On April 29, the European Union voted to largely ban the use of neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide, for two years beginning in December 2013. The ban had 15 member state supporters, including France, Germany, and Poland; eight opponents, including the United Kingdom; and four abstaining votes.
Neonicotinoids are a possible cause of the rapid decline in bee populations worldwide. (Photo credit: University of California)
The ban restricts the use of three pesticides—imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam—on flowering crops, which honeybees depend on for pollen and hive health. Environmental groups, beekeepers, scientists, and the public hailed the ban as a victory for the precautionary principle, which urges caution and careful scientific study in circumstances where the effects of a chemical or action on the environment are not sufficiently clear.
Neonicotinoids are thought to be particularly harmful for insects because the chemical is applied directly to a plant’s seed instead of its leaves or flowers. This makes the pesticide present in the plant’s pollen. Neonicotinoids are also persistent chemicals, meaning that they do not degrade within weeks or months, but rather remain in the nerve systems of insects, causing systemic and lasting damage.
In the United States, a coalition of beekeeping companies and environmental groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency in March over its approval of neonicotinoids for domestic use. The groups cited a lack of scientific understanding of the pesticides’ effect on bees and other insects, and drew a possible connection between the chemicals and the ongoing collapse of honeybee hives across the country and worldwide.
This bee population crisis, known as colony collapse disorder, emerged in 2005, and scientists have not yet identified a clear cause. Numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies have both confirmed and denied a link between neonicotinoids and beehive collapse. Scientists agree that viruses, mites, drought, and loss of native habitat could also be contributing to the collapse.
Despite the growing worldwide demand for organic food, clothing, and other products, the area of land certified as organic still makes up just 0.9 percent of global agricultural land. In 2010, the latest year for which data are available, 37 million hectares of land were organically farmed—an area that has grown more than threefold since 1999.
Certified organic farmland still represents just .9 percent of all agricultural land. (Photo credit: Andrew Hyde)
There is large regional variation in the area of land farmed organically. Oceania, which includes Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific Island nations, leads the world in certified organic land, with 12.1 million hectares in 2010. In contrast, North America had 2.6 million hectares of organic land, and Africa had just over 1 million hectares.
Reliable data are lacking for land that is farmed using organic principles but that is not certified organic. Many farmers, particularly subsistence farmers or those selling to local markets, farm organically but do not acquire organic certification. Certified organic products have created a niche market in recent decades, allowing farmers to earn premium prices over conventional products, particularly when selling to supermarkets or restaurants.
The countries with the most certified organic producers in 2010 were India (400,551 farmers), Uganda (188,625), and Mexico (128,826), while the region that added the most organic farmland between 2009 and 2010 was Europe. Overall, the amount of organically farmed land worldwide dropped slightly, by 0.1 percent, between 2009 and 2010—due largely to a decrease in organic land in India and China.
Citywatch: Whether it’s action or traction in the food world, cities are stepping up to the plate. The world is fast going urban, as are challenges of social, economic and environmental well being. Citywatch is crucial to Worldwatch. Wayne Roberts, retired manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council, has his eye out for the future of food in the city. Click here to read more from Wayne.
Stanford recently released a controversial study comparing organic and conventionally produced foods (Photo Credit: Susan Troccolo)
The international media had a field day headlining a Stanford university study dissing the nutritional benefits of organic food. I hope it’s not too late for me to ask a few questions that might steer the debate in a more useful direction.
I would like the media to explain why a study that was not based on either original research or professional expertise was considered so significant.
The paper, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is strictly a “meta-analysis,” combining some of the findings of some 200 other scientists’ publications over the years. It is the ninth such paper to come out in a decade, and the fourth to turn thumbs down on organic claims to significant superiority in the nutritional realm – not exactly trail-blazing stuff. Nor, considering the ability of writers to cherry pick various findings from different individual studies, does a meta-analysis inherently prove much more than ability to cherry pick. That’s why new hard research, rather than summaries of old research, is usually the stuff of news stories.
