Response to the FAO: How to Feed the World in 2050

If the FAO is to Seriously Engage in this Effort it Must Get Rid of the Distraction of GM Crops

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 IAASTD

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

  1. Alexis Lathem Community College of Vermont, “Assessing the Legacy of Barlaug…” [] []
  2. Jesse Lerner-Kinglake of War on Want: Global Food Fight. []
  3. David Schubert (Salk Institute) and William Freese, “Safety Testing and Regulation of Genetically Engineered Foods,” Biotechnol Genet Eng Rev, 2004, 21:299-324. []
  4. GRAIN: “Small Farmers Can Cool the World“ []
  5. Henk Hobbelink: coordinator of GRAIN []

Aruna Rodrigues is the lead petitioner in the Supreme Court for a moratorium on GMOs -- the case on which the the TEC was formed. She can be reached at: arunarod@gmail.com. Read other articles by Aruna.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Bobby krishna said on October 24th, 2009 at 11:14am #

    Dear Aruna,
    I used to work for one of the biggest plantation companies in South India . The company has been struggling to survive since last 10 years – not because of green revolution, nor due to globalization, but because of the attitude of people. The tea estates that I used to work for had very good systems to conserve soil, water and the forest area around it, but not after the 80’s. I joined the company in 1998 and I graduated in Agriculture ( 4 years) where I was taught nothing about sustainable agriculture. I had a team of around 1000 workers who never liked to work. We used to do 4 rounds of weeding an year ( of course with round-up) because our workers never did a proper job. One year’s seeding is 7 years weeding and we were in that cycle. There were absolutely no measures to conserve soil in the hilly regions . I was always amazed to hear the old stories from the workers who used to work under the British – who had very good systems to conserve soil. I don’t think the government is very concerned about developing agriculture, trade infrastructure etc. It is sad to see the soil getting washed away- we will never get it back!

  2. ned lud said on October 24th, 2009 at 1:04pm #

    I was a dairy farmer, small herd and organic until just weeks ago. I still haven’t sold all my cows, just most of them, dumping the remaining milk now, as I haul a trailer full to the sale barn each passing week. They are going for slaughter, for dimes on the dollar. I loved these cows! When I was 22 years old, I embarked up0n the path which leaves where I am today, worn out and in utter poverty, angry and still owing money and no way of paying it.

    Back then, at 22, I had read authors like Wendell Berry and Sir Albert Howard and I thought to myself: This is the way to go. People will re-awaken and most will understand the necessity of family farms and independent holdings and life will be good for farmers like me.

    I was wrong.

    I couldn’t have been more wrong if I tried. I HATE YOU, AMERIKA.

  3. Don Hawkins said on October 24th, 2009 at 5:05pm #

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/oct/25/barack-obama-climate-change-copenhagen

    Aruna this is the answer from our so called leaders in the States. It’s about two things money and power. It’s also total insanity and for us to try we need to work together. That article in the Guardian would you call that working together? To get the public we the people to make there voice heard could help but appears the illusion the old thought control is working. The Earth is cooling now, sure it is.

  4. lichen said on October 24th, 2009 at 5:58pm #

    GM crops are definitely a scam. It is the great tragedy of our world, however, that just like “clean” coal, and climate change denial, things like gm crops which have no redeeming value except to the profits of the owning corporation get like 90% of the available air time, respect, and consideration of the media/political class because of money. Money pays for elections, for PR, for news reports and “scientific” studies and spin. And those of us who recongize that another world is possible–or rather should I say, mandatory, seem primed not to have any chance of winning the information war.

    Clearly, good organic farming practices, native varieities and food plants, and saved seed is more than enough to feed everyone. We need to empower decentralized, local veganic agriculture, de-consumerizing the system and introducing people to real, healthy food.

  5. Don Hawkins said on October 25th, 2009 at 3:58am #

    Sent this to CNN and the Weather Channel this Morning.

    Morning,

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/oct/25/barack-obama-climate-change-copenhagen

    The Senate opens a three-day blockbuster of hearings on Tuesday, calling 54 administration officials and environment experts to try to push ahead on a climate change law before a meeting in Copenhagen that is supposed to produce a global action plan on climate change.

