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Paradigm shift urgently needed

December 07th, 2020
topic:Sustainable Agriculture
by:Frank Odenthal
located in:Switzerland, USA, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, Egypt, Tunisia, Kenya, Nigeria
tags:biotechnology, factory farming, food security, Sustainable Agriculture

A new report has been published ahead of the UN World Food Summit, which will take place in 2021, calling for a radical shift in today‘s agriculture.

In 2009, Hans R. Herren, among others, published the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report. It was seen as a wake-up call to change the way we farm and produce food. Now, a decade later, Herren – together with Benedikt Haerlin and the IAASTD + 10 advisory groups – published IAASTD + 10. FairPlanet spoke to the Swiss scientist about his latest release.

FairPlanet: You published the first IAASTD, a report on agriculture worldwide, about ten years ago. What has changed since then? Are you satisfied with what you've achieved?

Hans R. Herren: The development was much slower and not as broad as we had hoped. If you write a 2,000-page report together with 400 people for 4 years on why we should change the food system towards agro-ecology, away from industrial agriculture, with sixty governments signing it, and there are still hardly any changes in these countries, that's frustrating. The problem was that the usual suspects, Americans, Australians, Canadians and also the British, ultimately opposed the report. And finally even the FAO, even though it was one of the six UN organisations that sponsored the report. The FAO, which was supposed to present the report to its member countries at its annual meetings, ultimately never did that, probably under pressure from the Americans. So there was some opposition to this report from states, in which industrial agriculture plays a particularly large role.

On the other hand, a large number of NGOs around the world received this report very positively, so that a certain civil society pressure could be built up. So there were definitely some changes. Not enough by far, of course, and not yet at the levels on which we really want to exert an influence, but something has definitely got going in the general public perception.

In your new report, IAASTD + 10, you write that your original report from 2009 has even been opposed by the World Bank. How did that happen?

That was an interesting thing. At that time, a year before our report, the World Bank published its own report on the same topic of global agriculture. And above all, this report recommended more technology, including more biotechnology, to feed the world, an opinion that was largely contrary to our report. There was a race, so to speak, and the World Bank was determined to publish its report before our report was released. Before that, the World Bank hadn't published anything about agriculture for 10 years. And their report was then favorably received by many governments. When we came out with our report 6 months later, it found no support from either the FAO or the World Bank, but interestingly enough, it did receive support from UNEP, the United Nations environmental organisation based in Nairobi.

There is still no data to show that with genetic engineering we would produce more and better food.

In your new report you write about biotechnology, i.e. genetically manipulated plants, that until today there is no evidence that it can secure food production in the future.

Correct. There is still no data to show that with genetic engineering we would produce more and better food. If you look at the development of yields, you can say that without genetic engineering you would have achieved exactly the same amount.

Why genetic engineering is so interesting for some is because you can use it to control the seeds and also the other inputs that are necessary with it, such as pesticides and, above all, herbicides. That's a whole package. And if, as a farmer, you are simply part of this system, it is difficult to get out of it again because the seeds that the farmers once used and developed themselves no longer exist. It is interesting for industrial agriculture, also because you can then plant the gene plants over a large area and keep them free of weeds with a few sprayings without killing the soybeans, sunflowers or corn. The genetically modified plants are resistant to these herbicides. But through their use, all other plants develop resistance over time, so that one is forced to use more herbicides. The genetically modified plants are mostly also resistant to insects, but not to all pests, which also requires spraying conventional insecticides, and over time the insects also become resistant to the resistance genes. A cycle that you can't get out of at some point. That is why our approach is to tackle the problem at the root and not always just to fight the symptoms.

In the new report, one topic plays a bigger role than it did 10 years ago, namely digitisation. Can you explain what role digitisation plays in agriculture?

This is a topic that is now getting more and more attention, especially with regard to the United Nations' Food Systems Summit, which is to take place in October next year.

Digitalisation is being driven primarily by the private sector. First of all: it is good to have more information about the weather, the soil, the water, the nutrients etc. But the problem is: the private sector wants to get hold of this data, for example from the farmers who use their machines in the fields. These machines collect data and then send it to the large databases of the agricultural corporations via satellite. There they are then processed and sent back to the farmers in the form of advice on how to proceed in the fields. The data is completely in private hands and is then sold to the farmers. But it was the farmers who collected this data on their fields. This is called resource grabbing. We think this data should be public, that is, public domain; farmers should have access to their own data!

