Science - September 15, 2011

Rudy Rabbinge, a believer in progress

Rudy Rabbinge is retiring from his position as professor of Sustainable Development and Food Security at Wageningen University, part of Wageningen UR. Frénk van der Linden and Pieter Webeling look back with him. What state are things in after forty years of Rabbinge?

Rabbinge: 'I have never seen gene technology as a panacea'.
'The Netherlands is losing its reputation as a country for justice, solidarity and tolerance', says Agnes van Ardenne, former CDA Minister for Development Cooperation. Is she right to say Holland is sliding down the international pecking order?
Firmly: ‘Yes, that is definitely true. I am always being asked about this. Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, said to me: ‘What on earth is going on in your country?' He was referring to the incitement of hatred and the PVV's anti-Islam attitudes, the excessive nationalism and the negative attitude to Europe and the rest of the world. I tell him I share his concern but most Dutch aren't like that. Fortunately there are also a lot of people who do have an enlightened view of the world, and that is still the dominant mood.'
However, government policy now seems to be going in the 'wrong' direction.
‘The CDA and VVD parties are letting themselves be swayed by Wilders. Verhagen claims in a speech that he understands Dutch people's problems and Wilders tweets in response: 'CDA is a light version of PVV'. I have to say he's right. I think that if you work in politics you have to do so on the basis of principles and ideals. You should defend and embody them.'
Gene technology can be used to make crops resistant to diseases and insects. Plants have even been created that have been 'fitted' with nutrients they would not normally have. How enthusiastic are you about this development?
'I have never seen this as a panacea for all ills. You can use gene technology to surgically cut out genes responsible for certain properties and insert them in a different place. You can work more quickly and efficiently and you have less palaver than with standard plant breeding. As chairman of the Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, I started research into rice with vitamin A and iron. That was pretty successful. Gene technology is an appealing tool. But note: it's only a tool, not the Holy Grail for mankind.'
Can you imagine why some people say this is like Frankenstein?
‘No. On the contrary, I see gene technology as a fantastic example of what human insight and ability can achieve. Surely even a strict believer should be really pleased that we are able to correct errors in Creation?'
You predicted in Dutch newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad that a Green Revolution would be able to feed all of Africa within ten years. To be frank, we are getting a bit tired of that. People have said this so many times over the past fifty years but it has never actually happened.
'I can say exactly why not. Of course it will come to nothing as long as it remains an intention. But now we have AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Kofi Annan chairs the board, which has six people from Africa including Mo Ibrahim, the man responsible for telecom company Celtel, and Moise Mensah, the former Benin finance minister. Directors from outside the continent include the President of the Gates Foundation, the President of the Rockefeller Foundation and me. A pretty serious club.'
Enthusiastically: 'We have set up specific programmes to make seed, fertilizers and so on available, to create access to fertile agricultural land by building roads, and to develop regional and local markets. Assistance is also needed in developing local trade. We have already reached millions of farmers in the past four years.
Many people have great faith in organic agriculture. Why are you waging war against it?
Indignantly: ‘I most certainly am not! In fact, I was the first person in the Netherlands to introduce organic agriculture on an experimental farm. That was back in the 1970s! Later, when I was a professor, I used to give students the freedom to specialize in this area although there wasn't even a Chair.'
But you also say it is wrong to claim that organic agriculture can feed the world: 'You should not put a taboo on artificial fertilizers, pesticides and genetic manipulation. If you opt for organic agriculture you will be doing so at the expense of nearly all nature as you need far more land.'
'Exactly. So you won't help the environment by eating organic food. It would be a disaster for feeding the world and it won't help your health either. It is actually dangerous to put animal manure on vegetables, as we have probably seen with the EHEC bacteria. Why do people make such an explicit choice for organic agriculture? Because a lots of things simply aren't rational. Many people also drink bottled water although water from a tap is better from an objective point of view and five thousand times cheaper.'
In fact you are saying organic agriculture is about pleasing yourself.
'Yes but if people enjoy that and are happy with it, I am the last person to deprive them of that.'
You claim there is enough food to feed everyone in the world. That makes hunger a question of allocation. What is the solution?
'The global organizations must become much stronger. The situation at the FAO is disastrous. That club is threatening to be destroyed by bureaucracy and internal power struggles. The United Nations also needs a complete overhaul. The one country one vote system is catastrophic: a tiny country like Luxembourg with less than half a million inhabitants has just as much say as the United States or India. We need to change to a system with more clout.'
Would you be prepared to claim that Rudy Rabbinge with all his energy, all his studies, all his international meetings, has made a difference in practice?
‘Well, over the past forty years Dutch farmers have been able to increase average wheat yields from six to nine tonnes thanks to our insights and help. We have reduced the use of artificial fertilizers by a half and pesticides by about a third. We have been able to develop dairy farming systems that no longer contribute to the emission of greenhouse gases. We have become more efficient in our use of land, leaving more room for nature and biodiversity. We are doing all we can to improve things further but we have certainly made achievements. All in all, I am prepared to claim that agriculture has become more productive and less polluting. Otherwise they wouldn't be adopting our approach in so many parts of the world.'
This article is part of an interview with Rabbinge that appeared in this month's alumni magazine Wageningen World.
Frénk van der Linden and Pieter Webeling