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The potential of organic and biotechnology cropping methods to feed the world

(Nov. 28, 2001 -- CropChoice guest column) -- E. Ann Clark, professor of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph in Ontario, presented the following speech at the annual meeting of the American Society of Agronomy in Charlotte, North Carolina on Oct. 24, 2001.

"The Potential of Organic and Biotechnology Cropping Technologies to Feed the World"

Four premises guide GM agricultural research.

1. What is good for industry is good for society and for the environment which sustains us.

The GM interventions that have been commercialized to date are arguably doing quite the opposite, by prolonging dysfunctional production systems. Whether it be creating herbicide tolerant (HT) crops to control weeds made intractable by simple crop rotations, or engineering enviro-pigs to facilitate livestock production in large-scale confinement units, GM technology masks fundamental system problems, analogous to putting a Band-Aid on skin cancer.

The logic that underlies GM to date is just as linear as that which has guided the evolution of conventional agriculture in general. Weeds (or insects, or mastitis, or shipping fever etc.) are the problem, and anything that kills the weeds (or cures the mastitis or shipping fever) solves the problem. End of story. Causality is irrelevant.

A more holistic view would ask why spring-vigorous weeds have become so intractable as to make HT an attractive alternative? The simple corn-soybean rotation which is so common in southern Ontario and the Midwest is an example of a dysfunctional production system, in that it opens wide niches for weeds to proliferate (two warm-season, often wide-row crops delay both planting and attainment of full cover, leaving a wide niche in space and time) which then obliges purchase of more weed control agents, separating farmers from yet another fraction of their farmgate receipts.

An holistic approach would seek to narrow the niche by modifying the system, introducing for example cool-season, narrow-row winter and spring cereals into the rotation. This is "problem avoidance by design", which also relieves producer dependence on purchased control measures. In contrast, HT crops are an example of "problem solving after-the-fact". Not coincidentally, HT crops also sustain and enhance producer dependence on purchased weed controls because they do nothing to reduce weed pressure for the next year, or the next.

2. The best - and increasingly, the only - way to direct agriculture in the future is through proprietary technologies.

Proprietary inputs are bankrupting farmers. The ‘matching funds' mentality of government funding sources means that only research with a proprietary beneficiary can even compete for what little government funding is left for agricultural research. As a result, institutional researchers have placed farmers in a box with only two options - chemicals or biotech. Designing production systems that avoid rather than solve problems, which prevent rather than put out fires, is unfundable, as the outcome is available to all - not just to a single sponsor.

Canadian farmers now retain less than 10 percent of their farmgate receipts, with more than 70 percent going to input suppliers and the balance to the bank. What is wrong with this picture? Who are we serving? Who are our clients?

Someone once said ‘Agricultural researchers must be the only class of professionals who judge their success by how many of their own clients they can drive out of business.' The precipitous decline in farm populations cannot be denied. Does the vacuum created by their departure better serve society? Who among us can disavow a contributing role?

3. High-tech, resource-intensive agriculture, such as GM, is the only paradigm capable of feeding the world.

GM crops have not lived up to their billing. Although many billions have been spent in shifting departments, divisions, and faculties from production agriculture to biotechnology, most of it has been allocated to ‘how to do it', not ‘what happens when it does' or better yet, ‘why do it at all'? As a result, apart from pieces put out by industry-funded lobby groups, evidence is scanty to non-existent to support the promised higher yields, reduced pesticide use, greater on-farm profit, cheaper food, or fewer starving people. Indeed, exhaustive, authoritative analyses such as those by Chuck Benbrook have demonstrated conclusively that in the case of RR soybeans, for example, yields are less, not more, and herbicide active ingredient per hectare is more, not less, than in conventionally bred soybeans.

The viability of non-GM alternatives to feed the world has already been demonstrated, as reported by Jules Pretty and colleagues of the University of Essex in Reducing Food Poverty with Sustainable Agriculture: a Summary of New Evidence (Feb 2001). They summarized 208 separate studies, results of which have now been adopted by almost 9 million Third World farmers on 29 million hectares of land - or 3 percent of all the arable and permanent crop land in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Using a range of sustainable agriculture technologies - none of which involved GM - farmers have achieved yield increases of 50-100 percent for rainfed agriculture, and 5-10 percent under irrigation.

Claims that failure to pursue GM technology would condemn the world to starvation (or blindness, or whatever) are without foundation. Alternative, non-proprietary, locally adapted technologies have already been shown to work, although continued work along these lines will necessarily have to advance without us. The ongoing makeover of many university and government departments means that many institutions no longer have the horses to contribute substantively to anything but GM-based visions of the future.

4. People don't know what is good for them, but industry does.

Since when should consumers and our trading partners be forced to eat GM products, just because we want to grow them?