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”,


23 11 2010

We keep seeing the term “renewable”  in the media   –   a lot  –  and especially with reference to products made from “renewable resources”.  And we understand why this term can be so appealing in this time of diminishing natural resources and increasing population growth.  But what do they really mean?  Stick with us and you’ll find that this is yet another area in which a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

A “renewable resource” is a resource that can be replenished naturally  in the same amount of time (or less) than it takes to draw the supply down.  These constantly replenishing natural resources  include forest resources,  and the fertility of agricultural land.  Some renewable resources have essentially an endless supply, such as solar energy, wind energy and geothermal pressure.   Some resources are considered renewable, even though some effort must go into procuring them, such as fisheries or food crops.

To help us make better choices, there is now a differentiation between non-renewable resources, such as petroleum or old-growth timber  (which takes centuries to renew)  and what is known as “rapidly renewable resources”.  These items, as defined by the LEED system of building certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) offers points for rapidly renewable materials that regenerate in 10 years or less, such as bamboo, wool, and straw. To qualify for the credit in a new construction project, the value of these materials must represent at least 2.5 % of the total cost of the products used in the building.

Renewable resources have become a focal point of the environmental movement, both politically and economically. Energy obtained from renewable resources puts much less strain on our limited supply of fossil fuels (non-renewable resources). The problem with using renewable resources on a large scale, however, is that it  may create some new and unforeseen problems.

What can some of these new and unforeseen problems be?  Like all green claims, it’s terribly important to understand the wider implications of each of our choices.  Take bamboo, for example.  Bamboo is a fast growing grass which is hard enough to be used as a replacement for wood in applications such as flooring and furniture. However, most bamboo is grown and processed in China, so while ocean shipping consumes less fuel per mile than overland trucking, the type of fuel used in shipping can be more polluting. In addition, there are concerns about forestry practices, the toxicity of binders, and worker safety.  A few bamboo plantations have earned certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which accredits forests managed “to meet the social, economic, ecological, cultural, and spiritual needs of present and future generations.” However, certified bamboo products are still not widely available in the U.S. And even though bamboo plantations sequester as much carbon as native forests, they do not support the same wildlife.  Clearly, the environmental balance is more difficult to calculate than by simply examining the length of a harvest cycle.

Another product worth examining is cork, which comes from the bark of cork oaks. Unlike nearly every other tree species, cork trees are  not harmed by removal of their bark. A mature tree is stripped about once every 10 years and lives for an average of 16 strippings. After stripping, the large slabs of bark are boiled, and bottle stoppers are punched from them. The leftover material is then ground up, pressed into sheets, and cut into tiles for flooring. This dual-purpose production is critical to the cork industry.   According to the World Wildlife Fund International, cork production provides a vital source of income for thousands of people and supports one of the world’s highest levels of biodiversity among forest habitats, with plant diversity reaching as high as 135 species per square meter. In an ironic twist, the increased market share for alternative wine stoppers could reduce the value of cork oak, leading the areas in which cork is grown to be converted or abandoned. It also may contribute to the end of the cork ecosystem.

The World Wildlife Fund International and the Forest Stewardship Council have established programs to promote and encourage responsible cork use to save this natural resource. For more information, visit and

Another not so easy call, is it?

In my opinion, another area worth investigating is the very visible promotion of biobased products using corn and soybeans  (soy based foam in upholstery and biobased polymers are two products that come immediately to mind) as being environmentally preferable because they’re based on a renewable resource.  Dow Cargill, manufacturer of BiOH polyols, the soybean derived biopolymer, says that it creates products with from 5 to 20% renewable content (meaning the soybeans). But soybeans are one of the three crops globally which have the highest percentage of GMO (corn and cotton being the other two).   The GMO percentage of global soybean production was 77%  in 2009, and for cotton it was 49%.  (In India, 87% of all cotton was GMO in 2009.)

Monsanto, the largest seed producer in the world, with a massive 20% share of the world market, has been  interested in a technology which was named “Terminator” – and began applying it to their seeds.

