Promise for the future

7 07 2011

For the past few weeks we’ve been talking about the Green Revolution, and the problem of feeding 9 billion people.

With respect to the Green Revolution, opinion is still divided as to how to assess its impact.   Vandana Shiva, founder of Navdanya (a movement of 500,000 seed keepers and organic farmers) said that the Green Revolution:

(has) led to reduced genetic diversity, increased vulnerability to pests, soil erosion, water shortages, reduced soil fertility, micronutrient deficiencies, soil contamination, reduced availability of nutritious food crops for the local population, the displacement of vast numbers of small farmers from their land, rural impoverishment and increased tensions and conflicts. The beneficiaries have been the agrochemical industry, large petrochemical companies, manufacturers of agricultural machinery, dam builders and large landowners.

The “miracle” seeds of the Green Revolution have become mechanisms for breeding new pests and creating new diseases.[1]

As Frederick Huyn notes, in his essay “Green Revolution” the only thing the Green Revolution achieved was “low yield from high ideals”.[2]   Yet there are those who credit the Green Revolution with helping to avoid mass starvation.

And as Juergen Voegele, director of agriculture and rural development for the World Bank, pointed out: “We already have close to one billion people who go hungry today, not because there is not enough food in the world but because they cannot afford to buy it.”[3]  An interesting article in Foreign Policy magazine pointed out that the poor, even if they have the money to buy food, sometimes use their money to buy other things instead, such as cell phones or televisions.[4]

So it’s a complicated formula.

Last week’s post introduced the argument that agriculture simply must reduce its environmental footprint.  So the question remains: what is the future of agriculture?  How can we feed people on Earth and still have a livable planet?

I like the suggestion that we have to learn from each other.   Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, says:  “You’re either with Michael Pollan or you’re with Monsanto, but neither paradigm can fully meet our needs.”  So some are calling for what is being called a “resilient hybrid strategy” to meet these challenges – a sort of third way between industrialized agriculture and organic.   We can all take lessons from each other – the organic camp need not see “technology” as anathema, and conventional agriculture shouldn’t dismiss organic principles out of hand.  We should ditch the rhetoric and create new, hybrid solutions that boost production, conserve resources and build a truly sustainable agriculture.  These might include precision agriculture, mixed with high-output composting and organic soil remedies; drip irrigation, plus buffer strips to reduce erosion and pollution; and new crop varieties that reduce water and fertilizer demand.  On the production end, finding agreement on what the science writer Paul Voosen recently described as “a unified theory of farming” is unlikely. But finding ways to break down either-or thinking and foster traditional agricultural methods or advanced technologies where they fit best is clearly feasible.[5]

It will be much more challenging to own up to what our individual choices mean in terms of food availability – and to change them.

We think there should be four key components in this effort:

1)    Make food a human right.

2)    Science must play a key role.

3)    Agriculture will need to be regionally controlled and locally adapted, and governments should sponsor crop and genetic research.

4)    Adopt agroecology – includes frugal use of water, minimizes use of external inputs and sequesters carbon.

Skeptics will say that you simply cannot grow organic crops and have comparable yields to those of conventional crops which have been “protected” by pesticides and boosted by synthetic fertilizers.  Yet many studies are showing that, with patience, they indeed can yield comparable – or better – results.[6]   But the biggest gains in an effort to triple agricultural production on today’s global farm acreage may come from improvements in crop genetics and wasteful, inefficient farming and food management practices.

One key part of this strategy must be to use genetics to our advantage.  According to Paul Collier, professor of economics at Oxford Univerity, “Genetic modification is analogous to nuclear power: nobody loves it, but climate change has made its adoption imperative.”

Humans have been improving production through genetic selection since agriculture began. For 99 percent of history this process was rather hit or miss and based on farmers saving seeds and saving animals.  Then Mendel discovered how genetic traits were passed along, and we’ve been able to build on that knowledge to create hybrids which are more productive than their counterparts.  These age-old techniques can now be complemented, supplemented, and perhaps supplanted by an assortment of molecular “tools” that allow for the deletion or insertion of a particular gene or genes to produce plants (animals and microorganisms) with novel traits, such as resistance to briny conditions, longer “shelf-life,” or enhanced nutrient content. A change in a plant’s genetic sequence changes the characteristics of the plant. Such manipulation of genes—genetic engineering—results in a genetically modified organism or GMO.

