Swiss entomologist, Hans Rudolf Herren, president of the Biovision Foundation and the Millennium Institute in Washington, believes we can keep feeding the planet and provide the whole of mankind a healthy, adequate and sustainable food supply if we reform the world’s food processing system and value the work of small farmers.
According to forecasts, the world population will top nine billion by 2050. Can the planet feed all these people?
Hans Rudolf Herren: Yes, because we are already producing enough food to meet the needs of ten or even 12 billion people. The question is really where, how and what to produce. Right now, too much is being produced in some regions of the world, and not enough in others.
In the northern part of the world and in some emerging economies, there is a surplus in the production of particular foodstuffs – like corn, cereals, rice, soya and rapeseed – which are mainly used for making biofuels, animal fodder, starch and sugar (which we do not need). In most southern countries, however, there is a great untapped potential for producing more.
So we need to rebalance the world food and economic system. Current production exceeds our need for food, but millions of people are still dying of hunger – which means the current system doesn’t work….
… there is no time to lose if we want to save our earth, produce enough to feed the world and curb climate change. We have shown that it is possible to increase production with a kind of agriculture that respects the environment. Now it is time to take rapid, concrete decisions. The right to a healthy and adequate food supply is a fundamental principle recognised by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Governments need to shoulder their responsibilities to ensure food security for all….
… Powerful economic and financial interests are influencing political choices. In Europe and North America, the food industry is heavily subsidised, from growing crops to exporting them. In the port of Mombasa, you can buy corn from the US that costs a third of that produced in Kenya. This is how local production and markets are ruined. In the countries of the south, many governments are influenced by multinationals, large private foundations and some development partners who market genetically modified seeds, insecticides, pesticides and chemical fertilisers. With these methods of agriculture, there is not only a danger to the environment and health, but they create financial dependence among the farmers, who often have to go into debt to buy these products….
… We need systemic change to the food processing model. Currently, throughout the world, there is a growing trend of simplification. Intensive single crops that will produce foodstuffs generating a large profit are favoured. They are often high in calories, too, which can have a devastating effect on health. While there are 800 million people suffering from the effects of famine, 1.5 billion are overweight. The food production sector needs more complexity, not less. That would mean supporting small-scale, diversified organic farming with more production of fruits and vegetables. To do that, especially in the south, there need to be efforts to provide small farmers with training, means of production, access to land and to markets.
Is it really possible to feed the whole of mankind with organic, small-scale farming?
H.R.H.: The productivity per unit of area on a small farm is superior to that of the big single crop operations. That was shown by a study produced last year by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. In the green agriculture programmes that Biovision promotes, we have shown that production can be doubled using seeds and vegetable species that match local conditions, sowing crops mixed with clover or plants that nurture the soil and using insects that keep down parasites. But organic or green farming still has a long way to go. This kind of production is based on scientific principles and the biology of the soil. In order for the science to make progress, there needs to be investment in research, which at the moment is almost all going towards conventional agriculture. Take Switzerland: the government is providing CHF270 million ($280 million) in support of research in conventional agriculture, and just CHF4 million for organic agriculture. It should be the other way around.
This kind of agriculture, however, needs a lot of workers in a period marked by a massive rural exodus. Forecasts are saying that 70-80% of the world population will live in cities by 2050.
H.R.H.: Indeed, this is what will happen, unless we do something about it. But we cannot afford to sit back and let these kinds of scenarios just develop. We need to invest in rural areas, creating local economic communities where citizens have access to schools, hospitals, electricity and the internet. Rural areas will be attractive only if people live and work there – and not just in the agricultural sector either. People won’t stay in places where there’s nobody else around.
We also need to value the work of small farmers so they can lift themselves out of poverty. Not just in the south. Even in Switzerland, many farmers can’t make a living and have to give up their farms. The price of food products does not correspond to their real value. Given that everybody needs to be fed, why shouldn’t farmers make more than lawyers or engineers? Their work is far more important.
Sorry to say the good professor’s final comment reveals that he still thinks within the framework of capitalism and is yet to seek answers outside it.