Acceptance speech – Hans Herren / Biovision Foundation
The conversation on food and nutrition security needs to move away from costly silver bullets to affordable, realistic and tested solutions that are inclusive, link farmersÍ knowledge with sustainable innovations...
In this short speech, I would like to highlight a few milestones in a career that was far from written into stone, but a career in which some unique opportunities arose, to contribute to transforming the way we do agriculture, and pull us away from the treadmill that benefits only few and costs lots in terms of human, animal, plant and environmental health.
It was cold and windy in Chicago in late April 1979. Fortunately, we had a cosy nook at the Airport Hilton for the breakfast interview with then Director General of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Dr. Bill Gamble. He had invited me to a job interview following up on my application for a scientist position. But he was not interested in hiring me for the job I had applied for. Rather, he wanted to talk to me about his pet project, the control of the cassava mealybug, that had recently invaded Central Africa causing famines and distress, and for which he was searching for a specialist in biological control. I thought that this would be a formidable challenge, but I had never been in Africa, and so I went on a month-long mission to decide if this was the job for me. I saw the lower Congo region and the huge devastation and starvation; I saw the IITA campus with its modern laboratories and greenhouses and also the fine research fields. I said yes to Dr. Gamble’s offer, or was it a challenge, and reported to the duty station in Ibadan October 1st 1979…and the rest is history.
June 1979, Lower Congo. All we knew at the start of the project was that the cassava mealybug, as it came to be known, had been introduced to Africa accidentally from somewhere in the Americas, probably during the mid-seventies. Cassava is the staple of over two hundred million people in Africa’s middle belt. The fields that were attacked by the mealybug were wiped out within one season.
The mealybug, being new to Africa, did not have any natural enemies. Therefore, it spread across the continent extremely fast. In some eight years, it reached Mozambique in the East and Senegal in the West. I had two challenges to get started:
• Develop a strategy to bring the mealybug under control as fast as possible
• Find the funding for the project, given that there was money (limited to one year) for my position, but everything else had to be raised.
The strategy was to:
1. Find the mealybug somewhere between Mexico and Argentina where something keeps it from building up destructive populations;
2. Hopefully find the natural enemy (control agent is difficult to understand) that keep the mealybug at very low population levels in the Americas;
3. Organise for the quarantine of the yet to be found natural enemies;
4. Carry out detailed studies on the natural enemies to be imported and eventually released, to ensure that they were ecologically safe; and
5. Mass-produce and release the natural enemies across an area equivalent of one and a half time the United States.
Other key pieces of the puzzle were the design and construction of natural enemies’ production facilities, as well as equipment to allow for the aerial release of the natural enemies, at a scale never undertaken…there was after all urgency and also a huge area to be dealt with. These plans saw me being labelled a megalomaniac at a donors meeting in Rome.
Finding the money to find the mealybug: The fund raising was the second challenge, as there was lots of work to do in several African countries for a start and also in the Americas with the exploration work. I needed to assemble a team of entomologists to deal with mass rearing of the beneficial insects once found, and then organise the releases and, most importantly, the follow-up. I also saw the unique opportunity not only to solve a major problem, but also to develop local research and development capacities in biological control, something that was absent on a continent where there was a drive to introduce a green revolution, with its bandwagon of pesticides and fertilisers.
Eventually, after a year and a half of work, the mealybug, and its natural enemies were found in the border areas between Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina. Parasitic wasps and ladybugs species were brought to Africa after comprehensive studies in the quarantine station established in London. They were carefully checked for their specificity to the cassava mealybug and to make sure that they were disease free.
Summer 1981: About two years into the program, we released the first beneficial wasp and ladybugs into the cassava fields on the IITA campus in Nigeria. Within three months, the mealybug had mostly disappeared. The natural enemies were eliminating the mealybug at a rate that surprised my team and myself. We rejoiced, and went into high gear.
We rapidly grew out of space for the mass rearing operation on the Ibadan campus, and with the aerial release operation, we needed a new home. Nigeria had refused to allow our aircraft an easy fly in and out of the country with its delicate and short-lived cargo.
Spring 1988: Inauguration of the Africa Center for Biological Control, in Cotonou, Benin. It took about two years to design and build the new facility. On the entrance gate, a wrought iron sculpture of the wasp Epidinocarsis lopezi, with which, together with my super team, I would like to share the honour today. This two millimetre long insect has single handedly, across dry areas, tropical forests, highlands and lowlands, wherever cassava grows, and that is everywhere, managed to establish itself and bring under permanent control the worst pest the African continent has had to deal with.