Both “traditional” biotechnology and “modern” biotechnology result in crops with combinations of genes that would not have existed absent human intervention. A drought-resistant crop can be developed through “traditional” methods involving crosses with resistant varieties, selection, and backcrossing. Modern biotechnology can speed up this process by identifying the particular genes associated with drought resistance and inserting them directly. Whether developed through traditional or modern means, the resultant plants will resist drought conditions but only the second, genetically engineered one, is a GMO.

The problem is that today most plant genetics research is conducted by corporations rather than by governments.  These companies focus on crops that offer the biggest short-term commercial return – such as “Roundup Ready” soybeans and corn.   And in order to protect their intellectual property, the seeds available are sterile, so farmers are required to buy new seeds each year.  This has led to the outright prohibition of GMO organisms in most organic standards.  There remains widespread public opposition to the technology in many parts of the world.

Yet the promise of genetics research (non tethered to corporate bottom lines) is compelling.  According to Jason Clay, a vice president of the World Wildlife Fund,  the biggest genetic gains in the future will probably come from working on tropical crops that have been ignored to date, such as cocoa, yams, sorghum, millet, cassava, peanuts, sugarcane and sunflower.[7]  This work would focus not only on increased production but also disease and drought resistance or tolerance, dwarf traits so that tree crops could be harvested with less labor and for longer, and more marketable traits.

In looking at the overall factors involved in agricultural production (land, labor and capital) – it’s clear we have an abundance of both labor and capital.  But we’re reaching the limit of how much land and water we can use to produce food, as the conversion of natural habitat for food production continues unabated:  the FAO estimated an additional 121 million hectares will be converted to crop production in order to meet demand for agricultural commodities by 2030.[8]  Future gains must come from increased efficiency rather than expansion.[9]

Governments must take a more active role – by sponsoring research in genetics or crop science, for example, or by stepping in to support farmers so they won’t feel they have to sell their land to investors.  In the past two years alone, as many as 50 million acres of land around the world have changed hands from locals to foreign investors [10].  It seems that climate change is pushing viable farmland northward due to higher temperatures.  It’s creating new farming opportunities on previously marginal land.  As a result, multinational investors and sovereign wealth funds  are purchasing significant amounts of land in these marginal locales because local farmers are generally poor, and see it as a good way to make quick cash.[11]  Investors from various parts of the world, including rising powers such as China, India, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, South Korea and Wall Street banks, such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, are trying to corner the market on the world’s ever decreasing farmland. All of these investors are betting that population growth and climate change, droughts, desertification and flooding will soon make food as valuable as oil.

Time’s a-wasting – let’s roll up our sleeves and work together.  We really don’t have any room for half measures or for blinkered self-interest.

But because I’m an eternal optimist, I have to look on the bright side, so will end with a passage from Indur Goklany, assistant program director on technology and science policy at the Department of Interior:

Until the start of the Industrial Revolution, mankind was poor, hungry, illiterate, constantly at the mercy of disease and the elements, and short-lived; child labor was the norm; and one’s life opportunities were predetermined by sex and parentage. Today, despite an octupling of the world’s population, mankind has never been wealthier, better fed, less hungry, better educated, longer-lived and healthier; less constrained by caste, class, and sex; and 75 percent of global population is no longer mired in absolute poverty. This progress was enabled by economic development and technological change driven by cheap energy — all made possible by institutions underlying individual economic freedom. To extend this progress to a larger share of humanity and those not yet born, even as the world’s population increases, what matters most is to continue to nourish or, if necessary, develop these institutions.[12]

[1] Shiva, Vandana, “The Green Revolution in the Punjab”, The Ecologist, Vol 21, No. 2, March-April 1991

[3] Revkin, Andrew C., “Varied Menus for Sustaining a Well-Fed World”, January 2011.

[4] Banerjee, Abhijit and Buflo, Esther, “More than 1 Billion People are Hungry in the World”, Foreign Policy, May/June 2011, page 67.

[5] Revkin, Andrew C., “Varied Menus for Sustaining a Well-Fed World”, January 2011.

[6] Vasilikiotis, Christos, “Can Organic Farming Feed The World?”,

[8] Ibid., Page 14

[9] Ibid., Page 14

(10) Funk, McKenzie, “Capatalists of Chaos: The Global Land Grab”, Rolling Stone, May 2010.

[11] “Genetically Modified Seeds Will Not Solve the World Hunger Crisis”,