“How Agriculture Can Improve The Health of the Planet”
September 2019

“The planet is one, human society is one and we have to remain open to each other and look at it inclusively to solve our problems.”

Dr. Hans Herren is an internationally recognized scientist who’s focus on agriculture, health and the environment has significantly heightened our understanding of sustainable development. Herren won the Tyler Prize in 2003 for his brilliant agricultural research and for heading the largest and one of the most successful biological control programs in the world. His actions prevented a mass famine in Africa by introducing the natural controller of the mealybug instead of rely on pesticides. Since then, Herren has left Africa, set up his own foundation for ecological development, BioVision, and is now the CEO and President of the Millennium Institute in Washington D.C.. Here, he helps the government in systems thinking, better policy planning, and development planning to meet their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Dr. Hans Herren

Dr. Hans Herren © Peter Lüthi01

What was your experience switching from science research to policy creation?

I learned the hard way that switching from science research to policy is extremely difficult. Not in the least because we’re working with governments. It has been very difficult to figure when or where you enter a government to actually help them with systems thinking.

Aside from it being complicated to find where to go to offer our services, there’s also the issue of understanding how are policies made. Governments make all kinds of policies, they go through Congress and the Senate but, how does the process start? How does it get all the way to implementation? To pass a bill is one thing, but to actually move it into action is another. Even after all that, just because a policy is put in place, it doesn’t mean any real implementation. This is all before you are even able to measure it and introduce necessary changes.

The fact is, the more money you have, the better you are lobbying and the more likely you are to influence a policy. That’s the way things work almost anywhere in the world. So, I went from being an idealistic scientist, who finds solutions to problems, to finding out that when you want to use the solutions, and really make it impact on a national, or even regional level, things get a lot more complicated.

How long has the U.S. been aware that we need to change our behavior and act more sustainably?

A report for the U.S. Government was commissioned by President Jimmy Carter, using modelling to help provide a holistic overview of American and the world in regard to sustainable development. This report was called, ‘The Global 2000 Report to the President‘, which has now been turned into book you can buy. This report has quite a bit of modeling and showed that the U.S. needed to change the way they do things in order to not hit major barriers in terms of development, from the environmental side, as well as social and economic sides.

However this report didn’t go anywhere because Jimmy Carter was at the end of his first term when it was ready and then Reagan came in and he was not interested in planning, thinking systems, long term ideas or anything like that. So the report was forgotten and the results of that decision can be seen today, as a lot of things in the U.S. are not working the way they should. The U.S. could have been an example to the world but they missed the opportunity, despite all the background work being done.

Why is it important to invest in long term thinking and what are some of the challenges in getting decision makers to accept that?

Here at the Millennium Institute, we run models 30-40 years forward, so you can really look at the long term impact. This is important because quite often you can’t see the impact of something straight away. However, with a model you can project 5, 10, 15, 20 years forward and fully understand what kind of an impact you can expect; positive or negative.

However, most people in government are only looking up to the next election and don’t understand or care about how these models can be used to create a more effective policy. So, these models are the type of tools which I think would help us save ourselves. But it’s a huge challenge to get policy makers to look at those long term scenarios, to be involved in the design and testing.

No one is interested in long term results, everyone wants quick return. The issue with quick returns, is that they tend to have a lot of upfront expenses and they allow you to ignore the negatives which are going to come a few years later. Like Climate Change. 30 years ago, it was voiced as a problem but you couldn’t convince the policy makers to do something about it because the public wanted to elect people who delivered goods quickly, and allowed them bigger cars, bigger houses, and more vacation.

Your science research was primarily around agriculture, what were your main takeaways from that?

One way to make a positive impact on the world, is promoting organic agriculture, agroecology; because this is the type of agriculture which will actually save the planet.

If we were to do agroecology on a large scale right now, we would not only improve the health of the people a great deal, we would improve the health of the planet. We would stop using all these pesticides and herbicides; which have a huge cost in terms of environment and health, and are also not sustainable.

