A poster hangs above his desk on the fifth floor of the Bayle building: ‘Evolution: life on Earth is one big extended family’. It’s a picture of a timeline including each domain of species, and visualizes their interrelation. It also shows the previous five mass extinctions, indicated by era. Assistant Professor Yogi Hale Hendlin is both public health scientist and environmental philosopher at both the University of California in San Francisco and the Erasmus University Rotterdam. He is also a faculty member of the initiative Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity. Hendlin quotes a FAO-report saying: "A shift to local, biological agriculture is the only way we can feed the whole world, now and in the future."
You research both health issues and environmental issues, how are these related?
“Well, I would say: how can they possible not be related? In our contemporary Western thinking, we tend to believe that you can do something over there without it effecting you over here. When we locate a coal power plant for example, there is this thing called ‘NIMBYism’ (not in my back yard): we want the energy that comes from that power plant, but not the environmental bads. The core of my research is looking at the problems stemming from industrialisation. How do industrial processes both effect our health as well as our environment?”
What are your findings so far?
“We don’t perceive climate change on a day to day basis as being a threat for our health, and yet it is the most threatening thing this earth has ever faced. We are in the sixth mass extinction; and this has to do with our technology outpacing our wisdom and our ethics. As a philosopher, I’m very interested in how we think about the ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ in our society. With bads, I mean: our throw-away economy, massive extraction, massive pollution, and the ‘end of life’ of (almost all) things we produce. No other living organism on this planet produces something like ‘trash’, it doesn’t exist.
I look at documents of the biggest companies in the world, the companies operating in fossil fuel, in the food industry, in the tobacco industry. I’m part of a project at the University of California where we have been gathering documents form all these industries, previous secret documents, to see how companies work with their consultants, what discourse they use, what their assumptions are, and even investigate what scientific studies they have performed but never will show or share because these studies contradict the reasonableness of their products or profits.”
What is your research on Sustainable Agriculture about?
“Together with Professor Alessandra Arcuri of the Erasmus School of Law I’m researching sustainable agriculture versus non-sustainable agriculture, focusing on questions such as: why, for instance, are we creating a chemical footprint with the use of pesticides like Glyphosate that will be remembered for thousands of years? How are risks determent by governments? And how are the allowed levels of toxicity determined? The problem is: toxicity levels are too often influenced by private economic interest, rather than by lead by the public good. Many chemical regulations are based on the assumption that there is a societal need for the chemicals in question. Glyphosate, for example, an active ingredient in RoundUp, is a big threat to our health, the health of the soil, the health of the planet, but these concerns have often been backgrounded to economic and hence agricultural path-dependency.”
"I can produce scientific evidence to encourage policymakers and politicians to make the right decisions that will both benefit our health and the environment”
Can you explain this threat?
“The Netherlands is one of the biggest exporters of food in the world per capita. Most of our greenhouses are owned by Monsanto and a handful other international companies which use glyphosate and all sorts of chemicals and pesticides to grow crops. These crops soak in these chemicals, and then we eat them. People living around those fields – in the Netherlands you see this happening by for example flower fields – have higher risks of cancer, higher risks of asthma. As a society, we apparently have agreed on these sorts of ‘acceptable fallout’ or sacrifice, in order to keep on having cheap goods made by monopolies. These companies are making the majority of the agricultural decisions for the whole world: about the quality of food, our health and how we treat our lands. Next to this, through blanket application of their agrichemicals, they are creating super-pests which are resistant to the pesticides, another big problem.”
What is the solution, how can we feed the world and at the same time be good for our health and soil?
“The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) wrote in their 2012 report that our soil worldwide is going down at such a fast rate, that unless we shift to local, organic agriculture, we are not going to be able to keep up with the demand. Other studies confirm this diagnosis. Companies like Monsanto became big because of their poison. They made poison in the World War I, for example. They now kill insects, and ‘oops’ you get a little of the poison in yourself as well. We need to know our history. And we must turn the tide.”
Sometimes people say: if we shift to biological agriculture, we cannot feed the whole world. But you are saying the opposite?
“There is a lot of good scientific evidence of the opposite, yes. There are also good studies that shows how shifting to sustainable agriculture without the use of pesticides will let to a loss of about 2 to 4 percent. That’s not a lot! Taking into account that the food will be more nutritious with fewer chemicals, the soil will be less destroyed, and our health will benefit from it, et cetera, that’s a bargain. Professor Alessandra Arcuri and I want to map what farmers are doing right now, including what factors contribute to their current agricultural methods. We want to look into the bank loans-system: banks sometimes ask for conventional methods of farming in order to give loans to farmers. In a way, farmers are also stuck in the system. We would like to identify the constraints on farmers that prevent them from being more free to make their own decisions regarding what sort of farming methods are best for the long-term viability of their families and land.”
In what way does your research have societal impact?
“Last June we brought heads of IARC (the International Agency on Cancer Research) and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to our campus to discuss this topic, together with international scientists, lawyers and EU politicians. We hosted a workshop called: ‘The Science and Politics of Glyphosate’. Even a couple of Monsanto lobbyists showed up, interested in what we had to say.
I strongly believe permission to use Glyphosate won’t be renewed by 2020 in Europe. Some countries like Germany are already abandoning it. All systems are fragile, even those which seems so powerful or fixed. It takes courage in the right people in the right places to make the right decisions. My job as a scientist is to encourage them: I can produce scientific evidence to encourage policymakers and politicians to make the right decisions that will both benefit our health and the environment.”