I would also like to ask why no-one checked the qualifications of this 12-person team, which was granted immediate credibility, despite the absence of a professional nutritionist, agrologist or bio-medical specialist. One is a librarian, a few are graduate students, several are medical doctors who specialize in such fields as infectious disease, bio-terrorism, diagnosis or HIV, one is a mathematician, one an administrator, one a research assistant.
The heavy-hitter on the team is Igram Olkin, an 88 year-old retired professor of statistics. Stanford University media releases cite his renown as a specialist in meta-analysis, without mentioning that his name is batted around as a paid witness on statistics for the tobacco industry. Given that the Stanford team’s use of statistics is subjected to withering criticism by organic advocate and academic Charles Benbrook, it’s odd no mainstream reporter checked to see if where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
It’s also a bit odd that no-one asked what an article on nutritional merits of organic foods was doing in a medical journal, given that doctors have minimal training, credentials or interest in this field – although maybe I’ve just answered my own question.
One of the first things I learned when researching for my first serious food book some 15 years ago was that the relation between organic and nutrition does not compute.
Nutritional levels vary according to a host of factors. One big one is the quality of soil long before anyone farmed it organically or conventionally (no history of volcanoes in New York means no rich volcanic ash in the soil, for example). Another factor that has little to do with organic or conventional is when the crop was picked (tomatoes get most of their vitamin C as they turn red, not when they’re hard and green, which is when they get picked by machines).
The list of crucial questions and variables keeps growing: how long was the produce in a truck or store, under what conditions was the food stored, how was the food prepared (some vitamins are destroyed by heat, some nutrients only become available when heated).
It’s quite likely that healthier and stronger plants grow on organically-managed soils, without any help from synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. But that’s no guarantee that the plants bulked up on more nutrients. Organic or not, plants work to meet their own survival needs, not ours, and the optimum level of vitamin B needed by a particular plant may or may not work best for humans. That’s why people choose particular plants if they’re looking for high doses of particular nutrients.
Put the whole mix together, and a study based on analysis of a conventional ruby red tomato, lightly cooked immediately after picking, will probably show more nutrients than an organic tomato picked green from an industrial organic farm a week ago, hauled across the continent on a truck, and left to sit at a salad bar, for example. These are the kinds of things that affect nutrient levels, and anyone who knows more about nutrition than editors of a conventional medical journal would hear alarms ringing in their ears if writers started making a big case about nutrient differences with or without organic.
This is why nutrition expert Marion Nestle started her blog item on the controversy by saying “sigh,” as in “have I not explained this a hundred times already?” Organic advocates rarely make a nutritional claim, she points out. So the Stanford article is knocking down a straw man.
With dairy and meat, new evidence suggests that a key issue is how animals are treated. Still- controversial studies suggest that grass-fed animals have more nutritious milk and meat than animals fed corn and soy – no matter whether organic or conventional. That’s only logical, given that most animals evolved to eat grass rather than corn or soy, which are good for bulking up fast, but not necessarily so good for complex nutrients.
Organic scores well, even in the Stanford study, in terms of pesticide residue, which is as important to personal health as nutrients. Almost no-one is suffering from scurvy, rickets or wasting in North America or Europe, where the Stanford study got a lot of media, but breast, prostate, colon and bladder cancers have affected almost every family. A strong case can be made that toxic residues from pesticides, brought into the body by food, are implicated in these cancers. So this isn’t exactly a minor selling point for organics.
On the question of toxins, however, I’m also intrigued that there are any—not 30 per cent less, but any—pesticide residues on organic. That can only mean that the toxins from conventional fields migrated by air, rain or water table to organic fields, and who knows where else.
Why didn’t that set off media alarm bells? It means that people who pay extra for organic are still getting toxic residues that rightfully belong to the people who produced and bought conventional food.
This is an issue worthy of a meta-analysis. Are organic consumers dupes, taking the toxic bullet for people who saved money thanks to pesticides. Is it fair that some farmers get to cut their production costs by spreading toxins throughout the environment?
Since the Stanford team is asking whether organic costs more when it doesn’t deliver more nutrients, why doesn’t the team also ask the flip side of the question—whether conventional gets to charge less because the toxic load is passed on to everyone?
That question gets to the penultimate tricky question of agricultural prices. Why do some get to offload costs to the environment for free, while those who contribute to a safer environment get no fee compensating them for their extra work on behalf of the public good? If an environmental fee was paid to the farmer producing the environmental service, then all farmers would compete on an even playing field, and no academics would ever have to ask whether organic delivers more value for the money.
Why doesn’t the Stanford team, or any of the media following their study, ask that? There I go again, answering my own question.
Wayne Roberts is on the board of Unitarian Service Committee of Canada-Seeds of Survival, which funds “cials” in Honduras, and he toured Honduras as one of their delegation.
To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.
New data shows that GM crops do not reduce the quantity of pesticides needed for crop production (Photo Credit: Petr Kratochvil)
The scientific community and GMWatch have since raised concerns over the use of GM crops as a possible danger to health and the environment. New data from a study carried out by Dr. Charles Benbrook shows that GM crops do not reduce the quantity of pesticides used in their production over time, and crops now considered herbicide-tolerant include corn (Bt corn varieties), soy, and cotton (Bt cotton varities).
Benbrook analyzed pesticide use on GM and non-GM equivalent crops over 16 years (1996-2011), with findings showing that herbicide-tolerant crops have increased pesticide use by 239 million kg over this time period. For example, increased herbicide use on GM herbicide-tolerant cotton was 0.4 kg per acre more than its non-GM counterpart. Similarly, herbicide use on GM soy was 0.3 kg per acre more than non-GM soy.
Pests can be, well, a pest. They infest crops and reduce yields, reducing overall agricultural production and food security. To deal with pests, such as mealybugs or spider mites, most farmers use chemical pesticides which can impact health, pollute water supplies through runoff, and, if pesticides are misused or overused, can actually kill plants. Finding new methods to get rid of pests without requiring chemical inputs has increasingly become a priority for many farmers.
Implementing these methods can save crops from destructive pests without the need for harmful pesticides. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
Today, Nourishing the Planet introduces five crop management methods that control pests without using chemical pesticides.
1. Crop rotation: Crop rotation involves alternating the species of crop that a farmer grows on his or her land each year. Rotating crops helps prevent pests from getting used to the type of plant that is being cultivated. Planting different species of crops each growing season also promotes soil fertility. Planting legumes, a plant that helps fertilize crops through nitrogen fixing bacteria that it has on its roots, and then planting crops that require high levels of nitrogen helps make sure that soil is healthy each growing season. And healthy soil helps protect against pests because an imbalance in plant nutrition increases a harvest’s vulnerability to pests, according to Mans Lanting of ETC Foundation, a non- profit that focuses on linking agricultural sustainability to social development.
Drip-irrigation systems, like this one in Niger, use significantly less water than conventional sprinklers. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
The report finds that the Green Revolution practices of the last century have had harmful effects on the environment, leading directly to land degradation, loss of biodiversity, and climate change. But supporting small-scale farmers, according to the report, can encourage the use of local innovations and experience, and mitigate the consequences of conventional agriculture. “Evidence has shown that, for most crops, the optimal farm is small in scale and it is at this level that most gains in terms of both sustainable productivity increases and rural poverty reduction can be achieved.”
According to the report “global food production needs to increase by 70 to 100 percent from current levels by 2050,” but this increase does not need to come from a doubling of the acres of farmland currently under production. Instead, investments in transportation and storage could reduce the amount of food that is wasted. A reduction in post-harvest losses—the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates a 50 percent loss of crops globally—could ease pressure on farmland already under production by maximizing the utility of their current yield.
Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of worldwide water use. Any significant increase in conventional agriculture could exacerbate looming water shortages because conventional irrigation systems are usually inefficient —up to 40 percent of water pumped never reaches crops. By employing drip irrigation and other watering techniques, such as a buried clay pot system that stores water and treadle pumps, farmers can improve agricultural yields while decreasing water consumption.
Women are growing cotton and getting extra income, which they’re using for things like sending their kids to school or buying bicycles for transportation—things they couldn’t do without the extra income. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
Victoria’s Secret is interested in organic cotton, grown by women farmers working with Helvetas—a Swiss NGO– in rural communities outside of Ougagoudou. Monsanto, on the other hand, is focused on growing Bt cotton—cotton that has been genetically engineered with a bacterial protein that is supposed to deter insects, as well as reduce the need for expensive pesticides, according to the company.