The agricultural system which uses these pesticides and fertilizers is what we call, ‘Industrial Agriculture’. Together with the food system we have now, it is very wasteful, uses a lot of transportation, and produces about half of the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. So, if we change our agricultural system to agroecology and organic, we would take the carbon out of the air back into the ground. We could go down from the 400 PPM of CO2 we have now. I think 350 PPM or below of CO2 is where we should be and agroecology can actually do that.

How would switching to agroecology reduce the amount of CO2?

Agriculture is one of the easiest industries that can change their energy rate. You can easily create good food without the current amount of energy, and CO2 that we are using. If we are willing to produce a bit less of top quality food, but with significantly less emissions, and reducing the carbon load in the atmosphere, I think we should do it.

The huge fertilizer companies who have invested billions in our current agriculture system would try to block such a transformation, but if I can count on the consumer, on the new generation, to move the whole agriculture system to a demand side rather than a supply side, I think we could do it. If people stop buying food not knowing where it comes from, and instead buy organic, we could shift that market. Yes, it’s expensive, but we can buy a bit less of it, that way we don’t waste as much, we are healthier, and the world benefits. We really can’t lose.

If everybody buys organic, the price of organic will come down – it’s only expensive because it has to be segregated in that big market. However, at the moment healthy food has a price and people think they have a God given right to cheap food. This perception needs to change because we have ruined the environment with this mentality.

What is the benefit of growing organic crops?

What we have been suggesting with the transformation of agriculture and the food system was to have more diversity, to localize the food system and focus on more seasonal crops. Farmers need to be retrained, and we need more research in that area to have better yields. Huge yields in organic, at least in the first few years, tend to be a bit lower but eventually they grow, getting almost as high as conventional yields; and given that we produce too much anyway, it doesn’t really matter. We can reduce the losses, and it has been shown by the Rodale Institute that any year where you have a drought or a flood or some weather conditions, the organic agriculture production is higher than the conventional because it has broader natural resilience.

We want a production which is steady, which can withstand droughts, floods, and increased temperature. So, this is the type of agriculture we want. Again, this would require some farmer retraining, and needs new investment in the equipment and machinery because it is not the same production process. However there are many organic farmers out there that already do agroecology.

The fact that organic farmers are there, that they survive, that they do their work, shows that it’s possible. Nobody can say it’s not possible, it is possible and I can tell you that, because I have a vineyard which is organic. I have an orchard which is organic. I do it myself, so I know.

What did winning the Tyler Prize mean to you?

Winning the Tyler Prize offered me a recognition from a different angle for the work I did. I was in Africa to save a crop, that was my concern. The fact that my team and I not only saved the crop and a lot of lives, but we saved the continent from devastation from insecticides, allowed us to show the world that there are different approaches to a problem. When I was given the recognition of the Tyler Prize, I was able to emphasize that line of thinking further. It drew attention to what we were trying to do and gave us international credibility that our approach not only works, but works so well that it is deserving of one of the most prestigious environmental awards in the world. It showed the world that there are alternatives to pesticides to solve major pest problems on a continental scale. So, I think that that’s what meant the most to me.

Let’s end on something positive. What gives you hope for the future, what are we doing right?

Something I’m really positive about right now is that people are more conscious about climate change, and what the issues are. It’s different countries, different groups of people, but I think that the fact that there is a recognized problem in most places, we can no longer deny that we have a drastically changing climate. I take this as a sign that there is some hope out there for a change.

I think the new generation is the real reason for hope with climate change because it’s ruined their lives and they can see it. Unfortunately, this surge of action has been jeopardized by the actions or inaction of their many governments. However, I still see this youth movement very positively, we have to solve these problems together, not individually. The planet is one, society is one and we have to look at it holistically to solve the problem.


September 2019


To read more on Dr. Herren’s work: