#15 responsibility
Hans R. Herren

The Real Costs of Cheap Food

Hans R. Herren, holder of the Right Livelihood Award, demands a global change of food production.

The hunger suffered by a huge percentage of the global population is still one of the most pressing issues facing development policy. Many people hope that increasing agricultural production might solve shortages – maybe with the help of fertilizers and pesticides. Hans R. Herren promotes a different approach. He argues that agricultural productivity is high enough already; it is more a question of how and where food is produced. Therefore, in his work he takes an agro-ecological approach and focuses on the importance of smallholder farmers in ending global hunger. His work was honored with the Right Livelihood Award – also known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize”. In June he was invited to Bonn as part of a workshop organized by the Right Livelihood College and Center for Development Research (ZEF). The workshop addressed the topic “Who will feed the World? Global Agriculture between Population Growth, Business, Sustainability, and Poverty”.

DDD had an opportunity to talk with Hans Herren about global responsibility and the need for structural change in agriculture. ZEF recorded the interview. A transcript follows the interview, lightly edited for better readability.

DDD: I would like to welcome you to our interview, which is a joint collaboration between Digital Development Debates and the Right Livelihood College Campus Bonn. We are happy that you are here visiting the workshop.
You are asking for a transition to agro-ecological production. Maybe you could explain the difference between this approach and traditional agriculture.

Hans Rudolf Herren: Thank you first for the invitation to the Right Livelihood College and also the German Academic Exchange. I think it is important to know that people are becoming interested in supporting activities like yours.

Now, what is the difference between agro-ecology and conventional or industrial farming? One is sustainable, the other one is not. One actually works against climate change and the other one – the industrial one – actually supports and contributes to climate change. We cannot afford anymore to have an agricultural system and a food system – ranging all the way from production to consumption, which makes the (climate) situation even more difficult. And that is only the environmental part of it. On the social side, you have enormous problems with people leaving rural areas for urban centers which really inflates the population in cities when actually we need more people out in the countryside.

We need a change towards a sustainable food and agricultural system.

Industrial agriculture has replaced or is replacing people with non-renewable energy. Instead of people doing the work, industrial agriculture uses a lot of petrol or oil in production. Even from an economic perspective: The economics of conventional industrial agriculture are such that you cannot do it without state subsidies. On the other side, agro-ecology and organic farming do not get any subsidies and still manage to make a living. If you consider any dimension of sustainable development, it makes sense to transition agriculture and the food system from the way it is today to what has been recommended in a number of reports from scientists to policymakers. We need a change towards a sustainable food and agricultural system.

One critique often presented by people working on projects is that they claim to have a rather undogmatic approach where they still use pesticides in small amounts based on the thought that, while people are starving, any means necessary should be taken. How would you reply to such a critique that your approach is too dogmatic for reality?

Yes, that is what they say: dogma or ideology. They say that we are ideologists with our organic or even sustainable visions. But it is not only about certified organic production; we have permaculture, we have regenerative agriculture. There are many different shades of doing it differently from the conventional or industrial model. And I do not think this is a dogma; it is science-based.

We have built a whole castle of cards, which it does not take much to collapse.

Actually, I think if you look from a sustainable point of view, it was done better in the past. It was not perfect by any means, but I think the change which has happened in the last sixty years in terms of the green revolution has caused problems. I am talking about the invention of hybrid maize, rice and other crops and crop improvement – breeding new crops which are more able to use surface water because of their shallow roots and are able to absorb more of the synthetic fertilizer to grow better. But now, we have either too much or too little water, fertilizers are becoming more expensive. They are non-sustainable because they use non-renewable resources, a lot of energy, and the plants grow fast in a sort of artificial environment. We have built a whole castle of cards, which it does not take much to collapse. The alternative agricultural models are also science-based, even if not enough science has been conducted yet, because there was not a lot of funding in the past.

We can see that this is a system which has a character of sustainability in it, whereas the other one has the characteristic of non-sustainability although it produces a lot.

By knowing more about the soil, its structure and biology, we can grow healthier plants which need fewer pesticides or none at all if you adapt the proper rotation of crops. The animals are part of the farming system and are not separate in a factory somewhere, so we recycle carbon. We can see that this is a system which has a character of sustainability in it, whereas the other one has the characteristic of non-sustainability although it produces a lot. But then again you can look at what we produce here. I call it empty galleries, a lot of storage.

…we have detached our food from good nutrition.

And just look at the people, with obesity, type 2 diabetes: It is all due to our imbalanced nutrition and that comes a lot from the way the plants were bred, how a few commodities are grown on a global scale, how they are processed, with sugar and all kinds of stuff. So basically, we have detached our food from good nutrition. With acro-ecology, plants grow in soil which is in good shape, with a lot of life in it and a lot of nutrients. The plants will be healthier, they might grow a little slower and you might produce a little less, but that’s not the problem since we already grow twice as much as we need today, and above all they are healthy. And we have evidence from scientific research – published, peer-reviewed – that the crops, the plants that we grow using the alternative system are actually more nutritious.

