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Pragmatist and a big coup: Matin Qaim receives Schlegel professorship at the University of Bonn

Pragmatist and a big coup : Matin Qaim receives Schlegel professorship at the University of Bonn

Agricultural economist Matin Qaim is taking over as director of the Centre for Development Research at the University of Bonn. The 51-year-old has an international reputation.

Ecology versus economy, productivity versus nature conservation: Matin Qaim believes that such contradictions are completely unnecessary. In fact, always emphasising them is a fundamental problem. "We have to think both together," demands the agricultural economist, who has held the Schlegel Professorship for Economic and Technological Change at the University of Bonn for a month and is also the new Director at the Centre for Development Research (ZEF).

Qaim knows about the dangers to the diversity of the planet, about the consequences of deforestation and monocultures - but he also knows about hunger in the world, which cannot simply be eliminated with a seemingly clear conscience, but requires, among other things, new cultivation methods.

"In principle, it would be quite possible to convert all agriculture in Germany to organic products," he says. "But that would mean that we would have to import much more food than we already do from abroad to meet our needs. This food would then be lacking elsewhere, or even more forest areas would be cleared for agriculture outside Europe. In this respect, we have to stop always looking at a single country and think globally instead. We also have to realise that we have to find a balance between feeding the world on the one hand and sustainable, ecological concepts on the other.“

For the University of Bonn, the appointment of Matin Qaim is a major coup. The 51-year-old has an international reputation, is charismatic and eloquent, a member of the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and President of the International Association of Agricultural Economists - in short, an excellent researcher for an excellent university.

Yet Qaim had long since established himself in Göttingen, where he had held a professorship since 2007. "I built up a lot of things there that were important to me, and in that respect I had no intention whatsoever of leaving," he admits.

"But when the University of Bonn approached me and made it clear that they explicitly wanted me, it was quite appealing, especially since ZEF also enjoys an excellent reputation and had previously been headed by my doctoral supervisor Joachim von Braun. So I had both professional and personal interest. In the end, however, the decision was also up to my wife - moving without her was never an option.“

Qaim lives for his subject

In the end, everyone can benefit from the decision for Bonn. Qaim is passionate about his subject, you can tell that after just a few minutes with him. But he is also a realist and pragmatist, one who upholds nature conservation but does not idealise or even dogmatise it.

For example, he is in favour of considering genetically modified seeds, including the so-called Golden Rice. "This variety contains much more beta-carotene than conventional rice," he explains, "which is converted in the human body into the vital vitamin A. In this respect, Golden Rice can be one building block of many to effectively counteract malnutrition in the long term.“

But although this modified plant has been researched for more than 20 years, it has not yet been used. "This is due in no small part to Greenpeace, who vehemently oppose Golden Rice and whose actions help to perpetuate prejudice," says Qaim. "I find Greenpeace's commitment to environmental protection truly remarkable, but their dogmatic positioning against genetic engineering cannot be scientifically justified."

At the same time, Qaim also admits that not every supposed progress is really always one. "But we should also bear in mind that a new technology is neither good nor evil per se," he explains. "It always depends on what we do with it. We have the knowledge and the tools to make a world without hunger a reality. Now we just need to get our priorities right."

With his new professorship, Qaim can conduct research at the key intersections between economic and ecological interests. But there is no panacea for the many challenges, he stresses. "New technologies are only one building block, because of course we also have to adapt our consumption.“

And with a view to the coalition negotiations in Berlin, he adds: "Basically, we need the attitude of the FDP as well as that of the Greens in order to achieve a sustainable transformation. From my point of view, for example, there is nothing to be said against combining organic farming with genetically modified crops."

Original text: Thomas Kölsch

Translation: Mareike Graepel