copyright 2005, The Nature Institute
Will Biotech Feed the World?
The Broader Context
When I speak about genetic engineering and agriculture,
one of the most frequent questions is about feeding the world. How are
we going to feed a growing human population, when already many millions
of people around the globe are undernourished and suffering from hunger
and even starvation? On our planet with nearly six billion people, 840
million are undernourished. Proponents of modern industrial agriculture
believe genetically engineered crops hold the promise of a new green
revolution, a revolution that will bring higher yields and nutritionally
enhanced crops to so-called developing (third-world) countries.
Most recently, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
(FAO) issued a report describing how biotechnology can “help significantly
in meeting the food and livelihood needs of a growing population” (FAO
2004, p. vii). Since the FAO is known for its multifaceted efforts to
empower small poor farmers in the third world, this endorsement of agricultural
biotechnology, which is currently driven by a few giant multinational
companies, came as a surprise to many. It also generated a wave of opposition.
An open letter to the FAO’s director, Jacques Diouf, which was signed
by many third world farmers and civil society organizations, derides
the report as highly biased and as fodder for the biotech industry’s
PR machine (http://www.grain.org/front/?id=24).
Clearly, the place of genetic engineering in efforts to feed the world
is a hot topic and the debate is highly polarized.
In this article I’d like to place the issue of feeding
the world into a broader context to help give clearer perspectives on
a very complex topic. If we only concentrate on a technological application
and its promises and pitfalls, we lose sight of the real problems.
To dispense with some illusions at the outset, let’s
begin by looking close to home.
Hunger in the United States
According to a U.S.D.A. study, during 2004 13.5 million
American households (home to 35 million people) did not always have
an adequate supply of food (Nord et al. 2004). In 4.4 million of these
households, the situation was bad enough for the study to speak of "food
insecurity with hunger."
These are astoundingly high numbers for the largest food-producing
country on the planet. In 2003, the U.S. exported 93 million metric
tons of wheat, corn, and soybeans. Evidently, the copious amount of
food produced had very little effect on whether people went hungry.
Seventy percent of the grain harvested in the U.S. is fed to cattle,
pigs, and poultry.
In the U.S.as elsewherehunger and food insecurity are related
to a lack of money to buy food. Over half of the 13.5 million food-insecure
American households receive some form of assistance through food stamps,
free school lunches, and food pantries. Without thisalbeit inadequatesafety
net, which is funded largely by the federal government, the extent of
hunger in the United States would be much greater.
As one might expect, the most needy people are those with incomes below
the poverty line (currently set at $18,244 per year for a family of
four), households with children (especially single-parent households),
and minorities (African-Americans and Hispanics). The problem of hunger
in the United States is an extremely complex issue of poverty, discrimination,
and social and economic policies and practices.
The boom in cultivation of biotech crops in the U.S. since the late
1990s (in 2005 over 120 million acres, which made up two-thirds of the
soybean and about one-third of the corn crop) has done absolutely nothing
to address these issues. Since 1999 there has been a yearly rise in
the number of food-insecure households, and in 2004 2.5 million more
families than in 1999 did not have enough food.
Of course, those who believe biotech will feed the world never take
the U.S. as their example. They look to developing countries, where
there are manifest food shortages and a lack of adequate agricultural
infrastructure. So, it would seem, my argument about the U.S. is irrelevant.
I bring it, however, to make one point loud and clear: even if the wishful
thought that biotechnology could increase food production in developing
countries became reality, this is not the same thing as providing people
with food. There remain the underlying issues of poverty, food distribution,
and economic and social policies. This is where looking at a rich country
like the U.S., where millions of people are not adequately fed, is instructive.
It dispels the illusion that producing more food alone will feed more
The Green Revolution and Industrial Agriculture
in a Larger Context
Revolution technology allows plants to channel more photosynthate into
grain production, dramatically increasing yields if fertilizer and irrigation
are provided. But it diminishes other useful traits, such as vigorous
deep roots, sturdy stems, and ability to compete with weeds. Asking
African farmers to invest in Green Revolution technology meant asking
them to invest in fragile plants in a harsh landscape. Cereal yields
in Africa have barely increased over the past 30 years and stand at
a meager 1 ton per hectare; per capita food production is stagnant.
- (Conway and Sechler 2000, p. 1685)
This quote calls attention to the fact that the green
revolution (beginning in the late 1960s), which increased crop yields,
had its own hidden costs. Green revolution crops such as wheat and rice
were bred to have short stems and produce more grains. As the father
of the green revolution, agronomist Norman Borlaug, states, “the results
speak for themselves:” in 1965 wheat yields in India were 12.3 million
tons; in 2000 the yield was a record 73.5 million tons (Wall Street
Journal, Dec. 6, 2000). This is a remarkable increase.
But the increased yield could only be accomplished
by increasing fertilizer input and the use of irrigation. And since
you breed for high yield and lose other vital characteristics along
the way (such as the ability to compete with weeds), and at the same
time you plant in large monocultures, there’s no getting around the
increased use of pesticides (herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides).
In other words, green revolution agriculture means importing a whole
environment that makes higher yields possible.
