In 1943 Sir Albert Howard, (Formerly Director of the Institute of Plant Industry Indore, and Agricultural Adviser to States in Central India and Rajputana), considered to be the grandfather of the modern organic farming movement, published ‘An Agricultural Testament’, which was based on his years of patient observations of traditional faming in India. “Instead of breaking up the subject into fragments, and studying agriculture in piece meal fashion by the analytical method of science, appropriate only to the discovery of new facts, we must adopt a synthetic approach and look at the wheel of life as one great subject and not as if it were a patchwork of unrelated things.”
Almost 70 years later, with the advent and adoption of GM crops succeeding the mislabelled ‘Green Revolution’, these words have returned to haunt us. “Today, as a consequence of technologies introduced by the green revolution, India loses six billion tons of topsoil every year. Ten million hectares of India’s irrigated land is now waterlogged and saline. Pesticide poisoning has caused epidemics of cancers. Water tables are falling by twenty feet every year. The soil fertility and water resources that had been carefully managed for generations in the Punjab were wasted in a few short years of industrial abuses. If India’s masses have avoided starvation, they have endured chronic and debilitating hunger and poverty”.1 India exports food, but 200 million of mainly rural, women and children go to bed hungry (Global Hunger Index). The ongoing commercialisation of agriculture in India continues, with the US extracting many pounds of flesh through trade agreements like the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture and US AID and USDA investments in agricultural universities to bring Indian agriculture under the full sway of genetically modified crops controlled by Monsanto the 90% market leader. Monsanto is also on the Board of this ‘Initiative’ representing US interests, along with other agri giants.
Global hunger already at an unprecedented level is growing. Those who are the most hungry are the farmers who produce our food. The causes are mainly man-made attributable squarely to the free trade policies championed by the WTO, and manoeuvred through the chicanery of these processes to the detriment of the developing nations and backed by the IMF and the World Bank. The FAO contributes to this through its ambivalent stance, refusing to provide the kind of clarity that would encourage real solutions to the crises. Developing Countries have been forced to open up their markets to western agri-business giants and face a price war on cotton for example in India, because of huge US subsidies provided to American farmers exporting mainly GM cotton to India. We have the astonishing spectacle of poor Indian farmers not being able to compete with US farmers and they are committing suicide. It is called ‘competitive advantage’, which essentially means the Indian government is not able to protect our markets under the WTO policies, doesn’t feel obliged to provide the right level of support prices and/or just can’t compete with the magnitude of US government handouts to their farmers. Indian farmers are also GM cotton farmers facing higher input costs and of course, without the competitive advantage of their American counterparts. They also seem to have lost or have been deprived of the “more sophisticated agricultural wisdom that has served Indian farmers for centuries.”1 (emphasis mine)
Corporations now own 98 per cent of patents in agriculture, own seed monopolies, and are extending their control of genetic stock (plant and livestock).2 Unless this trend is reversed, whole communities and countries will lose control over the production of their food and national food security. Fortunately, strongly echoing Sir Albert Howard, we have a new ‘avatar’ of him in the collective effort of 400 scientists, to champion our cause of how to produce enough to food to feed the world over the next 50 years.
The UN International Assessment of Agricultural Science & Technology for Development sees no role for GM crops or Modern Biotechnology, in a road map for agriculture for the next 50 years. Authored by 400 and scientists and signed by 60 countries, including India, it took four years to complete. In its published conclusions in 2008, it states that there is no evidence that GM crops increase yield. Some biotech companies were so disgruntled by the report’s lack of support that they pulled out of the entire process. The IAASTD makes it clear that the road map for agriculture for the next 50 years must be through localised solutions, combining scientific research with traditional knowledge in partnership with farmers and consumers. The report calls for a systematic redirection of investment, funding, research and policy focus toward these alternative technologies and the needs of small-farmers. Therefore, the IAASTD has clearly shown the international response to the WAY FORWARD which is sustainable agriculture that is biodiversity-based.
In his widely referenced report, ‘Organic Agriculture is the Future’, Doug Gurian Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that organic farming systems round the world are often as productive as current industrial agriculture not only in developed countries, but more so in the developing world; that green and animal manures employed in organic agriculture can produce “enough fixed nitrogen to support high crop yields.”
These highly productive methods are needed to produce enough food without converting uncultivated land—such as forests that are important for biodiversity and slowing climate change—into crop fields. They build deep, rich soils that hold water, sequester carbon, and resist erosion. And they don’t poison the air, drinking water, and fisheries with excess fertilizers and toxic pesticides. Some have dismissed the promise of these methods. Among these are State Department Science Advisor Nina Federoff, who in recent interviews characterized organic agriculture as some kind of retreat to a quaint past. She and others characterize organic farming and similar systems as inherently unproductive, sometimes suggesting that such methods are capable of supporting only about half the current world’s population.
Federoff’s view is at odds with the latest science, and represents a status quo kind of thinking. Today’s dominant industrial U.S. agriculture relies on huge monocultures of a few major crops like corn and soybeans, and requires large inputs of fossil-fuel based synthetic chemicals to control pests and fertilize the crops. Such an agriculture churns out a lot of commodity crops (most of which are turned into meat and processed foods) while also contributing greatly to air and water pollution. Industrial agriculture is a major contributor of heat-trapping emissions and a major cause of so-called dead zones such as that in the Gulf of Mexico. And industrial agriculture is ultimately its own worst enemy, as it causes massive degradation of the very soil that is vital to farming itself. This kind of agriculture is unsustainable.