Burkina is the leading cotton producer in Western Africa, but annual yields have decreased the last few years, along with prices, leaving many farmers destitute.
In order to help reverse this trend, in 2004, Helvetas started working with 50 farmers, training them about organic methods of production. “It’s easy to start with cotton to introduce the concept of organic,” says Pierluigi Agnelli, Director of Helvetas Burkina Faso. But, he adds, many farmers didn’t believe they could grow cotton without pesticides and they had to be convinced. Helvetas worked with them, showing them how to compost and use natural pesticides and “over time,” says Agnelli, “they saw it worked.”
Helvetas helped the farmers form a cooperative of organic producers and started expanding their trainings into other communities. Today they work with roughly 7,000 farmers, nearly half of them women. Women don’t traditionally grow cotton because of the toxicity of the pesticides, says Agnelli. But now, in addition to tending kitchen gardens, women are also growing cotton and getting extra income, which they’re using for things like sending their kids to school or buying bicycles for transportation—things they couldn’t do without the extra income.
“For us,” says Agnelli, “it’s important to promote organic because farmers are interested in it.” And so is Victoria’s Secret. In 2007 the National Union of Burkinabe Cotton Producers (UNPCB) signed an agreement with Victoria’s Secret to purchase 600 MT of organic cotton. The company continues to source most of the organic cotton it sells in the United States from Burkina Faso for their collection of organic panties.
Some farmers and farmers’ groups, question the safety of growing Bt crops and whether Monsanto is more concerned with its’ own profit, rather than helping farmers. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
Monsanto says it’s concerned with increasing cotton yields, while also increasing farmer income. The multinational agribusiness partnered with the Burkinabe government and local researchers to start producing Bt cotton seed in the country in 2008. Burkina Faso is one of only two countries in Africa growing genetically engineered cotton. Monsanto’s research in the country shows that their Bt cotton yields 30 percent more than conventional varieties and needs fewer treatments with pesticides.
But some farmers and farmers’ groups, question the safety of growing Bt crops and whether Monsanto is more concerned with its’ own profit, rather than helping farmers. According to a Reuters article quoting Zourata Lompo, director of Burkina Faso’s National Biosecurity Agency (ANB), “It’s a co-ownership scheme. The gene belongs to Monsanto, but all the scientific work to select and evaluate performance and toxicity has been done by Burkinabe scientists on Burkinabe varieties.” Royalties from the sale of Bt seed are split, with farmers getting roughly 70 percent of the profit, while Monsanto gets the remaining 30 percent. Burkina is the only nation in Western Africa with a working framework for producing and selling Bt crops. The Bt cotton varieties currently being used were extensively tested by the country’s national research institute for four years.
You are closely involved with the international negotiations to govern genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Can you tell us the current status of those talks?
Phil Bereano has been an active and outspoken proponent of democratic social ethics in technology for decades. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
We have the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, now with 160 member countries—which doesn’t include the U.S., Canada, or Australia, the major producers of GMOs, because they don’t like the fact that we were able to get language about international regulation of this technology into the Protocol. Member countries are having their fifth Meeting of the Parties (MOP5) in Nagoya, Japan, in October. Biosafety legislation has been passed in various countries, which is helping developing countries build capacity to deal with the oversight and regulation of this technology. But, if it is weak, it may be providing an entrance for GE [genetically engineered] crops.
As one example, I’ve been working over the past six years as an NGO delegate to Protocol meetings, trying to craft an international regime of legal liability for damages caused by GMOs. Hundreds of incidents of damage have already occurred and been documented. There should be a finished liability regime presented for consideration at the Protocol meeting this Fall.
