Sustainable farming can feed the world

Rice is the main source of food more more than half of the world's population. FAO/23393/A. Mihich

On World Food Day, Swiss agricultural specialist Hans Rudolf Herren tells swissinfo that hunger can be overcome if farming practices are improved.

This content was published on October 16, 2005 - 10:37

Herren, who won the World Food Prize in 1995 for helping to save cassava crops throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, says rich countries need to support education and to do more research.

The theme of this year's World Food Day, promoted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), is "Agriculture and intercultural dialogue".

The FAO says that the intercultural movement of crops and livestock breeds revolutionised diets and reduced poverty. The organisation adds that these exchanges are still necessary to fight hunger and protect the environment.

But this dialogue could be under threat with pressure on governments and farmers to adopt technologies such as genetic manipulation to increase productivity.

Herren, however, says that agricultural specialists should step back and consider all the options before taking the plunge.

swissinfo: A large part of the world's population suffers from malnutrition. Can intercultural exchanges as promoted by the FAO help alleviate hunger?

Hans Rudolf Herren: I think it can help us understand better how hunger works and help overcome this problem. Plenty of food is grown, but not always in the right places.

Those who overproduce actually make it difficult for those who underproduce to increase their output and supply the food that is preferred and required by the people who are going hungry.

swissinfo: One of the UN Millennium Goals is to reduce hunger around the world. Are rich countries like Switzerland doing enough?

H.R.H.: Not enough is being done. Just the fact there are so many hungry people proves my point. Enough is not being done to alleviate poverty and provide jobs and income options for hungry people. They are hungry because they don't have the money to buy food or there is not enough incentive for farmers to produce. If there is a market, farmers can and will produce food.

Dealing with poverty will help us deal with hunger and this is where governments can do more. They don't have to give money away but can create options and means for people to earn a living.

There should be an emphasis by rich countries on developing capacities in poor nations. Farmers need to be trained properly because there is no genetic predisposition for being one. So more funding for education and research is needed for sustainable agricultural systems.

swissinfo: Do you feel the right economic or agricultural research is already being done to deal with these issues?

H.R.H.: What is needed is more research that is tailored to the different needs of different regions. I don't think we need to do more research into how to grow maize, for example, but we should consider diversifying our food base.

Africa is a good example where there could be crops other than corn that would grow better under precarious conditions such as limited rainfall.

More research could help revive traditional crops that have been abandoned and that would generate income for farmers. There's a lot of research to be done in reviving and improving traditional crops, including vegetables, fruits and nuts, and bringing them back into the mainstream.

This would also help improve nutrition and health in developing countries.

swissinfo: In Africa, some countries have accepted the introduction of genetically-modified (GM) crop varieties, others haven't. Is this really an issue, particularly in developing countries?

H.R.H.: We need to see if there is real need for these crop varieties. We already have plant varieties that can produce far more than they produce today.

The real constraints are elsewhere, such as soil fertility or the agronomic system. So what is really needed is more research in agronomy and sustainable farming practices.

An improved seed will not produce more unless it is planted in the right conditions, and we seem to have forgotten that.

So we need to promote agriculture in developing countries that helps maintain a healthy soil rather than industrial farming that impoverishes it.

If biotechnology is part of a more sustainable agricultural system, I don't have a problem with that, but we have to resolve many other issues before we spend millions on something that won't necessarily produce more food.

swissinfo: So, does the adoption of GM technology in developing nations have more to do with politics?

H.R.H.: It has a lot to do with politics and economics. American companies are pushing for the adoption of GM technology and there are lobbyists hard at work in Africa and other continents. Maybe this technology does some good, but there are alternatives that are much cheaper.

We have done our research on this and have shown you can apply other technologies that are far more farmer-friendly. African farmers can't afford GM technology - they can't even afford fertiliser.

So I don't think it is the right thing in the right place at the right time. We need to address the needs of farmers, find solutions that actually help and attain sustainable agricultural production as promoted by the FAO.

swissinfo-interview: Scott Capper

Key facts

Hans Rudolf Herren is one of the world's leading researchers in biological pest control and worked and lived in Africa for over 20 years.
Until recently, he was the director of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi, Kenya.
He is the president of the Zurich-based Biovision foundation as well as the Millennium Institute, which operates out of the Washington area.

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In brief

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations celebrates World Food Day each year on October 16, the day on which the agency was founded in 1945.

The theme for 2005, "Agriculture and intercultural dialogue", recalls the contribution of different cultures to world agriculture and argues that intercultural dialogue is a precondition for progress against hunger and environmental degradation.

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