The Terminator idea was to genetically modify seeds so that the plants they produced when they grew were sterile. In biotechnology jargon, this is known as a “genetic use restriction technology”, or GURT.  Companies such as Monsanto were keen on such “suicide seeds” because they would enable the company to control any proprietary genetic traits they had engineered into the seeds. So resistance to a particular herbicide, for example, or an ability to grow faster, would not be passed on from one generation of plants to the next.

So most GMO seeds have a genetic modification that prevents the crops from setting fertile seed.  So seeds for next year’s crop must be purchased – effectively ending the centuries old practice of collecting seeds at each harvest  so they could be replanted next year.

The main problem with this is that over 1.4 billion people around the world depend on saved seeds from season to season to grow crops. Terminator seeds force dependence on the Monsantos of the world, destroying local and indigenous seed exchange practices, as well as the breeding and selection done by farmers.

There was a great outcry against this technology.

“While seeds with the ability to reproduce contain the essence of life, Terminator represents only ‘exploitation and death,’” according to Terry Boehm, vice-president of the National Farmer’s Union in Saskatchewan, Canada. Boehm further uses nuclear weapons as a parallel to Terminator technology: “Extensive testing of nuclear weapons did not change the fact that this was such a dangerous technology that it should not be used.”

At the  United Nations’ Convention on Biodiversity in Nagoya, Japan (18-29 October 2010) the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) warned that there are a  handful of multinational corporations which are pressuring governments to allow what could become the broadest and most dangerous patent claims in history.

“The Gene Giants are stockpiling patents that threaten to put a choke-hold on the world’s biomass and our future food supply,” warns Silvia Ribeiro of ETC Group. “The breadth of many patent claims on climate ready crop genes is staggering. In many cases, a single patent or patent application claims ownership of engineered gene sequences that could be deployed in virtually all major crops – as well as the processed food and feed products derived from them,” explains Ribeiro.

Hope Shand, research director of ETC,  links the argument over Terminator technologies with wider criticisms of the ways in which agribusiness is exercising its increasingly powerful influence. “The top 10 seed companies control 57% of the commercial seed market worldwide. That’s a staggering level of corporate control over the first link in the food chain,” she says.

“Whoever controls our seeds, controls the food supply. These companies are trying to reduce competition and maximize profits by promoting laws and technologies that eliminate the practice of farmer-saved seeds. Whether it’s promoting genetic seed sterilization and patent laws, or dictating trade regimes, these trends threaten traditional farming communities and erode crop diversity.”

The ETC web site goes on to say that “the natural genetic diversity of crops is a vital insurance against future farming catastrophes. The world needs to retain as many different varieties of potato, tomato, rice and wheat as possible in case the commercial varieties grown in bulk get diseased, or are rendered useless by the accelerating impacts of global warming. That’s why there are some 1,400 “seed banks” around the world, storing some six million different species.”  For more information on this issue, see the ETC Group’s report, Gene Giants Stockpile Patents on “Climate-Ready” Crops in Bid to Become Biomassters”

I think the use of GMO crops to produce soy based foam and biobased polymers cannot be marketed as being made from a renewable resource because of the presence of these patented GMO crops – which are largely sterile. They cannot be renewed without human input – in other words, new crops cannot be grown unless the farmer purchases new seed from the corporation.  And the danger is that these genetic mutations will spread to non GMO crops.

This goes entirely against the intent  in defining a renewable resource.  These crops cannot be “created again”.  So to say that soy based polyols (or soy based foam) is made from a “renewable resource” is false.

Another objection I have to GMOs as they are being implemented is that the basic motivation for almost every introduction thus far is profit-driven rather than need-driven – but that’s nit picking.

For more information on Terminator Technology visit: – the Ban Terminator Campaign – Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration

• Also see for information on the film, “Seeds of Change,” which looks at genetically modified crops and how they are changing the face of agriculture in western Canada. This film was made back in 2002 but hidden from the public by the administration at the University of Manitoba until 2005. Click here for a review of this documentary.