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Sustainable agriculture is possible

November 05, 2018
topic:Sustainable Agriculture
tags:#Biovision, #Africa, #environment, #climate change, #bees, #wasp, #Hans R. Herren, #Sustainable Development Goals
located:Switzerland, Kenya, Nigeria
by:Frank Odenthal
Dr Hans R. Herren, a Swiss agronomist/entomologist, is one of the world’s leading experts on biological pest control and sustainable agriculture. He successfully implemented a biological control programme that has literally saved millions of lives.

Today, Herren works together with African farmers to combat hunger, poverty and disease through ecologically-sound agriculture through his Swiss “Biovision Foundation”. Herren was awarded the Right-Livelihood-Award in 2013.

FairPlanet: Mr Herren, your very first assignment took you to Africa, to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria. What were your first impressions and what did you experience on the ground?

Dr Hans R. Herren: When I came to Nigeria, I realised that my education would be very helpful here because there were problems with the mealybug, and that has been part of my field of study. These mealybugs attacked the cassava plants, which was and still is the nutritional base of many people. At that time, in 1979, the problems with the mealybug first appeared mainly in the area of Zaire, today's Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in the neighbouring country of Congo Brazzaville. Later, the problem spread to many other countries, from Senegal in West Africa to Mozambique in East Africa.

Then you launched the largest biological pest control program to date.

Yes, that's right. You know, the cassava that we tried to protect originally came from South America. People use the plant‘s roots as food, and that‘s where the mealybug sucks out the nutrients. That cassava mealybug was eventually brought to Africa, where the cassava plant in the meantime became a very important food within a short period of time. So my idea back then was that if we were looking for a natural enemy for the mealybug that threatened the cassava plant, then we might find it in South America, too. And so it was. We found a certain species of wasp in Paraguay to fight that cassava mealybug.

Was there any resistance when you tried to bring the South American wasp species to Africa?

Oh yes, quite significant resistance. We were given strict quarantine requirements. Which is reasonable of course; you have to be careful when transferring one species from a completely different habitat to another. At that time, we initially set up a large quarantine centre in London, where we proved that the wasp posed no threat to the ecological balance in Africa. Nevertheless, we also had to provide evidence in every single country in Africa that the wasp benefits but does not cause harm. That was of course expensive. And Cameroon, by the way, was the only country that did not allow us to introduce the wasp until the very end. The problem, however, fixed itself, because if you expose wasps in all the neighbouring countries, they don‘t necessarily stop at borders.

When did you realise that the program would be successful?

The program lasted over 12 years. But when we saw the successes after three years, especially in Nigeria, I realised that we would probably be successful.

Did you start comparable projects afterwards?

Oh yes, a whole lot. With the green spider mite, the mango mealybug, or with water weeds in Benin. There‘s quite a long list, to be honest.

You then went to Kenya in 1994, where you directed the ICIPE (International Center of Insect Physiology) in Nairobi until 2005.

Correct. I took over from Prof. Odhiambo, who had headed the institute for 24 years. That was quite a restart, I would say. We dealt with a variety of insects, just like we did before. For example with the silkworm.

You know, in my opinion, the potential of the African silkworm is still completely underestimated. In China, Japan and other Asian countries, silk can hardly be produced profitably anymore. In Africa, on the other hand, there is huge potential, the natural conditions are good enough, and workers' wages are low. We even organised a fashion show in Paris that featured silk fabrics from African production. Unfortunately, we could not inspire investors for this idea so far.

But we also did other insect programmes. For example with honey bees, which are now also very useful to local communities. Or new methods against the locusts, against mosquitoes or against the tsetse flies. We have discovered fragrances that naturally displace some insects, attracting others. This was the basis for the push-pull method we have developed, which proved so helpful and is now being used in more and more African countries.

What is the push-pull method?

Push-Pull is used for maize and sorghum cultivation. It is an integrated, environmentally friendly and sustainable cultivation method. It increases yields by controlling pests, reducing drought stress and improving soil fertility in a natural way. Between maize or sorghum, the legume Desmodium is planted, which scorches the stem borer moths by its smell - push - and helps to ensure that the soil absorbs and stores moisture better and increases fertility through nitrogen fixation. In addition, Desmodium decimates the weeds Striga.

Napier grass or Brachiaria are planted around the fields, both forage grasses that lure the moths out of the field - Pull. The larvae of the pests then suffocate in the sticky leaf milk.

In addition to the stalk drill and the weed Striga, the push-pull method has also proven to be effective against attack by the autumn armyworm.

Did you cooperate with other organisations with your programs?

We have always tried to work with local research institutes. There were cooperations with 28 universities throughout Africa, and also with a variety of farmers' organisations. Most of all, we have always tried to work with the National Organisations for Organic Agriculture in Africa.

In 1995 you won the World Food Prize and used your prize money to found Biovision in 1998. What goals did you initially pursue?

