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“There are various organic farming techniques which can get us a lot further than genetic engineering.”

Dr Hans Rudolf Herren is director of the Millennium Institute near Washington, D.C. (USA). He was vice-chairman of the IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development), which submitted a report in 2008 on the future of global agriculture. He previously spent several years in Africa working on biological methods for controlling agricultural pests. In 1995 he was awarded the World Food Prize for work he and his team performed in the eighties, when they succeeded in controlling the cassava mealybug using a parasitic wasp, thereby saving millions of people in Africa from starvation.

Can genetically modified crops help in the fight against global hunger?

Interview with Hans Rudolf Herren

GMO Safety: According to the FAO, global food production must increase by 70 per cent by 2050 to feed an estimated 9 billion people. How can this target be achieved?

Hans Herren: There is no doubt that food must be produced at local level as well. In the West, where we certainly produce enough today, we could manage with less and possibly put a greater emphasis on quality, and in the developing countries we must also see how we can produce more food sustainably. There is still a lot of land that is uncultivated, or used to cultivate crops for biofuels, and this land must be reclaimed for food production. Leaching and soil depletion is a major problem in many developing countries. These soils must be re-cultivated sustainably using organic farming principles. If we do this, we can easily double or even quadruple food production in these countries, as people have been demonstrating for years.

GMO Safety: Wouldn’t we have to pursue new objectives in plant breeding as well?

Hans Herren: So much has already been achieved in plant breeding that on average we exploit barely half the yield potential of existing varieties in developing countries. I have spent a lot of time in Africa, where we had cassava varieties with a yield potential of over 40 tonnes per hectare more than thirty years ago, but on average the amount actually harvested in Africa today is around five tonnes per hectare. So we must ask ourselves: What are the main obstacles which prevent the potential that is present in the genome of these plants from being realised? It is of course linked to the soil, especially soil fertility and poor crop rotation, and this is where we need to begin in earnest, by driving forward soil research, for example. At present, continuing to breed new strains to increase the yield potential until the soil recovers will bring little benefit except insect and disease resistance.

And then it’s not just a question of quantity, but quality as well. Highly bred varieties tend to be low in micro-nutrients. So we need to revert to the older varieties which are richer in vitamins, minerals and trace elements.

GMO Safety: Shouldn’t objectives like drought tolerance and salt tolerance also be pursued though plant breeding? Can we afford to abandon genetic methods?

Hans Herren: Genetic research will continue, but to increase food production today, we should not rely on something which actually has failed to produce anything positive for farmers or consumers in the past twenty years. This research belongs in universities, not on the field, and especially not in developing countries where farmers lead a precarious existence and cannot afford to experiment. The danger with gene technology is that the genetic diversity within the varieties, and even biodiversity itself, will be reduced, which will greatly increase the risk of harvest losses in the event of pest infestation.

Some research areas in molecular biology are relevant to agriculture and plant and animal breeding, for example the transfer of genes from legumes to cereal crops to enable them to fix nitrogen so that they will then need less fertiliser, if any, the conversion of C3 plants to C4 plants, or attempts to breed perennial wheat and maize crops. The latter would mean that farmers no longer needed to plough, so the soil would not be broken up and there would also be fewer problems with weeds. These are long-term research projects which I see could be of some benefit – if they are carried out by public-sector institutions which do not apply for patents and if the potential ecological and health effects are also thoroughly investigated. As far as drought tolerance is concerned – studies here in the USA have shown that more progress has been made in this area in the last twenty years using traditional breeding, underpinned by molecular-biological techniques, than with genetic engineering.

GMO Safety: Isn’t greater investment needed in agricultural research to ensure that locally adapted varieties are developed and to reduce dependence on large corporations for seed development? How do you see the role of international agricultural research centres in this context?

Hans Herren: It is essential that the public sector reinvests more heavily in agricultural research – since the results of this research are then publicly owned, there are no patents and the farmers are not dependent on a few companies and a few varieties. International agricultural research centres are very dependent on donors, so obviously they direct their research towards biotechnology, rather than seriously addressing the problems of soil fertility. The Agricultural Report clearly states that the problems are caused primarily by the soil, the water balance and the whole carbon balance and it is these areas we should now be concentrating on. But they are not sexy, there is less money available and that is why research is focussing increasingly on biotechnology to bring about a second Green Revolution. This is clearly the wrong direction. Now is the time to consider the system in which agriculture is embedded, we must get to the root of the problem and stop treating only the symptoms. Genetic engineering deals mainly with the symptoms.

GMO Safety: Are genetic engineering and sustainable organic farming incompatible with one another?

Hans Herren: Genetic engineering makes farmers dependent on one technology and its products. It has already resulted in a much greater use of herbicides, including recourse to those in the higher toxicity classes, and a greater use of pesticides will again be needed in the long term. Is this really what farmers want for sustainable production? I do not believe that genetic engineering in its current form can be reconciled with organic farming. As I have already said, and I cannot stress this enough, production problems must be solved by tackling the root cause, not the symptoms. I see the future of agriculture literally from the ground upwards, in other words, from the soil. This is where we must solve the production bottlenecks and if we do it properly, we have shown that we can feed the world with organic farming. There are various organic farming techniques, such as ploughless soil cultivation, that can get us a lot further forward than genetic engineering. Not only can you produce enough using this system, you can control it so well that it will provide long-term sustainable production. Agriculture in the future must be multifunctional, in other words it must produce not only food, but also an environment where we feel good, where we have clean water and fresh air and where we can also find the diversity of plants and animals which form the basis for the future. There is no doubt that climate change has already begun and will get worse. If we have only two or three varieties of soya bean and two or three varieties of maize, then we are utterly vulnerable. We need variety and only farmers can conserve it. And we should not be forcing these very farmers to grow only GM maize or GM soya beans.

Conventional agriculture is also part of the climate change problem. We hope that environmentally compatible agriculture will become part of the solution.

GMO Safety: The FAO was one of the organisations that sponsored the IAASTD report. Several expert forums organised by the FAO have taken place or will take place this year on the subject of “How to feed the world in 2050”. Do you get the impression that your findings will be accepted?

Hans Herren: Certainly not at the very highest echelons. The FAO has never officially presented this report within its own organisation. Many colleagues don’t even know of its existence, but others applaud it. The FAO has not yet submitted this report externally, to the agriculture minister for example, as the basis for a new agricultural policy. At the FAO expert forum in October I hope to ensure that the report will be discussed not just on the fringes, but will be presented in one of the main papers. We have a two thousand page report, written over a four-year period by four hundred people, which looks fifty years into the past and fifty years into the future. It attempts to explain why agriculture is in the position it finds itself in today and how we must apply our knowledge and understanding of science and technology to achieve long-term food security. If that’s not suitable material for a paper at an FAO expert forum, then I don’t know what is.

GMO Safety: Thank you for talking to us.