It's the same with agricultural research. In the last 30 years, states have had less and less to invest in agricultural research and thus in food systems because the private sector has taken on an ever larger part of the research. The governments probably thought that they could save money there. What they overlook: it is about the right to food, a human right. The governments should be responsible for this! And the achievements of research should therefore also be accessible to the public. But if things continue as they did before, the results of agricultural research will be sold to the farmers. This ultimately degrades the farmers to puppets in the agricultural industry. Here, too, the peasants become dependent; they may only get to-do lists for their working day that they should work through.

Digitisation also promotes concentration on a few global players instead of relying on small-scale agriculture, which could also react much faster and more flexibly to problems, such as new pests or pandemics, like Covid-19. Instead what we see is standardisation in agriculture, also conditioning of consumers on what an apple or a carrot has to look like. But nature is not perfect, and it cannot be pressed into such patterns.

Digitisation also promotes concentration on a few global players instead of relying on small-scale agriculture.

In your new report there is the sentence "control over food has always been an important tool to enforce power over people." What does that mean?

Historically, it has always been the case that whoever controls food also controls people. Because we have to eat every day. Wars started because of food, then, and it is no different now. The uprisings in Arab countries, for example, which we called the Arab Spring, began because the people in Egypt and Tunisia could no longer pay the food prices. So we have to be careful that we don't leave food sovereignty to the private sector, but also not entirely to the state. The peasant class has to organise itself with the consumers in such a way that they do not completely lose the ability to feed the people. Hence our recommendation on locality, on small-scale agriculture, on decentralised systems.

Apparently, this also applies to the new trend towards artificial meat. We have large parts of the world that are actually only available for farming purposes in form of keeping livestock. In Africa, for example, but also areas in Europe, such as the Alps. There it makes sense to make a living from keeping animals. Of course we have to eat less meat because of climate change, because of the meat that comes from these huge factories with 200,000 or 300,000 cows. But to say all meat is bad because of this is the wrong way.

So for agro-ecology, which you recommend in your report, things like localisation of agriculture and small-scale farms are crucial…

It's not just about production, it's about the entire system. At its core, of course, it is sustainable organic farming. Social, economic and environmental aspects play a role, so it's not just about production. The FAO has defined ten levels that should be met if you want to call yourself an agroecologist. It's not size dependent; it can be the small farmer with 2 hectares or a larger farmer with 50 hectares. It is particularly important that this term is not taken over and changed again by the industry. That's called co-opting a term. It would be the same term, but it might mean something completely different.

In your report you also write that agro-ecology is not a technology, but a holistic system.

It is even more than that: it is a movement because the social aspect also plays a role. We want to bring people together in the food system, not tear them apart, not separate them. Because as consumers to have an understanding of the efforts and risks the farmer takes on in the production of food, you have to get in touch with each other.

The new report also brings up indigenous concepts such as “Buen Vivir” from the Andean regions of South America. To what extent should these ideas be involved?

Agriculture (emphasis on “culture”) is always mentioned in these concepts. So the term culture also plays a role. Buen Vivir — that means living well — also means that you adapt to nature, live in harmony with nature. A harmony between people, animals and the environment. It's a society that supports one another, and especially in South America this idea is deeply rooted in people. In Africa it is a little less pronounced, there you had much, much more influence from the colonial rulers. In Asia it is even less pronounced. But with the indigenous peoples of South America and also those in North America, in the USA and in Canada, it is deeply rooted.

Back to the technologies. If you look back over the last ten years since the first report, which technological progress, which inventions, which innovations would you consider particularly relevant?

Well, precise forecasts are something very important. How the weather will develop, i.e. when the farmers should plant their seeds or bring in the harvest, can be predicted much more reliably these days. Another advance is mechanisation. There are very good new machines that help farmers, even under agro-ecological conditions. Above all in a sustainable way, namely carbon-friendly. This is very important! The ground should be covered at all times; in the future we should no longer have soils that are ploughed and then left open for six months. Because all the carbon that is bound in it would then escape back into the air. Of course, I don't mean those huge tractors that can barely drive on the streets. But that also doesn't mean that the smallholder should only work with the hoe again. It's about small machines that are adapted to local needs.

By the way, that's not as easy as it sounds. Many farmers actually fail to switch to sustainable production because they don't have the right machines.

Beside that, advances in traditional seed farming are important. In many places, farmers have access to better varieties. But here, too, it should be done locally and it should also be used locally. We do not need just a single seed that can be used cheaply around the world.

In terms of soil science, there is still a lot of catching up to do. Because it's about nourishing the soil, and the soil then nourishes the plants, and then ultimately us. We need living soil for this. In addition, a lot could be improved in the post-harvest, i.e. after the actual harvest. Because it doesn't make sense to produce more if you lose a considerable part of the harvest.

