Posted 01 September 2011, by Alistair Driver, Farmers Guardian (UBM Information Ltd.), farmersguardian.com
SOCIETY has gone ‘properly wrong’ in the way it produces and consumes food, according to Hans Herren.
Dr Herren, a renowned scientist and international development expert, is on a mission to promote what he insists is a better alternative to the current global ‘industrial’ food production system, which he describes as ‘bankrupt’.
He is a leading advocate of agroecology, a holistic farming model based on organic principles, where food is produced by small family farms using green methods which nourish soils for future generations.
“We have tried to have more efficient farming, with fewer people, more machines and a greater dependency on pesticides, fertilisers, GM crops and energy, using 10 kilocalories to produce one kilocalorie. But that is only possible if there is cheap oil,” said Dr Herren.
“The system basically is bankrupt, which is why we need to change it to a more modern, advanced system, which will create energy, rather than consume it, and is not dependent on fossil energy, but more on people and better science.”
Dr Herren, originally from Switzerland, co-chaired the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology, (IAASTD), a three-year project involving more than 400 experts from across the world.
Its 2008 report called for a radical overhaul of the way the world produces food to ‘better serve the poor and hungry’. It demanded a shift away from the ‘focus on production alone’ and a greater emphasis on methods which conserve natural resources, backed up by trade and subsidy reforms and investment in science, education and training.
Dr Herren described it as ‘the mother of all reports on agriculture on a global and human scale’, but admitted being disappointed about how little its findings had been implemented globally.
Dr Herren, who spent 27 years in Africa researching pest management and sustainable production, continues to promote agroecology through the US-based Millennium Institute, of which he has been president since 2005.
He said the key to future food security was not to use more inputs to produce more food per hectare, but to rely on techniques backed by ‘solid science and agronomy – such as crop rotation with legumes and green manure, a cover crop grown to add nutrients to the soil – ‘to enable the land to regenerate’.
But he also claimed it had been shown in experiments and in the field these farming methods can ‘double, treble or even quadruple’ yields in Africa.
He added: “Agroecology will produce food which is affordable because more people will be working, so they can actually afford it.
“We need to support small-scale and family farms, where more people get employed. We have 1.5 billion people who have no job. We really have to see all this in an inter-linked system.”
He refuted the suggestion that, while agroecology may have merits in developing countries, where prevailing yields were relatively low and labour was abundant, it was unrealistic and idealistic to imagine it taking over in developed nations.
Instead, he insisted productivity levels could be maintained in developed countries if agroecology displaced intensive farming.
“It has been shown in the US that organic agriculture actually produces equally good yields as traditional agriculture,” he said. “But when there is drought or a flood, organic produces more as it is more resilient. There is no question we can deliver.”
The catch is that increased crop rotation would require a change in the way food is consumed. “You can’t disassociate consumption from production. In a rotation where you have more legumes someone has to eat those beans.”
He added people in urban-centric nations such as the UK and US would return to the land if agriculture became a ‘better and more rewarding job’ through greater investment, better prices for food and a reappraisal of farmers’ importance. “We need to look up to the farmer and down to the professor,” he said.
Dr Herren blamed the lack of wider support for this model of food security partly on what he claimed was a misconception of what it represented.
“We need to dispel this idea that agroecology is a back-breaking, low-yielding process and that we want to go back to grandfather’s agriculture. Actually, agroecology has a lot of science in it and a lot of knowledge,” he said.
Dr Herren was dismissive of the concept of ‘sustainable intensification’, the alternative view of food security with food production at its heart, championed by the UK Government-commissioned Foresight report. He described it as ‘an excuse to sneak in GMOs and to continue with business as usual’.
“People think food security is only about producing more food, but we need to make sure we can nourish the world in the long-term and not for companies to profit in the short-term,” he said.
“We have shown if we start to invest in green agriculture – agroecology – we can produce better food, use less land, use less water, employ more people and have less deforestation. I think we are making some headway. It is very slow, but I won’t give up that easily. We are going somewhere.”