I’ve also been involved in a UN Agency called the Codex Alimentarius, a collaboration of the UN’s World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, which deals with international food laws and regulations. There’s been a 15-year struggle to get international guidelines for GE food labeling, which has been rigorously opposed by the U.S. and some of its allies. I’ll be in attendance at a working group meeting in Brussels in November that will try to resolve some of the issues in the current document, and there will be an annual meeting of the Codex Labeling Committee in May in Quebec City. There’s a decent chance that the negotiations will be resolved by the meeting in May, and some final international guidelines on labeling GE foods will be able to be adopted.
Since the U.S. is the largest producer of GMOs, do you think these decisions will affect domestic trends?
I don’t know how long the U.S. can stay isolated from these world trends. It’s encouraging that in two or three legal cases recently, U.S. courts have required the government and the industry to do actual environmental impact assessments of GE crops, and other court decisions have imposed monetary damages for GE contamination of fields of conventional crops. But there’s no independent regulatory oversight in the U.S. whatsoever; the agencies merely accept the industry’s conclusions that there are no problems with the GE crop variety.
The Codex Alimentarius unanimously—including the U.S. and Canada delegations—adopted a set of principles for doing risk assessments for GE foods. The problem is that they’re just guidelines, and no country has to adopt them, so we don’t know whether they are having an impact. Codex no longer asks governments to inform it of adoptions, since countries never did so when the organization had such a rule. Certainly the U.S. has not adopted assessment procedures such as those urged by the Codex.
How does the UN’s Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety address the potential risks associated with GMOs?
This treaty provides for countries to impose a requirement of “advanced informed agreement (AIA)” before receiving imports of GMOs, and it outlines general principles and methodology for doing a risk assessment on them for the country to decide whether or not to agree. Every sovereign country has the right to control what crosses its borders. But we need the Protocol because countries that have joined the World Trade Organization have given up the right to control imports in certain circumstances. The Protocol says despite that, it’s okay for governments to have some regulation without it being deemed a “barrier to trade.”
The WTO is not an organ of the UN. How WTO rules and regulations, the UN’s Codex, and the Cartagena Protocol mesh with each other is not clear. The only linkage between them is that in 1995, the WTO decided that the rules of a few specifically named international agencies would be reference points for trade disputes, and one of them was the Codex. So in theory, the Codex guidelines on risk assessments for GE foods or on their labeling would protect countries against being “sued” in the dispute mechanisms of the WTO. The problem is that the Codex only covers foods, and a lot of GMOs are not foods, like cotton. So that’s why we need the Cartagena Protocol, legally speaking. Also, weaker countries need something that they can refer to when they’re under pressure from Monsanto, U.S. trade representatives, U.S. ambassadors, and others to accept GMOs. Wealthy developed countries such as Switzerland and Norway have these rules in place, and perhaps don’t really need the Protocol as much. But most countries in the world are not as powerful, and they do need the strength of numbers provided by the Protocol.
How effective has the Protocol been?
The Cartagena Protocol is an unprecedented treaty on a new technology. It’s one of the first international environmental treaties and is an outcome of the signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. What you have is a treaty that falls within the environmental ministry in most countries. The problem is that sometimes the other ministries in a government don’t see eye-to-eye—the trade ministry might be pushing to adopt GMOs, or the Agricultural Minister might have learned all about GE while studying at a land grant university in the U.S. and has accepted what she or he was told there, that GE is a great idea. So it’s very hard to predict what’s going to come out. It’s dependent on a lot of political factors that may have nothing to do with the substance of the matter. Civil society around the world is mobilizing around these issues—the only way toward a democratic and equitable future.
Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.
Philip Bereano is Professor Emeritus in the field of Technology and Public Policy at the University of Washington in Seattle. He has been an active and outspoken proponent of democratic social ethics in technology for decades. He is on the roster of experts for the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, a participant in the UN’s Codex Alimentarius processes, and co-founder of the Council for Responsible Genetics, the Washington Biotechnology Action Council, and the 49th Parallel Biotechnology Consortium.
Why does a technology like genetic engineering (GE) need an active and outspoken proponent of ethics like yourself?