So what you are asking for is change on a global scale. However, if we look at the global division of political power and labor, it seems like a very large task. At what level could people help to foster change or who could take responsibility for bringing this change about?

Yes, we need global change because you cannot just change something slightly or in one place because of global market issues. We need to do less global and more local production as well as consumption. Trading some things on a global scale is not a problem. But I suggest refocusing our food system more to a local level for several reasons. Firstly, if the food does not travel as far, it is healthier. Secondly, there is the cultural dimension: You do not want a certain type of food that people eat only in certain regions to be global.

Consumers have to change their diets, they have to change what they buy and they have to be ready to pay the real costs of food.

Food needs to suit the people and the environment. As an example, in Africa maize is sort of a foreign plant, it grows, but it has a lot of problems. You could use local plants, sorghum, or millet for example – they are significantly healthier, but it is a bit more complicated to grow them. Some people forget about this; they just plant maize. This is bad. We need to transform all this on a global scale. And you are right: It is not easy. On the one hand, change requires policy decisions at the highest level too, but change also has to be demanded. Consumers have to change their diets, they have to change what they buy and they have to be ready to pay the real costs of food. Right now, what happens? Organically produced food has always been more expensive, even twice as expensive sometimes, depending on what it is or where you are. This sort of food though does not produce all the negative impact on the environment like the cheap food does.

The contribution to climate change – who pays for that? Well, everybody. And our children will pay most of it.

When you buy cheap food, you actually transfer the costs to society. Society pays via taxes, which are used for healthcare or to purify water because it has been polluted by pesticides and herbicides, fertilizers or whatever you have been using.

The contribution to climate change – who pays for that? Well, everybody. And our children will pay most of it. So you can see that this cheap food is not cheap after all. By really forcing a change and pushing a true pricing system, this change could be done. But it has to be done radically and on a global scale, because even in the South, agriculture is not sustainable. When people tell you, ‘oh in Africa they do not use fertilizer or pesticides, therefore it must be organic’ this is not true by a long shot. Organic agriculture is based on science, in particular on the science of the soil. So if you just plant and harvest and do not do anything to improve the soil, then you are not doing organic farming. That is a very important difference.

You once said: “There is no right to cheap food.” One of the changes needed is therefore that people pay more for their food. How would you explain this necessity to a person who already has a scarce income and is counting every penny to get through life?

That depends on where you are. I mean, in Europe or North America we can pay more for our food, we do have the money. Sure, even Europe and America each have forty million poor people who hardly can afford food. For that group of people, you take these subsidies which are basically given to the large farms to produce only lousy food. You could relieve the taxpayer and even support these people down at the bottom in buying better quality food.

Stop wasting food, just consume it and buy half, then you are still better off financially.

Eventually the system would get better: They would be healthier, they would find jobs, also in agriculture because we could remove the big machines and replace them with people. In order to clarify, these people will also use machines. I am not saying that everything has to be done by hand. So what needs to be initiated in developed, industrial countries is reemploying people and changing the balance between the haves and the have-nots. If you spend 6% to 10% of your income on food, even if the food is 15 percent more expensive, how much will that take of your salary? Still nothing. We waste more than half our food. I say: Stop wasting food, just consume it and buy half, then you are still better off financially.

In developing countries, there are a lot of poor people. If you have 70% of the people in the countryside who have to compete with the cheap food produced in excess in the North on their local markets, then they cannot sell their products or get a good price for them. No wonder they are poor, and no wonder they cannot pay more. So we need to change the system there. With the aid of more research they could produce more with natural means. If they produce more, they could also get more money, which means they could also pay more for the food. It is all connected. I think we have to understand this transition and take the time for it. What we know is that we are paying almost 380 billion dollars in subsidies. This money could be better used than just giving it to the big farmers, big input companies, and ultimately the banks. And the consumers are left there; the ones who have no or little money to buy that cheap food.

2015 represents a turning point for the development community because of the formulation of the Sustainable Development Goals, the G7, and the European Year of Development. You have worked on the “International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development”. This report is not that often referred to. What do you think a lesson or a useful finding from this report for the development community would be?

That report is still the report on agriculture; there is nothing that has been done any better since. It would be nice to have an update. Actually, there is a German colleague who is updating the summary of the summaries. New data in there shows that we are not moving in the right direction. Certain things are getting better, true, because some people are working in the right direction, but overall we still have a problem.

We now have a framework for implementing good agricultural practices along the whole value chain all the way to consumption and back, because it is a cycle.

