Q & A: Hans Herren on Sustainable Agriculture Solutions

Submitted by skarimi on April 9, 2014

This week's GMO Inside exclusive features Hans Herren, President of the Millennium Institute.

Hans Herren is an internationally recognized scientist, entomologist, farmer and development specialist.

Before joining MI, he was director-general of the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology. He also served as director of the Africa Biological Control Center of International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), in Benin. At IITA, he conceived and implemented the highly successful biological control program that saved the African cassava crop, and averted Africa’s worst-ever food crisis. As MI's president, Hans' priorities are "to internationalize the Institute, and develop its public sector component with new core and project funding."

Hans earned his Ph.D. at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, and holds numerous awards that recognize his distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Hans serves on the boards of numerous organizations, including co-chairing the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science & Technology, (IAASTD); chairman of BioVision, a Swiss foundation with a global mandate to alleviate poverty and improve the livelihoods of poor people while maintaining the precious natural resource base that sustains life; president of the International Association of the Plant Protection Sciences (IAPPS); and member, US Board of Agriculture and Natural Resources (BANR).

Q: Do you think GMOs are poised to feed the world like many say?

A: Not at all. They haven’t actually proven anything yet in terms of increased yields, as far as any of the major food crops are concerned. Resistances are breaking down as well as the issue of weeds comes up. I don’t really see any proper use for GMOs, now or even in the future. I think that the solutions for problems with agricultural food security lie elsewhere—not in the seed or GMOs seeds in particular.

Q: So, how could we sustainably feed the world?

A: The fact of life is that right now, we produce enough food for 14 billion people. We lose a lot in pre and post-harvest. In the developed countries in particular, we produce more food than what is required. In developing countries, we underproduce and that’s not because we need GMOs, that’s because those countries have bad agronomic practices, farmers don’t have the right information on when to plant and how to best manage their farms. It’s an issue of more and better information to farmers in the developing countries. And basically, an issue of too cheap food and too much subsidies.

So, we wouldn’t have a problem in feeding and nourishing the world if we just apply what we know already. The issue has been overblown and all about food availability. It has more to do with people using land to produce biofuels, which I think we should stop totally and reserve our land, water, natural resources and human resources to grow more of a better quality food. That is the big issue in the developed countries. Whereas, in the developing countries, we need to diversify what we grow and inform the farmers better with greater access to knowledge, and then we can solve a lot of problems. I’ve been studying Africa long enough to know that this is possible.

Q: The longest study on GMOs lasted 2 years. What amount of time do you think would be necessary to truly look at the safety of GMOs?

A: There needs to be long-term studies. Simply, two years is not enough. The problem with GMOs, specifically the herbicide tolerant is not the GMO itself, I think that we have to look at the product of the agronomic practices used to produce GMO soybeans, corn, etc. Glyphosate has proven to be a problem. A lot of the chemicals, used with the herbicides, are proving to be a problem. Plants become resistant to the herbicides and then the farmers just spray more herbicides. Soybean crops have been showing high levels of leftover herbicides in them. GMO soybeans have not solved the problem of weeds or pests because of the GM seeds’ resistances. So, it is really a push by the industry to sell the farmers something, which I think they could find other solutions than genetically modified seeds.

Q: What do you think of golden rice, which supporters say is "a solution to alleviate life-threatening micronutrient deficiencies in developing countries?" 

A: There are a number of things about the golden rice. The first thing is that, again, it is something that will treat only a segment; Vitamin A. Golden rice is not a diverse food. This debate is actually an inequity issue. If we were to consume golden rice to deal with the Vitamin A deficiency, then that doesn’t help the farming system improve because what we need on the farm is more diversity and different crops to make that food system more resilient to climate change. Also, we can’t just be growing the same product all of the time, like rice. We need to have crop rotation. We know that from all the agronomic studies done. Again, golden rice will not solve any problem in the end. It’s just a temporary Band-Aid for a plethora of food issues. We have a systematic problem here in having an agronomic system without diverse numbers of crops. Golden rice is trying to solve the problem from the wrong end.

We are spending so much money not only in making GMOs, but discussing them trying to make jist of them, but in the mean time, we could have solved the problem ten times over by doing the right thing. It has been shown that, a lot of papers have come out lately, that show the issue of Vitamin A/lack of Vitamin A can easily be solved with having a more diverse diet. People will tell you, “but vegetables are expensive” and “people don’t have access to it.” Alright, so then you make it so that people can grow more vegetables in their home gardens. You have to teach the youth and farmers in general how to do all of this, and then we would have a lasting, affordable and resilient solution and not another silver bullet like golden rice that is bound to break down after a few years. We have to be much smarter about finding solutions. Complex problems do not have simple solutions.

Q: Is monoculture a big problem that people should pay attention to?

A: Yes. Actually it is good you raised this question. GMO crops are promoting the wrong type of agriculture. They are promoting more and more mono-crops on the large scale because it is either expensive so we have to rationalize on the size of the field, utilize bigger machines. So, everything goes in the wrong direction because this type of agriculture, monoculture, leads to the development of diseases and more insects. It is very costly in terms of fuel because monoculture requires big machinery. GMOs need more water and more fertilizers in order to grow. We are being pushed on a track that needs more and more inputs in a world where natural resources are limited. They need a lot of energy and chemicals to make fertilizer. If we continue on the track from the Green Revolution, we are basically going to shoot ourselves in the foot because that type of agriculture produces more CO2, which means we promote climate change. Climate change has an ill effect on agriculture. As you can see, we are in a totally negative feedback loop. Naturally, we know how to do agriculture in a way which will make more calories, put more CO2 back into the soil, reduce the whole issue of climate change and produce quality nutrition, not tons of commodities. How can we not pay attention to these facts? We have plenty peer-reviewed science on all of this—the health effects, the animal impact and the environmental impact of monoculture. But, the commercial interests are in all of this and they use political pressure. Look at the United States—which is basically run by the industry in terms of what goes into agriculture. Monsanto has a big say in what is going on.

Q: I’ve heard you talk about introducing the true pricing of products? Can you elaborate? How would this help food systems?

A: I think about all of these issues and I think, “What can I do? How can we change this?” I think we need true pricing because if we have true prices, which contain all of the externalities, you would see that the cheap food is actually more expensive because it pollutes, so we have to charge that into the price, it produces more CO2, so we have to have a carbon tax on it, it also causes soil degradation, and we have to charge for that, so we have to add up all of these extra costs. And then there are the health costs, which are linked to bad food, so again we add that to the price. So, then you see that all of these cheap food products of all sorts end up costing twice as much as ecologically and environmentally sustainable and organic foods. Clearly, the way to do this is new food prices because that’s how people will choose the better, more sustainable foods. For example, grass-fed beef, which can be more expensive than GMO-fed beef, is healthier with more omega-3’s and omega-6’s and more sustainable. This really would solve the problem. Consumers need to be much more involved in this. Consumers need to understand one thing, which is true pricing.

Q: What should the focus of agricultural research be that could promote a more sustainable food system?

A: First, we need to look at soil. We need to have much better soil science. Not just the mineral part, we already have a lot of information on that; we need to know about the life in the soil. Today, we have such fantastic tools in molecular biology and tools to actually study what’s going on in the soil. If we don’t get the soil right, the plant can’t grow in a healthy manner. Bad soil means an unhealthy environment for the plant. So, there’s a lot of science to do, but it is also about informing the farmer about these findings. Farmers need proper access to information. We should translate scientific publications into language more people and more farmers can understand. If you fix the soil problem, you probably fix most of the water problem. Water can be absorbed in very large quantities in healthy soil.

With crops, we need to have a much larger genetic variety and diversity. We need to have extended amount of crop varieties and animals too. It’s important that we have more crops to grow—we need more root crops, we need more legume crops in the system, we need more than just corn and soybeans. These systems are doomed because monoculture will not maintain soil quality.

Also, we need to bring those animals back on the farm and out of the factories. There is no need for a single animal factory, from chicken to beef, that’s the wrong way. They accumulate carbon in one place. With these animal factories, you have all the antibiotic use, which is enormous. You create a number of new problems, which don’t have to be. We have to come to our senses and think about how we manage our land and our production of crops and animals.

We know exactly how to create a sustainable farming system; the only problem is the commercial interests. I just heard a few days ago that 85% of chicken meat comes from Tyson. This is wrong, but why is this? So the people can eat more and have cheaper chicken? It doesn’t make any sense. There are all these people that have to pay more health insurance because of the bad food that they are eating. People have to be more informed of the consequences of everything that they buy, but that’s what these corporations don’t want you to know. That’s why they don’t want labeling on GMOs or carbon consumption. This is where the system is really broken—the commercial interests in the food we eat.

Q: A lot of agricultural research is privately funded. Do you think public, instead of private, research could be helpful for our food system?

A: Good question because that is where everything went wrong--when the government decided that they didn’t have enough money for the research and just said, “Let the private sector do all the research.” You cannot leave something like food, which is a human right, in the hands of the private sector. This is a responsibility of the government to ensure that there is good science produced for the farmers who produce the food and for the citizens of any given country. The private sector just looks after their interests, making for biased research. Consumers need to be aware. Agricultural research needs to be public and the government needs to pay for it, since it deals with something as basic and important as food.

For thousands of years, farmers have done the selection and have been developing seeds. Monsanto comes along and adds a one tenth of a percent change in that seed and says, “it’s mine. You farmers have to pay for it.” Where is our government in this? The government should get some money from these companies and do the research in the public domain. Also, the link between the research and the farm needs to be there from the government, not a corporation connecting the two.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with GMO Inside, Hans Herren!

More from the Blog