Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Future of Food Series, Part V

by Sarah Janes Ugoretz

This week we return to our Future of Food series with Tom Folger’s article “The Next Green Revolution,” a piece that discusses the potential role of biotechnology in the quest to feed the world. I’ll say at the outset that this is one of the more contentious issues we’ve delved into up to this point. It is very likely that each person coming to this discussion already has a strong opinion surrounding the creation and application of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Since the space that we have to discuss this issue is minimal, I’ve included a few resources at the end of this article for people who are interested in continuing the conversation.

Folger begins his piece in Tanzania, where the whitefly—invisible to the farmer’s eye—is silently ravaging cassava crops throughout the countryside. Alongside an agent from the Agricultural Research Institute, he witnesses Juma, the farmer at the center of this opening story, being told that he must immediately harvest his whole crop in order to avoid losing all of it. Harvesting one month early will hopefully allow him to feed his family, but he will have made no financial gains over the course of the growing season. Like 90 percent of Africa’s farmers, Juma practices variations of small-scale and subsistence agriculture. For these farmers who are already operating on the margins, the implications of a lost crop can be wholly devastating and may very likely have consequences that resound for years.

With Juma, Folger quickly establishes the moral imperative that appears to largely guide his argument for advancing GM crops: we need them to keep farmers like Juma alive. We’re reminded that by 2050, our population will likely reach nine billion, with half of that growth occurring in sub-Saharan Africa and another 30 percent taking place throughout South and Southeast Asia. Incidentally, Folger points out, “those regions are also where the effects of climate change—drought, heat waves, extreme weather generally—are expected to hit hardest.” With a nod to the Malthusian panic preceding the emergence of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, Folger insists that we need another green revolution in order to once again stave off the starvation of billions.

While he does acknowledge the possibility that solutions to these dilemmas may be found within the low-tech arena, one could easily contend that Folger’s allegiance lies with the high-tech agenda. We are introduced to Robert Fraley, chief technology officer at Monsanto, and to Robert Zeigler, director of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), who expound on modern geneticists’ and plant breeders’ ability to identify and manipulate an ever-increasing number of plant genes. The ability to do so, Fraley argues, will make farming “more productive and resilient.” It follows that the geneticist’s ever evolving toolkit can be used as a force for good in a world rife with hunger and malnutrition. Folger points to Golden Rice, a GM variety produced at IRRI that contains corn genes. These genes enable the rice to produce beta carotene, the consumption of which is essential in the fight against vitamin A deficiency. Additional examples are found in salt-tolerant and flood-tolerant rice which, Folger discusses, have already been used with a certain degree of success by farmers in parts of Asia.

As a graduate student whose research revolves around small-scale and subsistence agricultural development in the Global South, I have to admit that the heavy and, at times, seemingly insurmountable burden of hunger and malnutrition makes part of me wish that there was an overarching, just solution to be found in biotechnology. But, as Janet Maro—a Tanzanian woman who co-founded and runs a nonprofit called Sustainable Agriculture Tanzania (SAT)—insists, heralding biotechnology as the solution to smallholders’ plights is simply “not realistic.” She goes on, asking: “How likely is it, in a country where few farmers ever see a government agricultural adviser, or are even aware of the diseases threatening their crops, that they’ll get the support they need to grow GM crops properly?” What this article comes down to, for me, is this question. Biotech leaders are pointing to small-scale farmers like Juma as one of the main drivers of their research and development efforts, but when it comes down to it, the introduction of new technology—whether it be GM crops or a mechanical milking machine—must be met with the extension of knowledge, of training, of ongoing support. Moreover, these approaches must be tailored to fit each local context. Folger makes no mention of this, but any student of development knows that these components are absolutely essential if the goal is long-term, effective use. In using GM crops, small-scale farmers would not only be adopting new seed varieties, they would also be tying themselves to the associated inputs—the specific fertilizer, irrigation and pesticide requirements of that particular seed. As Maro discusses, before some of the farmers she works with transitioned to organic methods, they were spending US$300 on the fertilizer and pesticides needed to treat just one acre of land (this in a country where the per capita income is US$1600). One farmer who spoke with Folger mentioned that after incurring these expenses she had no money left over to send her children to school.

An additional concern, which Folger breezes over, is the minimal safety trials that GM crops are subject to, and our subsequent limited knowledge and understanding of the possible implications of consuming GMOs. For example, Monsanto tests newly developed GMOs over the course of 45 or 90 days, using either broiler chickens or rats. In one study, a team of independent researchers reanalyzed the test results of an approved GM variety of maize. The raw data in fact revealed signs of kidney and liver toxicity in the study rats, a discovery that led to this team’s results being published in The International Journal of Biological Sciences, a peer-reviewed publication.

Folger closes his discussion in Tanzania, where he provides us with a glimpse of the low-tech alternative. With an eye on farmers, on the environment, on the local economy—this approach looks somewhat more promising, especially when considering these factors within a whole-systems framework. Farmers, some working with Maro and SAT, have begun planting a greater variety of crops, which not only works to control for pests but also provides households with a safety net in the event that one of their crops fails. The use of a specific wild sunflower variety, planted between rows, has proven effective in deterring the whitefly from cassava crops. Meanwhile, compost is being promoted as a means of improving soil quality, and the decrease in fertilizer use has had a positive impact on water quality in the region. Owing in part to the efforts of SAT, today Tanzania has the fourth highest number of certified organic farmers in the world.

It goes without saying that, like the biotechnology approach, organic farming is not a simple, straightforward solution. It too, requires the ongoing training and support that I mentioned above. However, at this point let’s return to the overall concern in this Future of Food series: how we’re going to feed the world. I would argue that perhaps a narrower focus is appropriate here—rather than this large-scale, macro question, we might instead want to ask how farmers might acquire the tools, the knowledge and the skills to continue feeding themselves and their communities. While biotechnology might provide farmers with climate-tailored seeds, lower tech approaches have the potential to place power in the hands of the farmers themselves—power in the form of knowledge and real skills that they might use in deliberately cultivating a healthy, resilient, and diverse landscape. As the climate changes, farmers will have to change with it, but if they’re starting from a position of power and understanding grounded in a deep-rooted connection with their environment, this adaptation might prove to be more manageable over time.

Reading list:

United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Trade and Environment Review 2013, “Wake Up Before it is Too Late” 

Benbrook, Charles, M. “Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. -- the first sixteen years”, Environmental Sciences Europe, 2012.

de Vendomois, J. S., Roullier, F., Cellier, D., & Séralini, G.E. (2009). A comparison of the effects of three GM corn varieties on mammalian health. International Journal of Biological Sciences, 5(7), 706–726.

Ford Foundation, Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts, Mann, Charles C. “Diversity on the Farm” 

Patel, Raj, “How to be Curious about the Green Revolution”,, 29 Aug. 2014.
Tomorrow’s table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food by Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchak

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