That report should remain the basis for any new policies in agriculture and the food system because its focus is beyond just production; it also looks at the impact on the environment and on society. 2015 represents a turning point because the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are coming and a lot of the wording which was in the report is also in the Rio Declaration and this declaration has now turned into the SDGs, so seventeen goals and sixty-nine targets. This is quite a number of goals. Goal two is the main goal, but there are other goals intended to deal with issues of agriculture, food, nutrition, health, sustainable production and consumption. If you look at it, you can see there are many connections in this system; everything is linked to agriculture. We now have a framework for implementing good agricultural practices along the whole value chain all the way to consumption and back, because it is a cycle. Instead of criticizing it for not being good enough, I think we should take it for what it is and move forward. On this basis we now have the next fifteen years to do what we need to do in terms of forming the system, making sure that there is a chance to overcome some of the major constraints and challenges which we are facing with climate change, population growth, different demand and migration. There are a lot of problems to face, but I think if we have healthy food and a healthy food system we already have a head start. Of course we need to do a lot more to implement all that we already know while investing more in research and development of food and nutrition.

For your dedication you were awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 2013. What did this award mean to you and what opportunities did it open for you?

The Right Livelihood Award is a fantastic price recognizing the work I have done and that my own foundation has done. Many other people who have received this prize have done a tremendous work to actually better the society in which we live and to try to make sure that we have a future. The award discloses to the world and also to decision-makers what a few people have done to make the world a better place. It exposes the work to a larger community and to decision-makers. The ceremony in Stockholm’s parliament attracts the attention of the public and of decision-makers. The Right Livelihood Award has been given to people who have actually taken a chance to try something different.

… there are alternatives which work, which are economically viable, socially totally acceptable and which fit in a long-term view of planet earth better.

For this purpose they confronted huge challenges, some people have even risked their lives to do what they do. It was not that critical in our case, although we also got death threats. When you fight the big agro-chemical industry, this means big money and a big challenge. But the team managed to do quite well in showing that there are alternatives which work, which are economically viable, socially totally acceptable and which fit in a long-term view of planet earth better. And this also shows that we can live within our planetary boundaries. The award was very, very useful in every respect. It also gives me the opportunity to continue to talk to young people through the Right Livelihood Award College. Here we can educate and share experiences with young people because clearly we need to widen the field of people who want to do something different, who don’t want to follow the same old line, but open up their minds and tackle new and very big issues for society. The award and the college are both exceptional concepts and I am very happy and glad to be part of it.

What do you think of the workshop “Who will feed the World? Global Agriculture between Population Growth, Business, Sustainability, and Poverty” that you are visiting right now? What is your impression, what are the main lessons you could give the students? Did you also learn something from them?

Such workshops are always a two-way street. You meet new people to begin with, that is very good. You learn about what they do, which is also good because everybody has a new idea. There is some interesting work being done right now, being tackled by these young scientists from four continents. The workshop connects scientists from Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America. Also the young people meet each other and hopefully continue to communicate in the future. I think we need to create a bigger network of people who have a different mindset, who want to change things. There are too many people out there who are very happy with the way things are. And I think that the people who have been selected for the workshop want to do something in their lives and not just follow the stream. The topics of smallholder farmers, agro-ecology and sustainable culture: I think these are very important to learn about. We know that smallholder farmers already provide 70% of the food which is consumed. There are other numbers out there, but if you remove all the food that is made into ethanol and sugar for industrial purposes, you end up with this 70 percent figure. So we cannot just say ‘oh we don’t need it’, because first of all, smallholder farmers produce more.

These farmers could actually be the people who save the planet…

For that you need land, more than for large farms. So why would you remove something which produces more than the other one? Furthermore it provides jobs and could even provide more jobs, but we have to do this properly. We need to make sure that smallholder farming is economically viable and not just a hardship. Therefore we have to make sure that agriculture is rewarding, financially as well as from a social point of view. Farming must not be the lowest element in society, but actually the highest. Without food we are nothing; everything would stop. So why do we treat farmers as the lowest element in society? All these discussions among young people serve to raise the profile of farming, of the smallholder and the family farms. These farmers could actually be the people who save the planet because the agricultural practices used by small farmers and which we try to improve will be one of the key elements for providing us with clean air, clean water, reducing and CO2, which means less climate change, good jobs and an environment in which people are happy. You may know that a lot of people who have mental health issues feel better and happier on farms. So you can see there is something about humans and their connection with nature. Farming is part of nature, not industrial farming because that destroys the environment, the natural environment. Smallholder farmers, agro-ecology actually tries to do all this in harmony with the environment.

Further Informations

This Interview was a joint collaboration with Center for Development Research (ZEF) and Right Livelihood College – Campus Bonn.

Photo: “CCAFS Nepal-39” by Neil Palmer (CIAT)
2012 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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