An important aspect of food production is the question of prices. It has long been demanded that the EU and the US cut their agricultural subsidies in order to stop flooding (and thereby ruining) the African markets with cheap food. What do you say about this in your new report?

First of all: the natural products, i.e. those that have been manufactured according to ecological criteria, are not too expensive. The other, conventional products are too cheap! They are usually cheap because of the subsidies. And these subsidies are harmful to the environment, because they are not given to produce better, but only to produce cheaper. This means that fewer farmers are supported, who own larger areas of arable land, using more chemicals.

But what should be considered too: People who save money because they buy cheaper groceries ultimately pay more again because with their taxes they pay to repair the environmental damage caused by industrial agriculture, for example to revive drinking water that is full of pesticides and nitrates. And of course the damage to health! If you include all of this in the price, then sustainable, ecological agriculture is no longer more expensive. And all these externalities should be taken into account.

In Africa it is now even the case that the farmers who cultivate in an organic way produce as much as conventional farmers, but have lower costs because the costs for pesticides and fertilisers are not incurred. Africans could very well take care of themselves, we know that. But not when we export corn from Canada to Kenya at a third of the cost of corn in Kenya. And if you want to support the farmers in Europe and North America, then the money should go to something useful: for a transformation towards agro-ecological agriculture.

We should not leave food sovereignty to the private sector, but also not entirely to the state.

You noted in the introduction to your new report that it was created during the Covid-19 pandemic. What does this pandemic teach us about how we're dealing with nature?

Well, on the one hand that globalisation has not worked so far because you can suddenly no longer send goods around the globe, and that localised economies can handle it better. People are going straight to the farmers again, building new connections. Second, in relation to health. We know that organically or sustainably produced products disturb the immune system much less. Today it is clear that our immune system is very strongly attacked and weakened by pesticide residues. This applies to food, but also to water. The localisation of the economy would also bring about a harmony between people and the environment, which strengthens us and makes us more adaptable.

IAASTD +10 starts with the sentence “decisive action is no longer an option, but an obligation”. If you dare to look into the future, say ten years, and publish the IAASTD +20 there, which headline would you possibly choose?

I do believe that a movement will begin to change parts of agriculture. Climate change will get worse, and agriculture will have a large part in it. So I do think that something will happen there, such as more practices that bind carbon in the soil, etc. Otherwise, I am not very optimistic because I know that the forces in industry are very strong. If you look at the WEF, for example, you can see in which direction these players, Bill Gates for example, would like to go: They try as hard as possible to change as little as possible. It is questionable whether civil society can address this. Gates once followed the “One Health” strategy at the WHO and gave a lot of money for it, but of course only in the way he would like it to be, so he gave the direction.

That meant vaccinations, medication, biotechnology, but that never means natural medicine, better nutrition; it's always about technology. Now Gates is in the process of bringing the global agricultural research system – in which I was involved for years – to “One Agriculture”. And he'll probably make it because he has so much money. Instead of doing local research for local needs, research should be done globally again, i.e. concepts that should work all over the world. And that is the completely wrong direction, with biotechnology, artificial fertilisers, chemistry. That is why I am very sceptical about the World Food Summit next year.

Hans R. Herren, thank you very much for this interview.

Hans R. Herren is an internationally recognised scientist who lived and worked for 27 years across Africa in agriculture, health, and environmental research and capacity development.

As Director of the Africa Biological Control Center of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria, he conceived and implemented the highly successful biological control program against the cassava mealy bug and the green mite that saved the cassava crop, the staple of 200 million Africans and averted Africa’s worst-ever food crisis. For this achievement, he was the first Swiss to receive the World Food Prise in 1995.

He holds numerous awards including the Right Livelihood Award, Tyler Prise for Environmental Achievement, Brandenberger Preis, and the Kilby Award. He is also the founder of Biovision Foundation, Switzerland. He is a member of the World Future Council since 2018.

Article written by:
Odenthal Frank_Autorenfoto
Frank Odenthal
Switzerland USA Canada United Kingdom Australia Egypt Tunisia Kenya Nigeria
If you write a 2,000-page report together with 400 people for 4 years on why we should change the food system towards agro-ecology, with sixty governments signing it, and there are still hardly any changes in these countries, that's frustrating.
The problem was that the usual suspects, Americans, Australians, Canadians and also the British, ultimately opposed the report.
There was a race, so to speak, and the World Bank was determined to publish its report before our report was released. Before that, the World Bank hadn't published anything about agriculture for 10 years.