Ken Giller: ‘Beware of blinders when discussing agriculture’

Ken Giller Professor of Plant Production Systems Wageningen University & Research
Ken Giller:  'There is no one-size-fits-all solution for agriculture. You must consider what works where and what may fit better.'
Ken Giller: 'There is no one-size-fits-all solution for agriculture. You must consider what works where and what may fit better.'

Departing professor of Plant Production Systems Ken Giller of Dutch Wageningen University & Research (WUR) will never argue solely for separating or combining nature and agriculture, nor between organic or conventional. “That’s nonsense”, he says. “Agriculture is very diverse, and thus, different solutions are required for different situations.”

Ken Giller headed WUR’s Plant Production Systems group for 21 years. He specialises in small-scale agriculture in Africa. “That is simply where the greatest challenges lie.” Since he narrowed down his focus from the tropic to Africa in the nineties, the population on the continent has doubled. “Farms have little land left. We calculated that the majority of the farms are smaller than one hectare and still need to to feed large families.” By way of comparison, farms of over 10,000 hectares are no exception in countries such as Australia.

The size of farms is not the only factor of influence on the production. There are also many small farms in India, for example. Whether crops grow, yield a good harvest, and the soil remains fertile depends on the context. Is the cost of inputs such as fertiliser high? What is the infrastructure like to get crops to the market? Do farmers have access to knowledge? These factors are less of an issue in India than in Africa, so the yield has matched the population increase. In some regions in Africa, so many things are lacking, and much must be changed for farmers to thrive.

Range of solutions

Giller focused on topics such as nitrogen fixation to improve soil fertility and went on to apply this knowledge within the broader context of the food system. “There is no single technology or crop with a specific gene to help farmers. A basket of options from which to select is needed.” He also noticed that there was a significant variation in the crops farmers grow in the same region, whether they combine their crop farming with livestock farming and whether they farm for the regional market or for export.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. You must consider what works where and what may fit better

Although it may seem obvious to include the context when considering agriculture, Giller often sees the opposite happening. “I am still asked what the key solution is for agriculture in Africa. Such a question may serve well in the public debate, but it makes no sense. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. You must consider what works where and what may fit better. I believe it is up to scientists to struggle with complexity. Start by listening to what is needed rather than offering solutions for Africa from a European perspective. That would mean we have learned nothing from the past.”

‘Stop thinking in terms of black and white’

Reducing the amount of inputs such as artificial fertilisers is is being pushed from the agroecological perspective. Giller: “In the Netherlands, a reduction would help address the nitrogen issues, but that approach can’t be simply transferred to Africa.” In Africa, there is a shortage of nitrogen in the soil. Legume green manures, plants that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, could provide a solution. “But here, lack of space is an issue, so farmers use all the land area for crops. Moreover, plants also require phosphorus and potassium. So we really must look for a balance in using fertilisers rather than simply cutting the use because that could cause the soil to degrade.”

Ideology is often behind certain statements, which keeps convictions in existence

Black-and-white thinking is still a pitfall, including for scientists, Giller says. “Ideology is often behind certain statements, which keeps convictions in existence. I often hear people discussing conventional agriculture versus alternative forms of agriculture, such as organic farming. That does not do justice to the situation because it includes 99 per cent of the world’s farms, whether 0.5 or 10,000 hectares. So is ‘conventional agrculture’ a useful term?”

Proud of WUR

Even after retiring, Giller will continue to express his message that agriculture is diverse and depends on the context. “The world is only just starting to listen”, he knows through his contacts and recent publications for international (agricultural) organisations. That makes him proud of WUR, where all experts from all disciplines join forces to study the food system and where WUR increasingly focuses on this integrated approach.

The retired professor expects to remain connected to WUR for some years through the young researchers he continues to supervise. In the meantime, he may have a little more time for his hobby: searching for wild plants in the vicinity of Wageningen. “I contribute to the Mooi Binnenveld Foundation plant inventary. That is what I love, but at the same time, we must feed the world.”

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