Hans Herren says science can help the small farmer

He believes that more scientists need to study the biology of the soil – meaning its mix of insects, bacteria, and microbes.
“The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be to regenerate some of this system, restore some of the land, which has been degraded over time,” says Herren.

Hans Herren: We cannot do without better science – better science which addresses the needs of the small farmer, the woman farmer. In developing countries in particular, where are those technologies that will help people do better?

Hans Herren is an agricultural scientist and president of the Virginia-based Millennium Institute, an organization focused on sustainable development. Herren helped oversee a 2008 report assessing the state of agricultural knowledge, science and technology around the globe – in other words, our ability to feed ourselves.

Hans Herren: The resilience, and the solution for our food supply lies in more diversity. Let’s improve not only the crops. but the system in which the crops are grown.

Dr. Herren’s research has led him to believe that in order to feed an estimated 9 billion people by the year 2050, agricultural science must focus on the needs of small scale and family farmers. Herren said that today, small farmers in developing countries are already struggling with water shortages and soil depletion.

Hans Herren: We know everything about genome of rice and maize. We know almost nothing about the medium in which they grow.

He believes that more scientists need to study the biology of the soil – meaning its mix of insects, bacteria, and microbes.

Hans Herren: The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be to regenerate some of this system, restore some of the land, which has been degraded over time.

Herren said that for the last half century, agricultural scientists have mostly concentrated on improving crop varieties and increasing yields, which resulted in what is known as the ‘green revolution’.

Hans Herren: Today, we have yield potential in most crops which, if realized, could feed the world twice over in the year 2050. And that’s why we go back to improving soils, making more efficient use of water, and moving to sustainable agricultural systems.

He said that the seeds that have already been developed are sufficient to make significant yield gains, but what is needed overall is farm productivity gains.

Hans Herren: In Africa – I’ve done this work myself, I know what I’m talking about – we can triple or quadruple the production of small farms within one or two years, in a way that is organic.

Herren said that today, small farmers in developing countries are struggling with water shortages and soil depletion – which stymies the potential of even the best engineered seeds.

Hans Herren: Today, in most places in Africa, a lot of water, as it comes down from the rain, goes away as surface water, washing away nutrients and soil. As we change our system into organic production, where the soil becomes loaded with organic matter, can absorb the water rather than to have the runoff on top, and then give it back to the plants later on, is one way of dealing with the increasing droughts.

Herren said it’s time to take a closer look how elements of soil biology contribute to creating more resilient agriculture.

Hans Herren: Soil research has been done, but mostly on the physical properties – fertilizers, how minerals move in the soil. That’s one thing. But when it comes to soil biology, we know very little. And you know why? Because it’s extremely complicated. Now we have molecular tools with which we can differentiate organisms, and see what role they play in the soil, and what do we do when we mistreat our soils. This needs to be analyzed so we understand how we have, or how we maintain soil fertility for the long haul. All this would help us take better care of our soils, and keep building rather than depleting them on each crop cycle.

Lindsay Patterson