Philip Bereano is Professor Emeritus in the field of Technology and Public Policy at the University of Washington in Seattle. (Photo credit: Phil Bereano)
I deal with social ethics: issues of equity, justice, fairness, and democracy. Frankly, GE fails when measured against most of these values. GE, like all high-techs, is inherently anti-democratic. Computers, for example, can be democratic in their usage because anybody can buy into it in a consumer society. But they’re not democratic in terms of development, which is under the control of a very small number of people. Similarly, GE is under the control of small numbers of highly educated people and incredibly wealthy organizations.
While most people believe that GE is too complicated for them to understand, the ethical and social issues that come up in a democratic society have little to do with the technical stuff; the basis of these issues can be easily understood. However, the technological elite hasn’t felt any obligation to present materials in a way that invites public participation, and regulatory agencies have often been opposed to transparency or are captives of the industries they are supposedly overseeing—this is certainly true of the FDA, USDA/APHIS, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, EPA.
What ethical issues are associated with GE in agriculture?
GE has been presented in a way that attempts to gain public acceptance for it, but none of the GE technologies have, in any sustained fashion, increased food production or decreased world hunger. However, they’ve certainly increased funding for the biotechnology scientists and the profits for the Monsantos of the world.
“Golden Rice”—with enhanced levels of vitamin A—while touted by GE proponents as an example of GE benefits, has not reduced blindness at all in the Third World and, in fact, is highly unlikely to do so because of the huge quantities of Golden Rice a kid would have to eat. And he or she still may not be getting a balanced diet with the other nutrients needed to make use of the vitamin A.
There’s a major ethical issue in the very simplistic reductionist model this technology is based on. The central dogma of GE is this image of the genome as a Lego set, where you can take out the green one and put in a red one. In reality, however, the genome is highly fluid and the parts interact. The Lego model is quite wrong, yet it’s used constantly in public discourse, regulatory submissions, and legislative testimony. Biologists know how the genome actually works, but advancement in the profession rules out of play such subjects of discourse because they would challenge the positions taken by industry funders. Scientists who wish to break that boundary, either by scientific experimentation or by public writings, have largely been isolated and marginalized by the wealthy and the powerful within the academic-industrial complex—for example the experiences of Dr. Arpad Pusztai, Dr. Ignacio Chapela, and Dr. Terje Traavik [Editor’s Note: These are leading international scientists who were criticized by biotechnology companies and other scientists for raising health and environmental concerns about genetically modified crops.] I think these examples indicate a profound set of ethical issues surrounding the professional functioning of geneticists and academic and industry biologists.
You have argued that this technology poses risks to the world’s smallholder farmers. Why?
It was quite unprecedented when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the patentability of microbial gene products. The Patent Office ran away with the decision and allowed the patentability of plants and mammals as well. The creation of intellectual property monopolies in agricultural germplasm by large transnational corporations certainly presents a set of ethical issues, and works to the disadvantage of smallholder farms and sustainable agriculture. “Sustainability” doesn’t just mean profitability forever. Sustainability has qualitative dimensions, like justice and distributional considerations—otherwise, a totalitarian society could be called sustainable! So we are having this tremendous transfer of knowledge, power, and control from smallholder farmers to multinational corporations.
Back to the example of Golden Rice. Vandana Shiva found that in one village in India, there were 350 plants growing nearby that had been routinely eaten and that provided vitamin A or its precursors. Under industrial agricultural models, however, these were defined as “weeds,” and farmers were encouraged to plow them under and plant cotton instead. Locals no longer have access to the foods that used to provide them with vitamin A, and blindness increased. Instead of understanding that agro-ecological approaches could minimize blindness by preserving access to indigenous diets, Golden Rice has been offered as a “high-tech miracle” way to overcome this situation; the high-tech mindset tries to solve problems brought on largely by technologies through the application of more technologies of higher complexity.
Suddenly, we have a system of consolidation where one dominant multinational corporation, Monsanto, is seeking to obtain majority control of the world’s agricultural plant germplasm, rather than sustaining the resilient, decentralized system for germplasm protection and utilization in rural and indigenous communities that has fed us well for millennia.
In your opinion, what sorts of agricultural innovations should major donors be funding to eradicate hunger and improve food security in both developing and developed countries?