The MYTH of High Yields
GM Crops will neither feed India nor the world. After 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialisation, genetic engineering has not demonstrated sustainable benefits to farmers. 99% of GM crops, which have been commercialised, are either engineered (a) to contain the Bt gene, or (b) are herbicide tolerant (HT) GM crops as in Roundup Ready soybean. Neither of these is engineered for intrinsic yield gain. This is the plain science. The US Department’s Agriculture’s Review of 10 years of GM crop cultivation in the States, which has the longest history of GM crops, has concluded:
Currently available GM crops do not increase the yield potential… In fact, yield may even decrease if the varieties used to carry the herbicide tolerant or insect-resistant genes are not the highest yielding cultivars… Perhaps the biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative.
‘Failure to Yield’ released by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) considers the technology’s potential to increase food production over the next few decades.
The intrinsic yields of corn and soybeans did rise during the twentieth century, but not as a result of GE traits. Rather, they were due to successes in traditional breeding… Cutting through the rhetoric, overall pesticide use (herbicides, insecticides and fungicides) has not been reduced through GE… recent U.S. data suggest that herbicide use in GE crops is now significantly higher than it was prior to their introduction. Weeds that have developed resistance to the herbicide used with GE crops now infest several million acres, forcing greater herbicide use. Insect-resistant GE crops have reduced overall insecticide use somewhat, but on balance GE crops have not reduced our dependence on pesticides… It makes little sense to support genetic engineering at the expense of technologies that have proven to substantially increase yields, especially in developing countries… these include modern, conventional plant breeding methods, sustainable and organic farming and other sophisticated farming practices that do not require farmers to pay significant upfront costs… (emphasis mine)
Agriculture that is Biodiversity-based: The Irrelevance of GE Crops
These reports bring us full circle to the evidence provided by Howard 70 years ago, as well as to the agricultural science and wisdom of Indian farming practices, which find their counterpoint in the wisdom of farmers in all traditional cultures and which scientists like Gurian-Sherman and of the IAASTD describe as “sophisticated.”
Our health and nutrition are tied in with seed quality, variety and abundance. In over 10,000 years of agriculture, farmers have selected seed, exchanged seed, preserved biodiversity and delivered safe crops. It is noteworthy and a tribute to their acumen that over the past many centuries, not a single plant has been added to the list of major domesticated crops. On the other hand, with GM crops we cannot make an “outcome prediction of the type that can be made when crossing two strains such as wheat that have been safely eaten for two thousand years.”3 In the span of 12 short years of GM crops, we are faced with major problems of safety and testing and billions of dollars are being spent in damage control and clean-up operations. GM is also drawing a disproportionate quantum of investment in research despite its weak performance to date. Instead, these billions of dollars of public money should be invested in now proven, modern alternative agricultural technologies.
* The urgent question that must be asked is how much more of our scarce research dollars will be diverted to this controversial and unproven technology?
The health and ecological risks of GM crops are well documented in the scientific literature. Now, the research on their contribution to CC (Climate Change) is gathering momentum. The new report published by GRAIN4 on the 7th Oct ’09, shows that agriculture has a pivotal role in sequestering carbon, and that it is small farmers that hold the key to ‘cooling the world’. The evidence highlights the fact that the global industrial food system is the most important “single factor behind global warming, responsible for almost half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions” and that its role in the climate crisis has been seriously underestimated. Soils contain enormous amounts of organic matter and therefore, carbon. Calculations in the report show that the organic matter that has been lost over the past decades can be gradually rebuilt, if policy is oriented to agriculture in the hands of small farmers and their ability through alternative farming practices to restoring soil fertility. “In 50 years the soils could capture about 450 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is more than two thirds of the current excess in the atmosphere”, a huge contribution to resolving CC. “The evidence is irrefutable. If we can change the way we farm and the way we produce and distribute food, then we have a powerful solution for combating the climate crisis. There are no technical hurdles to achieving these results, it is only a matter of political will.”5
On the other hand, with GM crops we face a dangerous pincer attack that we must demolish if we are to survive and thrive: (a) on the one hand, the massive disinformation that GM crops will feed the world including India through mythical high yields and without harm, is reminiscent of the 30 years of disinformation that surrounded Climate Change. The IPCC Report (with Pachauri as Chairman) though almost too late, was nevertheless required to change those perceptions and get consensus across borders on urgent climate mitigation solutions. Fortunately for the world, the International solutions for agriculture proposed by the IAASTD Report and the evidence for the potential contribution of agriculture in the carbon sequestering solutions of organic farming and the role of small farmers, are TIMELY. We must heed these; and (b) on the other hand, a comprehensive deregulation of the kind that led to the melt down of global financial markets. The clear evidence is that the US has similarly shown the way to a dangerous and unscientific deregulation of GM crops first in the US and that role-model is being pushed in India and other developing countries.
The FAO must take note of the sanity of these road maps for urgent change, and the great irrelevance of GM crops, which are seriously and it must be said, dangerously hindering that vital focus and redirection of resources that are required in agriculture. If the FAO will lead this process for change, then it must encourage and broker that change without ambivalence, and support national and sovereign governments in India and the developing world in these solutions, no matter what pressures a ‘misguided’ US policy may impose on all parties.
On the ‘hope’ that the IAASTD generates:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.
– William Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey
- Alexis Lathem Community College of Vermont, “Assessing the Legacy of Barlaug…” [↩] [↩]
- Jesse Lerner-Kinglake of War on Want: Global Food Fight. [↩]
- David Schubert (Salk Institute) and William Freese, “Safety Testing and Regulation of Genetically Engineered Foods,” Biotechnol Genet Eng Rev, 2004, 21:299-324. [↩]
- GRAIN: “Small Farmers Can Cool the World“ [↩]
- Henk Hobbelink: coordinator of GRAIN [↩]