We have dealt with the question of how do we bring the knowledge from research and science to the farmers in the fields? So we came up with the idea of publishing a farmer's newspaper in Kenya, with the name "The Organic Farmer" (TOF). This allowed us to contact farmers directly, so we did not have to go through national institutes. Later, we established the farmers' newspaper in Tanzania, too, under the name of Mkulima Mbunifu ("The smart farmer"). And now broadcast radio programmes, TOF Radio, which reaches millions of farmers twice a week, and an internet portal,, a database full of helpful information on farming methods and all sorts of things for smallholders and beyond.

Do you also recall any failures?

Oh yes, of course. I remember a mosquito pest control project where we wanted to use bacteria. We had a factory built for that purpose - using Chinese investors money. Unfortunately, the Kenyan government kept asking for evidence of the effectiveness of the method and the safety for the population. At some point, that became too expensive for us and we did not pursue the project any further.

In the meantime, one knows that insects can be both pests and beneficial. Have you noticed a change in people's perception over time? Are insects now seen more positively?

I think so. Recently there was also an outcry in Germany when people got to know that so many insects were suddenly gone, so many insects been killed. So people finally understood what it would mean if the insects were suddenly gone and would not pollinate their plants or serve as food for songbirds. The goal must be to have a system that is in balance. For example, we now know that it is better for the quality of cotton if there are a certain number of pests than if there were no pests at all. There must be a natural balance.

Since 2005 you are now President of the Millennium Institute in Washington D.C. What are your goals and your successes there?

Simply put, we try to teach institutions, governments, companies and other stakeholders to think long-term. It goes back to the famous Club of Rome report, when it became clear that we need to change our way of life towards sustainability and intergenerational justice. With US president Jimmy Carter, there was widespread support for this approach, this way of thinking. Unfortunately, this was no longer considered urgent under the subsequent Reagan administration. At the Millennium Institute, we are revisiting the idea of sustainability. We develop models that allow us to forward tailor-made recommendations for achieving the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) for each individual country - so-called "Integrated Sustainable Development Goals" (iSDG). They can then contain up to 10,000 different equations for calculation. Quite a challenging task.

Now you live in California. How do you compare California with your home country, Switzerland, in terms of environmental awareness?

California has become a kind of second home for me, too. I studied at Berkeley and met my wife there. And of course, California is a very progressive state. I was very disappointed with Switzerland at last, I must confess. The recent referendum there - it was about “fair food“ and food sovereignty - were indeed rejected, probably because of concerns that this could increase the price of food slightly. But what does it mean if prices rise slightly, if, like Switzerland, you only spend 6 percent of your income on food? In my opinion, it‘s not such a big problem to pay a bit more for good food if this food has a much better quality, and you save a lot of water during the growing process, too. Especially considering the externalities of cheap food elsewhere.

Looking into the future now at Biovision's 20th anniversary, is it an optimistic or a pessimistic view?

At the moment the view might be a bit pessimistic, but in principle, I'm an optimistic person. I'm afraid the situation in terms of climate change, food and water scarcity is severe, and we are currently heading into the abyss, and that has not really arrived in people's minds. We need a completely new agriculture, an integrated, multifunctional agriculture, such as agricultural ecology, sustainable agriculture, labels like “Demeter“ or the permaculture movement – all those steps towards more sustainability. Such agriculture offers so many possibilities! We might even be able to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the ground. And the transition can start immediately, and it should start immediately. No more synthetic fertilisers, no cultivation of monocultures. That could be implemented immediately without anyone having to starve. Of course, big fertilizer and pesticide producers will be against putting less chemistry in the fields.

But that's not surprising. Although the short-term yields of such sustainable agriculture will decline slightly, the quality will be better and water will be saved; So people will benefit in the long run. Research in the agricultural sector is currently 904% geared towards conventional agriculture. That too should change. And of course, it is important to have enlightened consumers. Because only informed consumers can consciously make sustainable purchasing decisions.

Hans R. Herren was born on 30 November 1947 in Mühleberg, Switzerland. He graduated in entomology from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zürich) and took a PhD in biological pest control in 1977, followed by two years of post-doctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley, USA.

Herren is currently president and CEO of the Washington-based Millennium Institute and co-founder and president of the Swiss foundation Biovision.

Article written by:
Odenthal Frank_Autorenfoto
Frank Odenthal
Switzerland Kenya Nigeria
Embed from Getty Images
Herren works together with African farmers to combat hunger, poverty and disease through ecologically-sound agriculture through his Swiss “Biovision Foundation”.
Embed from Getty Images
When I came to Nigeria, I realised that my education would be very helpful here, because the reason for my involvement there were the problems with the mealy bug, and that has been part of my field of study.
Embed from Getty Images
You know, in my opinion, the potential of the African silkworm is still completely underestimated.
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