Eating Planet: An Interview with Hans Herren

By Marlena White

On Thursday, June 28, the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project and the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition will release Eating Planet–Nutrition Today: A Challenge for Mankind and for the Planet in New York City. Today, Nourishing the Planet highlights a contributing author of Eating Planet, and shares his views on how to fix the broken food system. If you live in NYC, you can register to attend for FREE by clicking HERE, or tune in on the 28th via livestream. We will be taking questions in real time from the audience, from the livestream, and from Twitter and Facebook.

Hans Herren (Photo credit: The Millennium Institute)

Hans Herren is an entomologist, farmer, development specialist, World Food Prize laureate, and co-chair of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). He is also the president of the Millennium Institute, which works to inform decision-making centered on a shared responsibility for the planet’s common future. In an interview for Eating Planet–Nutrition Today: A Challenge for Mankind and for the Planet, a new book from the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition, Herren discusses the key challenges for transitioning to sustainable agriculture systems that can feed the planet.

According to Herren, the greatest challenges facing agriculture and the food system include the need to address hunger and poverty, encourage better nutrition and health, adapt to climate change, reduce inequities, and support rural livelihoods. He says that agriculture must provide a sufficient amount of quality fiber and food that is affordable for consumers while being economically viable for producers and sustainable for the environment. He believes that the three biggest problems faced by agriculture are climate change, competition with the biofuel sector, and the increase of fossil energy prices and fossil fuels’ impending scarcity.

Herren explains that more sustainable agricultural systems will be necessary to meet these challenges. He cites agroecology and organic and biodynamic agriculture as the most sustainable forms of agriculture, but says there is a need to further develop and build their resilience and regenerative potential because these systems still use too much water and other external and often non-renewable inputs. More work is needed to make them more socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable.

The transition from unsustainable agricultural systems to ones that provide adequate quantities of high-quality food with minimal environmental impact requires a new approach to research and extension—one that Herren says should be participatory and localized, and include stakeholders beyond production, including consumers and the retail sector. Herren believes this transition will be helped and supported further by introducing true pricing of the products. For Herren, this means food prices will cover production and transformative development, as well as indirect health costs. Proper pricing will also remove all subsidies and replace them with payments for ecosystem services and rewards for sustainable practices.

Herren asserts that agriculture and food are the responsibility of governments and require major funding from the public sector. This responsibility should not, he says, be delegated solely to the private sector. Managing such a large agricultural transition, Herren explains, will need political will and vision at all levels of governance. New institutions will be needed to support and manage the paradigm shift, as well as to promote change in consumer behavior. A new systemic and holistic approach to analyzing the agriculture and food system will also be necessary to identify the key leverage points and synergies for achieving these necessary changes.

The primary key to making the transition to more sustainable agriculture, says Herren, is soil. Soil has been stripped of nutrients in developing countries, while industrialized countries often overuse fertilizers; both of these activities result in poor soil health, which limits agricultural productivity and sustainability in the long term. According to Herren, soil fertility restoration is the number one agricultural concern and will depend on improved cropping systems, crop diversity, the inclusion of animals on farms, and new pest and disease management methods that more effectively utilize natural control mechanisms.

Herren believes agriculture can make the successful transition to more sustainable production systems, pointing out that the 2011 UNEP Green Economy Report chapter on agriculture demonstrates that all key sustainability goals can be achieved—with investments that are below today’s subsidy levels—by implementing the basic tenets of sustainable agriculture as suggested in the IAASTD report, “Agriculture at a Crossroads.”

Herren states that “agriculture needs to be green by design.” Simple marginal changes will not be enough—the entire system of how we produce our food must adjust to the demands of a growing population and the restraints of diminishing resources. This will require investments in rural infrastructure and along the value chain, which will in turn ensure markets for agricultural products and help provide quality jobs in and around agriculture to keep the younger population in rural areas.

Despite these required investments, a more sustainable agricultural system is feasible, but depends on scientific advancement and political will. Herren believes it can be done. “By making serious changes from agricultural sciences to political choices,” he concludes, “agriculture and food systems can be made sustainable.”

Marlena White is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

If you live in NYC, you can register to attend for FREE by clicking HERE, or tune in on the 28th via livestream. We will be taking questions in real time from the audience, from the livestream, and from Twitter and Facebook. You can also purchase your own copy of Eating Planet for $3.99 on Amazon or iTunes.

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