: This is a technology that addresses symptoms rather than cause, so it’s of little use in sustainable systems. Also, GM crops create dependencies that are not in the interest of the farmers or consumers in the medium and long term.

We have now already seen the problems that arise from resistance build-up of weeds as well as insects, which are no longer affected by the killer chemicals that accompany the herbicide tolerant crops and also the insect resistant ones.

GMOs are a reductionist approach used in a complex system; no wonder they already fail just as the pesticides failed. Furthermore, GMOs promote the wrong type of production system: few different crops in the rotation and monocrop practices that go against the wisdom of sustainable agriculture which uses a large number of different crops to increase diversity and so resilience.

In brief, GMOs do not provide any substantial medium or long term benefit, either for the farmer or the consumers.

There is a push now to grow GM crops in Africa. The Gates Foundation is funding research on GM crops in Africa and other nations. What are your thoughts on this?

HH: We do not need GMOs in Africa nor anywhere else. To promote GMOs in Africa is wrongheaded, will make farmers dependent on input suppliers in the medium and long term and contribute to the loss of important local landraces (plant species).

What we need are resilient cropping systems where we have fertile soils loaded with organic matter, humus, which will not only absorb lots of carbon, but will also store water and nutrients to be released at the pace plants can pick up. Such soil also increases many of the nutrients needed by the plants, making the use of fertilizers unnecessary, except in isolated situations, such as when phosphate may be totally lacking.

We have shown in experiments and on some 50,000 farms that farm productivity can be raised easily by a factor of two to four, when applying agroecological methods.

Proponents of GMOs like to claim they will help feed the world. What do you think?

HH: We already produce more food than needed; despite this we have 950 million people hungry. In India food is rotting in warehouses, yet India has the highest childhood malnutrition rate in the world.

The proof that this system does not work is confirmed by the fact that after 20 years of GMOs the global situation has not improved. Why continue and emphasize further a system that is failing to change food security?

Not to say that the traditional agriculture in developing countries is all okay. To the contrary, there is a need to change the paradigm and move on with new participatory research, extension and farmer training into new sustainable agricultural methods.

You’ve said that agricultural research should be in the public sector. Why do you think this is important?

HH: The public sector, government, needs to take the responsibility to assure food security for all again. The devolution of this responsibility to the private sector was wrongheaded and needs to be rectified as soon as possible.

Food is a human right, and there should be no patents on seeds (as we have now by private companies). Seeds belong to the global public good or public domain.

There are opportunities for the private sector to be involved in the many aspects of food storage, processing, and marketing, very much at the local level with farmer participation in these businesses.

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, December/January 2012