Modeling Sustainability

10 Jun, 2012

SustainabilityThere are many different approaches to sustainability: through agriculture, ecology and energy, to name just a few. But Dr. Hans Herren, a 30-plus-year veteran expert in sustainability, has found that the best approach is not through these disparate channels individually, but through all of
them collectively.

“In agriculture, for example, you realize how everything is connected to everything else,” Herren explained to Organic Connections. “An ecosystem uses people, water and nutrients. It provides carbon sequestration—basically it provides a lot of ecosystem services. Agriculture is multifunctional because it produces food; it produces clean water for cities and maintains biodiversity.

So you can see that unless you think not only in whole systems but also in the long term, there is no hope of continuing to do this indefinitely. I’m not talking about the next 10–15–20 years; I’m talking about the next 50–100–200 years, when things are really going to go bad if we continue to be more part of the problem than part of
the solution.”

It is this integrated approach that is being taken by Dr. Herren and the Millennium Institute. Through computer models, they are able to demonstrate to governments the precise effects that will be created with the overall implementation of sustainable practices.

“The model integrates the environment, which holds basically everything—land, water, pollution issues, people, education, healthcare, government; everything is connected to everything else via equations,” Herren said. “We are training people within governments, within key ministries such as finance or planning, to use system models to help them in playing out scenarios. Every country has set a number of goals, but the question is how do they get there? So they’re using these computer models, which we built with them, so it actually becomes

Herren is no stranger to sustainability, and he has spent his extensive career finding methods to broadly bring it about. Prior to joining Millennium Institute, he was director-general of the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Nairobi, where he developed and implemented programs in the areas of human, animal, plant and environmental health as they relate to insect issues. Prior to that, he served as director of the Biological Control Center for Africa of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, where he conceived and implemented a successful biological control program that saved the African cassava crop and averted Africa’s worst-ever food crisis.

But for Hans Herren, the quest began during
his teenage years in the mid-sixties. “I grew up on a farm in the French part of Switzerland near Lake Geneva,” he said. “We were originally raising tobacco, potatoes and wheat in a very organic way. With the advent of all these chemicals, we moved into spraying for everything we could think of. I experienced seeing us go from doing the right thing to doing the wrong thing, with no end in sight because it’s a treadmill. Then when I studied agronomy, I learned the natural ways and means to manage your fields and landscapes so that you don’t have those problems to begin with. But this started from day one when I saw it on our own farm—it became obvious that’s not the way
to go.”

Millennium Institute homepage

Herren has also seen, from their inception, how GMOs are not a solution to the problem. “GMOs are not an answer, because the problems we have cannot be solved by GMOs,” he said. “We don’t have a problem of not enough food; we grow twice as much as we need today, worldwide. We don’t need to produce more—we need to produce differently.

“When we are talking about producing diverse and healthy food, we have to start with healthy soil, as in organic farming, which does it that way, or sustainable agriculture production systems—agroecology. We make sure that the soil is fertile, that the soils are full of life and organic matter. Then you have a healthy crop.”

Under Dr. Herren’s leadership, the Millennium Institute is expanding. Currently it is running eight different projects in Africa, two in China, two in Bangladesh, two in Europe, three in the Latin America/Caribbean region, and seven in North America. The projects are utilizing modeling to sustainably resolve issues related
to agriculture, climate change, water
resources, energy, disease, economic development, ecology, infrastructure, and many other subjects.

While the Millennium Institute continues working with governments in an effort to show them the light, Herren believes the final tipping point will come about because of consumer demand. “I think we will finally get past this only if we have a mass movement—all farmers and the general public who say, ‘Look, we don’t want to be told what is on our plate. It’s the public, the consumers,” he concluded. “So we need to educate consumers much more

For further information about the Millennium Institute and their many programs, please visit

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