    James Inhofe, the Oklahoma senator who gained notoriety for calling global warming a hoax, told reporters late on Friday that he and fellow Republicans on the environment and public works committee might refuse to participate.

    Inhofe said Republicans would stay away from bill-writing sessions unless they got enough time to review more than 800 pages of proposals in detail. That stay-away would deny the committee a quorum.

    Only 57% of Americans believe that the Earth’s atmosphere is warming – a sharp fall from the 77% in 2007, said the poll of 1,500 people by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press. Guardian

    The people and the press has a real ring to it.

    “On top of that,” added Mr. Inhofe, who is a global warming skeptic, “one would think that, prior to legislative hearings, the committee would have a thorough, comprehensive economic analysis to understand how an 900-plus page bill, designed to fundamentally reshape the American economy, affects consumers, small businesses, farmers and American families.” NYT

    Mr. Inhofe in his great wisdom is concerned about how it affects consumers, small businesses, farmers and American families. Now just maybe he and a few others who the last time I checked get a free lunch and the favorite soup of the day is chicken soup might be concerned about the money/debt and who controls it. If anybody with half a brain think’s these people care a damn about American or Indian or Chinese families, farmers they have watched to much Fox New’s. There first thought is about the special interest they represent that so far will take us all down the drain in not such slow motion. It appears crops Worldwide in 2009 seeing effects from climate change and in say the year 2019 will it be back to normal. Families Worldwide same how are they doing these day’s? Now the special interest that Inhofe and a few others have sold there soul to the darkside how are they doing. Did anybody ad up the amount of money Wall Street will give in bonuses in 2009? You have to admit because of special interest and something called greed families Worldwide and farmers had to change there lives just a little and now the very people who played the game get billions to do what? Try the same thing over again. This time no second chance. Let’s watch the darkside and there illusion and thought control the next few months. It’s not thought control then what do we call it? Let’s see if we hear it will hurt the American people and what about the kid’s and there future.

    PUT A PICTURE OF YODA HERE

    Does that look like Inhofe or McConnell or Hatch not exactly.

    Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not any man’s greed.

    We have heard the rationales offered by the nuclear superpowers. We know who speaks for the nations. But who speaks for the human species? Who speaks for Earth?

    Would that be Inhofe or McConnell or Hatch speaking for human species for the Earth? I think not wise one’s.
    Don

  6. Anupam Paul said on October 25th, 2009 at 4:26am #

    Dear Aruna,
    Thank you very much for the informative article.This is an eye opener for us to find our position and our farmers in the third world. Scientific parlance goes on in the form of commerce of the companies.We are interested in corporate science where more money means good/big science and science is out of the reach of the common man as it is not understandable to them what the corporate and their allies consider it.
    We still believe that profits and sales of the agro inputs is tantamount to profit of the farmers in the short run.But what happens in the long run?

    We cannot remove our pre-conceived idea that was taught in our formal courses as it happened during 1500s when people believed that the Earth was at the centre of the Universe.Very few were interested to view through the telescope of Galileo lest they should know the facts against the prevailing misconception or the Church people would exonerate them. Darwin’s theory was not allowed to teach in the class.
    I think GM crop is a global conspiracy of the MNCs are to take control over the agriculture in spite of several alternatives.
    Science progresses through hurdles and refinement comes in with the passage of time..We in the modern age should encourage the different opinions and start experimenting.If not we are in the middle age.This is also true for the theory of Einstein,Newton,Darwin,Stephen Hawking and others.
    It is the motto of all national governments to reduce the cost of production and to have sustainable yield.Organic farming is the only option.
    I have seen that those (most of them) who have the back ground of agricultural science cannot shed their pre conceived ideas.I have done it and I indebted to Dr Debal Deb, my mentor and friend for that.(www.cintdis.org)
    I have doing organic farming for the last eight years in Govt farm amidst a lot of hurdles and it is the only organic farm among 270 state run farms of West Bengal.I have now 145 folk rice varieties and farmers taking great interest to grow them.In fact we have distributed 45 nos of heirloom folk rice to 130 farmers across the state.And I have seen that we need not use any chemicals for maintaining the yield and we give sustainable return from the field.This knowledge of experience is great for me and the farmers as well.
    Cheers
    Anupam Paul
    Agricultural Training Centre
    Govt Of West Bengal
    FULIA-741402
    Nadia:West Bengal
    Telefax-03473=234234
    Kolkata

  7. Don Hawkins said on October 25th, 2009 at 8:25am #

    Anupam I saved your comment to bring up again and again and again. That was very good a good one.