1992: Job done, team built. The livelihood of over 200 million people were restored and about twenty million lives were saved, with a total investment in the project of 20 million US $ – about one dollar per life saved and so much for the megalomaniac! The cassava mealybug was under control – no pesticides nor permanent external inputs needed. The farmers could continue to grow their preferred and locally and culturally adapted cassava varieties. There was by now also a very strong team of specialists in biological control in 24 countries, equipped with all that was needed to perform biological control programs on local pests. These teams and facilities still operate in most countries today.
Spring 1994: need for a new challenge and a telephone call. The search committee for a new Director General for the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) based in Nairobi was having difficulties in finding a suitable candidate, and I was encouraged to throw my hat into the ring. Which I did.
Fall 1994: Inauguration of the new DG at ICIPE, new challenges and new opportunities. Exactly what I needed. The first task was to develop a new strategy and find money to revamp the severely lagging research centre! With my experience from IITA, I launched a new research paradigm that would promote a systemic integration of disciplines and topics around insects (good and bad), and we came up with the four H paradigm, that is Human, Animal, Plant and Environmental Health, all connected, with insects at the centre. My idea was to do the research and development work in a positively spinning spiral, starting wherever the key problem was and on to the next level and so on.
1995: Dallas and Des Moines, Jack Kilby Award and World Food Prize. These were the first prizes to recognize the tremendous impact the Cassava Mealybug Biological Control Program had across the African continent.
1998: Creation of the Biovision Foundation in Zurich. With three friends, following a suggestion from Andi Schriber on how to best make good with the prize money. Biovision adopted as basis for its extension activities in East Africa ICIPE’s 4-H paradigm. It is the communities, with which the Foundation works, who decide what the most important problem is and then start working their way up in the positive spinning development spiral.
There were many successful projects that emerged from ICIPE during my tenure – from Malaria control, to safeguarding the biodiversity in forests. We were looking for solutions, which the farmer could apply without accruing costs, such as the Push-Pull method to deal with insect pests, weeds and low yields in maize and other crops. Clever observations have shown that certain plants attract pest insects, while other plants would attract beneficial insects. This is now one of the classic models of agroecology, being adapted to many different crops and cropping systems. Bringing the pieces together, rearranging the puzzle so that everything actually worked in harmony and creating synergies was the challenge.
The Biovision Foundation supports many projects along the 4-H paradigm, with great success. One that is particularly prominent is the Farmer Communication Program, which comprises four main elements: an information database, a printed magazine, a radio program and outreach with local information centres. This programme fills a huge gap, as farmers are in need of information on how to grow better crops, raise better and more productive animals, restore soil fertility and deal with pests and diseases. Once they have access to this information, they will start testing different options, exchange with their neighbours and set in motion their development.
2005: Without conducive policies, the best of science cannot bring the expected changes. I felt that it was time to move into the next higher gear and apply the push-pull approach also in support of sustainable development. The tipping point with the realisation that science had hit a glass ceiling, and was kept from impacting sustainable development came with the privilege to be co-Chair of the IAASTD report, Agriculture at a Crossroads, an undertaking that took four years and recruited more than 400 experts to write one global and five regional reports. The critical question was: How can we nourish the world in fifty years time, especially given the uncertainties resulting from climate change, growing population and diminishing natural resources? The answers to this question made the point that there is a need to change course in global agriculture, that business as usual was not an option and that a new paradigm, beyond the green revolution was needed, and fast. The paradigm must pay attention to agriculture’s multifunctionality, and its key role in the three sustainable development dimensions: environment, society and economy…in that order. The question then: how does one change course in agriculture? For me there was only one way, change the policies, and invest seriously in the suggested changes recommended by the report.
Changing policies requires also having tools to better inform these policies, preferably in multistakeholder processes. This is what I choose to do since joining the Millennium Institute. We provide tools and capacity development to Governments and civil society groups, empowering them for the decision making process and ensuring that they have ownership of their development agenda.
Now, the Millennium Institute, among others, is working together with the Biovision Foundation in a project that will develop guidelines for countries to carry out their own assessment and inform their own national agricultural and food system policies, in multistakeholder processes.
In conclusion, my vision and course of action for a thriving earth can be seen in my present endeavours and responsibilities at the Biovision Foundation and the Millennium Institute: “A future for all, naturally” – improve the livelihoods of people and respect the rights of Mother Earth by working from the bottom up, empowering people through education and knowledge sharing, and horizontally, informing better policies where all participate as equals in making decisions for the future. This vision has grown out of my personal experience in the last half century.
I would like to thank the Right Livelihood Award Jury Members for this recognition and great honour.
The story would not be complete without expressing my thanks and love to my wife Barbara and children Matthew, Jeremy and Gisele, as well as to the IITA, ICIPE and Biovision teams that have helped, inspired and motivated me along the way.
David Fritz, Head of Communications and Campaigns
Phone: +41-44-500 49 84
Cell Phone: +41-79-312 84 13