Skip to main content

Papa’s Got a Brand-New Ag?

A conversation with renowned entomologist Hans Herren on a United Nations report calling for changes in how the world produces its food.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

You only have to go back a generation or two to arrive at an agricultural model envisioned in a new United Nations report that calls for an abrupt change of course in how farmers grow the world’s food.

Hans R. Herren, one of the co-chairs of the study and an internationally recognized entomologist, remembers how his mother kept root crops in a barn over the winter when he was growing up in Switzerland. The report recommends, for example, finding a way to store a crop for sale months after harvest when it will be more in demand and will bring more money.

The study — known as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) — doesn’t suggest everyone begin tilling their backyards and putting up food.

Video: The IAASTD report

It does, however, encourage government assistance to small farmers and takes aim at the developed world’s government-subsidized, high-input, single-crop agriculture, tying it to growing problems in providing an adequate diet for people around the globe, particularly the poor. The resulting strains in social systems and loss of ecosystem health and biodiversity were cited as “externalities” of developed-world agriculture that haven’t been figured into the total cost of production.

The report poses some general questions, such as “how to maintain and enhance environmental and cultural services while increasing sustainable productivity and diversity of food, fiber and biofuel production” and “how to link the outputs from marginalized, rain fed lands into local, national and global markets,” that cross national and economic boundaries and might be seen as stepping on some agribusiness toes.

It then looks at eight themes in answering those questions for both the First World and developing nations: bioenergy, biotechnology, climate change, human health, natural resource management, trade and markets, traditional and local knowledge and community-based innovation, and women in agriculture.

The report drew from the work of more than 400 scientists and was reviewed by 64 governments at a mid-April intergovernmental plenary session in Johannesburg, South Africa. Three countries — the United States, Canada and Australia — supported the research of the study but declined to endorse the final report, noting reservations in the annex. The United Kingdom is still considering an endorsement.

Gary Clements, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, cited an interagency report in explaining why the United States declined to endorse the IAASTD effort. He said the U.S. had “specific and substantive concerns,” including “a lack of comprehensiveness, objectivity and balance in examining certain critical areas, including the natural sciences, current and emerging technologies, agricultural trade and policy options.”

Herren noted that many countries in the 30-nation Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) saw the IAASTD project “in negative terms.” Neither Germany nor the Netherlands participated. “Now the Dutch are saying, ‘Not so bad,’” Herren added.

Change Will Be Needed

Herren is no stranger to the concerns of the IAASTD, dating back to his dogged promotion of a natural predator to save the African cassava crop from mealybugs in the early 1980s. He later founded and leads BioVision, an organization that promotes regional development in several African countries using an approach that links health in humans, animals, plants and the environment. Currently the president of the sustainability-oriented Millennium Institute, Herren has won the World Food Prize and the Kilby Award (both in 1995) among other honors.

“The best practice to handle this is to increase the diversity of your agriculture landscape,” he said. “Choose species adapted to a particular environment. Restore organic matter to the soil so it will absorb the water and release it slowly, rather than running off. Then introduce sustainable agriculture practices that build on healthy soils and crop diversity, and you have a mixed environment where you can plant trees to stabilize soils, use terraces [to retain water and soil, and] introduce animals into the system as part of the environment.”


Herren said the agribusiness model of farming, what he calls a corporate “seed to fork” system, will be challenged by increased fertilizer and fuel costs, depleted soils and a difficulty in finding water for irrigation.

“We really have to rethink everything. There will be a lack of options, a lack of choices,” he said. “Reality will bite — by the time the water table goes down a few more feet and pumping costs go up.”

He said change will be needed “everywhere,” not just in developing countries often seen as having the least effective agricultural systems and the most hunger. (A recent story focused on “a silent tsunami” — lack of access to nutritional foods in some urban areas in the United States.)

Not All Bad News

Herren pointed to several innovations referred to in the report’s section on climate change that could provide a “win-win” scenario and specifically cited the need for better water storage methods, including small dams, rainwater capture and drip irrigation.

“The biggest issue is to provide irrigation in the right places,” he said. “It’s better to not put too much water in the soil. It can wash out the nutrients. We need to figure out cheaper ways of doing drip irrigation.”

Carbon sequestration — capturing and removing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — is another option cited in the report. One promising method would be bioengineering annual crops, like wheat, into perennials. Perennial wheat would be harvested every year, with the roots remaining in the soil. There was wild wheat at one time, Herren noted, as well as wild corn.

Another idea is to develop plants that have the nitrogen-fixing ability of legumes, which could be grown to increase soil fertility.

He said the Dutch are using huge greenhouses to grow food, sometimes several stories high, which they claim have a carbon footprint of zero. Holland is one of the world’s top agricultural producers, usually second or third to the United States in annual export of agricultural products.

Herren noted that agricultural subsidies in developed countries impact many of the poor nations. He said African farmers cannot compete with subsidized U.S.-grown corn that is often sold for a third of African farmers’ asking price.

Costs of farming in many African countries are very high because of fuel costs, he said. Other problems are that there are often two or three people between the farmer and the sale of the crop and a lack of infrastructure results in farmers putting a glut of food on the market at the same time. The report called for the need for more of an interface between farmers and policymakers to address such issues.

It also discussed another way of subsidizing farmers — ecosystem service. Instead of being paid to grow or not grow crops, farmers would be paid for “providing fresh air, open space, a place to go outdoors,” Herren said, noting Switzerland has implemented ecosystem service subsidies. “The more diversity you have, the more you get.”

Herren said biofuels “make sense on a small-scale — for cooking, [for generating] light or to use farm machinery.”

The scientist, IAASTD Director Robert Watson and others are working to establish the IAASTD report as an ongoing resource, much like reports of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“This should be an ongoing process — where we institutionalize where countries get their information,” he said. “They could go to our Web site and see what they could do.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Click here to become our fan.

Add our news to your site.