Donors should be funding agro-ecological approaches. The Gates Foundation’s grants are usually quite large: over $100,000 [Grand Challenges in Global Health Program award size]. This is too much for small village cooperatives in Africa that could utilize $5,000 really well. I know people who teach at agricultural schools in Tanzania or work with ag cooperatives in Kenya, and they can’t get adequate funding. Big donors are undermining huge numbers of local initiatives to increase food security and protect biodiversity when they exclude small-scale projects in favor of industrial ones that actually have consequences counter to such goals.
How does the promotion of GMO crops affect global food security and public health in developing countries?
The World Bank and UN agencies did a major study called the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The report concluded that high-tech approaches aren’t likely to answer the food needs of the future. Other, lower-cost, approaches—in particular what’s becoming known as “agro-ecological” approaches—are far more promising. The reason is simple: Third World farmers can’t afford an industrial-ag approach to farming—family farms in the U.S. often can’t! This is why the first Green Revolution didn’t reduce world hunger. There is more than enough food being produced in the world today to adequately feed every man, woman, and child and have leftovers. People go hungry because they can’t afford food, not because we can’t produce enough. And this will be true for decades in the future.
Our AGRA Watch group put out a press release recently criticizing the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for its investments in Monsanto. The high-tech approach is not the right way to move toward food security and sustainability, but it is the approach the Gates Foundation is favoring. The Foundation has indicated that it thinks there are too many small farmersin Africa, and knows that its policies will lead to many farmers having to leave their land—euphemistically referred to as “land mobility.”
But people have been leaving the land in Africa and around the world for a long time. What’s different today?
Well, this is what happened during the first Green Revolution. The larger farmers can afford the mechanization, and the smaller ones get wiped out. Cities are growing exponentially in developing countries, and becoming ungovernable hotbeds of unemployment and crime. Nairobi doesn’t need more people coming in from the countryside looking for jobs. This poses a threat to public health, while the monoculture of the farms is a threat to food security.
Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.
In the past, a one-size fits all approach to agricultural production has crippled attempts to encourage long-term sustainability. Many approaches have emphasized chemical and other high-tech and expensive inputs, in favor of short-term gains. Our attention has been focused on a narrow range of crops, while only a few technologies, including synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, get funding. But many less well known—and less well funded— approaches, such as those that consider regional and ecosystem-specific nuances, have the potential to reduce negative impacts of agriculture and increase production over the long-term.
Many less well known—and less well funded— approaches have the potential to reduce negative impacts of agriculture and increase production over the long-term. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
The National Research Council’s Committee on Twenty-first Century Systems Agriculture has published a new report, Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century, which examines different approaches in “sustainable agriculture.” The report highlights strengths and weaknesses of these approaches for improving agricultural sustainability and reducing the costs and unintended consequences of agricultural production. It also evaluates how some of these approaches could improve the sustainability of small-scale agricultural systems in less developed countries.
Innovations outlined in the report which are gaining notoriety through scientific evidence include:
Soil management- Conservation tillage and cover cropping help maintain soil integrity.
Crop and vegetation diversity management- Crop rotation, intercropping, cultivar mixtures, and management of non-crop vegetation improve biodiversity and reduce the risk of crop loss.
Water-use management – Irrigation alternatives, water reuse, and small dams cut costs and environmental impact.
Water quality management – Wetlands and buffers reduce the negative impacts of agricultural runoff.
Nutrient management – Legumes, animal manure, and compost can improve soil quality and crop performance.
Some of these practices are already well-established on small-scale farms and in various parts of the developing world. In Durban, South Africa, for example, Enaleni Farmuses alternating intercropping of plants for pest control and animal manure and composting for fertilizer (seeFor Pest Control, Following Nature’s Lead). In the Mokolodi Wildlife Preserve in Botswana, farmers are using the principles of permaculture — by growing indigenous vegetables, recycling water for irrigation, and using organic fertilizers — to raise food while simultaneously restoring the natural surroundings for animal conservation (seeIn Botswana, Cultivating an Interest in Agriculture and Conservation). In many cases, these approaches require farmers to have an enhanced knowledge of local ecosystems, watersheds, and crop species.
Stay tuned for more about some of the innovations outlined in the NRC report.
Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.