Andreas Kohli spoke with Nina Buchmann
In the World Agricultural Report 2008, more than 400 experts recommend, among other things, expanding organic farming to fight hunger. Do you think that’s the right approach? Is it possible to feed the world on the basis of organic farming?
The arguments for and against organic farming are often highly ideological. In many cases organic farming produces lower crop yields or requires more work for the same yield because farmers can’t spray or fertilise their crops or because they need to use other fertilisation methods. Depending on the plant – maize, rice or grain, for example – per-hectare yields from organic farming are 20 to 30% lower than yields from conventional farming. With other products such as fruits or nuts, yield differences are lower. So if we want to use only organic methods to produce the same amount of food as we have today, we will need more land. The problem is that we probably don’t have enough land in the world for this purpose.
Can we solve the hunger problem by increasing yields?
In fact, we’re already producing enough calories worldwide today – in some regions, almost too much. One of the problems is that too much food is lost during production, processing, transport and storage. If we had less food loss, we could grow more products organically. But to do so, other conditions would also have to change. That’s what makes things so complicated.
Where do the largest losses occur?
The few studies conducted so far show that greatest loss and waste occurs at the consumer level, not during production or in stores. For example, in Switzerland 50% of purchased calories are lost in the refrigerator, the bread basket or elsewhere. In developing countries food goes bad because there is no refrigeration, or because it is infested by pests that make it inedible. Once you know that half of all food is lost after production, you begin to see the question of the production method in a new light.
Growing one’s own food, cooperatives, slow food and urban gardening are all big trends these days. Wouldn’t it make more sense to promote small-scale private farms with short distances between producers and consumers?
It depends on what you mean by “small”. For example, a home garden in Sri Lanka measuring two square metres feeds exactly one family. But if no one is there to tend to the garden on a regular basis – to get rid of snails and monkeys – it yields hardly anything. These small plots are very labour-intensive, and someone constantly has to take care of them. We often have very romantic ideas about what it means to be a farmer.
What’s the best place to begin?
Land rights are extremely important. Without land rights, sustainable agriculture is impossible. On their own plots of land that are passed down in their families, farmers will do much more to ensure that the soil remains fertile. In countries like China where land rights are practically non-existent, the soil is relatively overworked. One reason is that people can simply leave their land and lease another plot.
For several years now, China and India, for example, have been buying or leasing large tracts of agricultural land in Africa. What do you think of the problem of land grabbing?
There are a variety of factors and many details to be considered. As I just said, land rights are crucial for sustainable production. Then there’s the question of who farms this purchased land and under what conditions. The farmers are presumably hired. This means they don’t own the land but they have an income. Still, the land is lost to the nation. In addition, long transport routes over land and sea – such as between Africa and China – lead to greater food loss and waste. Finally, there’s the socio-political dimension. Is corruption in play? What happens to the money? Does it remain in the country, and is it reinvested? Or does it end up in someone’s private bank account?
Entomologist Hans Rudolf Herren, recipient of the World Food Prize, is fighting against the use of pesticides. Can we get by without pesticides in the future?
We’ll never be able to farm 10,000 hectares of wheat on a monoculture basis using organic methods alone. Disease pressure is simply too high. When pests infest such monocultures, they spread very quickly. We can’t get by entirely without pesticides. Perhaps we should try to get away from these monocultures.