  8. kalidas said on October 25th, 2009 at 8:57am #

    God bless you Ned.
    Your sad little note was more poignant and real than any fancy worded political theory or trite ism.
    All I can say is good luck to you.
    I wish you well.

    Not much I know, but what have all the gifted intellectuals and leaders done for you lately?
    Yeah, me too.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain said on October 25th, 2009 at 11:16pm #

    Love of money is the root of all evil.

  10. Canada Guy said on November 3rd, 2009 at 10:20am #

    Organic farming methods offer several benefits for the environment and human health as a whole, but unfortunately, there are many misconceptions and falsehoods being spread regarding organic food and farming methods, both by proponents and detractors. Here are the facts about what organic methods can do for us and what they can’t.

    http://www.selfdestructivebastards.com/2009/11/organic-myths-and-realities.html

  11. Max Shields said on November 3rd, 2009 at 10:37am #

    Organic farming has gotten tricky as it has moved from small, biodiversified self-regulating farming, to Fed control and certification.

    Today a producer/packager working on a mega scale but using some “organic’ farming techniques is labels organic and yet the distance from farm to market/fork can be thousands of miles requiring packaging and processing for preservation.

    Just a the green revolution was not GREEN, such Orwellian spins have occured with organic.

    One can use sustainable local farming methods and never be certified as organic by the Feds. Pollan has made this incredibly apparent in his book Omivore’s Dilemma. The distinctions between local biodiversity and “organic” labels are real.

    As far as nutrients, there is some controversy, but it studies by the University of Connecticut have confirmed that nutrients acquired through natural nitrogin are significantly more than those produce fertilized by non-natural nutrients. It makes intuitive sense.

    The less packaging and preservatives required as well as the distance traveled to the table are as important as as whether a farm uses pesticides or what kind of fertilizer is used.

    Organic is holistic. Subjectively locally grown just plain tastes better. We can secure it because their is no more than two agents (and frequently only one) between the producer and consumer).

    Feeding the world, when biodiversified local farms demonstrate they can yield as much and frequently more than mon0culture farms, there is the capacity to feed the world. Of course there will always be concerns about weather and uncontrollable phenomena in any location; but Indian farmers have been successfully feeding families, villages and towns for thousands of years. They have the means to produce great biodiversity. We could learn from them and other how to feed the world. Cities surrounded by farms is a simple and effective model.

    Neoliberal trade policies have been the big cultprits.

  12. Wingnut said on November 3rd, 2009 at 1:55pm #

    Ned, please don’t hate America. See the pyramid scheme symbol on the back of the USA dollar. HATE THAT. Hate the “system” that SO MANY bought into, hook, line, and sinker… including, once upon a time, YOU. Do a Google image search for ‘pyramid of capitalist’ to see the picture made way back in 1917 or so… when capitalism’s servitude-infested cover was first blown. Your dream of a “commune”-type of farming… is far from a dead dream. Its just a SLOW dream. Competition is NOT healthy and never was. Its opposite… cooperation is the healthy one. As YOU were conned/shammed into using greenpapers and honoring titles of ownership when not a single other living creature on the entire planet uses economies, so are others bought-in and continuously fed “its normal/okay” sheeple chow from the media and water-cooler co-condoners.

    Hate and help level the system, not the role-playing people conned into USING that system. Its all about spirography… ie. What goes around, comes around, after being handed-on a thousand times. Capitalists decided to be a bill bill bill land instead of a give give give land, and what was sent around, came around. You invoiced folks, and folks invoiced you, so you invoiced harder, ad folks invoiced YOU harder, so you invoiced even MORE hide-gougy, and it came back to bite your ass. Spirography. Each petal of the spirograph flower… is a LOOP and not a point. Everything is handed-on… bills or giving. The only way to beat it, is to abolish economies and ownership… an inevitable. Did you once believe-in capitalism/economies/pyramids? Do you still?

    My apologies to folks who are tired of hearing this same theory over and over from me, here at DV. I get repetitive… but I’m never wrong. :)