While per capita food production in South America and
India, for example, has increased during the last three decades, the
number of hungry people has increased at an even greater rate (Rosset
and Mittal, Wall Street Journal Dec. 21, 2000 and Jan. 17, 2001).
This is one of the more grotesque “side-effects” of the green revolution.
“India is faced with an unmanageable food glut. From a food grain surplus
of 10 million tons in 1999, the stocks have multiplied to 42 million
tons. Instead of distributing the surplus among those who desperately
need it, the government either wants to find an export market or release
it in the open market” (ibid.). Green revolution crops have been planted
in connection with policies aimed at increasing food export as a way
of increasing national income. The problem is that such policies bring
little or no benefit to the poor and hungry. As a 1997 study by the
American Association for the Advancement of Science found, 78% of all
malnourished children live in countries that export food (cited in Lappé
et al. 1998).
In contrast to its recent report on food and biotechnology,
a 2002 report by FAO states that “world agricultural production can
grow in line with demand, provided that the necessary national and international
policies to promote agriculture are put in place…. Agricultural production
could probably meet expected demand over the period to 2030 even without
major advances in modern biotechnology” (Food and Agriculture Organization
of the United Nations 2002). Hunger is not caused simply by inadequate
In focusing our attention on higher yields, we not
only give undue weight to one component of a complex issue, but we also
ignore the problems that come with the higher yields themselves. These
problems become evident when we look at the green revolution’s broader
implications, which include:
crop varieties that are more environmentally sensitive,
that is, less well-adapted to local conditions;
dependence on high-energy inputs;
support of large farm operations at the cost of small,
increase in pesticide-related health problems;
greater water pollution (fertilizer and pesticide runoff).
In the first study of its kind, Jules Pretty, the director
of the Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex
in the U.K., tabulated the costs of industrial agriculture that go beyond
direct expenses such as buying seeds or machines (Pretty et al. 2000).
He was interested in the so-called externalities. As he states, “an
externality is any action that affects the welfare or opportunities
available to an individual or group without direct payment of compensation”
(Pretty 2001, p. 114). So Pretty and his research team spent a number
of years estimating the costs of negative externalities that arise from
agriculture in the United Kingdom. The total costs were over 2.3 billion
pounds per year (about 200 pounds per hectare farmed). This enormous
figure is about the same amount as the overall net farm income for the
U.K. in 1996. It is smaller than the 3 billion pounds in subsidies the
U.K. government gives to support agriculture. As Pretty states, we pay
three times for our food: we pay for it at the market, we pay for it
in our taxes that go to subsidize farming, and we pay again to clean
up the mess.
The external costs include the money needed to treat
or abate problems such as pesticides in drinking water, greenhouse gases
produced by agriculture (methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide),
bacterial disease outbreaks from agriculture, BSE (“mad cow disease”),
destruction of biodiversity, and so on.
Pretty emphasizes that the cost estimates are conservative, since
they often only include treatment of a problem and not the costs of
Pretty’s study makes numerically visible the hidden
costs of an unsustainable approach to agriculture. It is certainly naïve
to believe that this approach promises a long-term solution to feeding
Because industrial agriculture is basically a whole
package of intended practices and unintended consequences, when it is
imported into an existing agrarian culture its effects can be very destructive.
Ecologist Carl Jordan describes an example of this in the dry Sahel
region of Africa (Jordan 2002). The Marka are an ethnic group that has
cultivated rice since prehistoric times. They plant native rice and
have developed different varieties that they use at different times
and for different soils. The knowledge about rice cultivation is held
secret and “a hierarchical system prioritizes access to land, and the
rules regulating access to common property have been encoded into local
Islamic law” (p. 527). In this way the cultivation of rice is woven
into a whole ecological, historical, and social fabric. If you isolate
rice production from this fabric, the whole fabric begins to dissolve.
This has occurred in some areas of the Sahel region,
where development projects aim to increase rice production as a means
of contributing to the growth of the national market economy. In other
words, a new form of rice farming was implemented based on a Western
economic model. Local rice varieties were supplanted by an Asian rice
variety. The knowledge of its cultivation was held by “outsiders” and
no longer by the indigenous culture itself. The “unscientific” approach
of the Marka people was no longer needed. Land allocation changed to
fit the agro-economic model.
In Senegal this kind of “development” led to the degradation
of 25,000 hectares of rice farmland due to poorly constructed irrigation
systems. As Jordan summarizes, “the transition to a market economy ignores
the nature of Sahelian climate and soils and deprives traditional Marka
groups of their ability to respond flexibly in times of environmental
stress” (p. 527).
I don’t bring this example to hearken back to the “good
old days” and to flatly reject any modern approaches. The question is:
if something from the outside is brought into a culture, can it stimulate
further evolution of indigenous practices rather than destroy those
practices and replacing them with unsustainable “solutions” and all
their externalities? The central problem is that when something comes
from the outside and replaces an indigenous practice, it tends by its
very nature to spread as a kind of foreign body and ramify destructively
into the environmental, social, and economical structures and processes
of that land.
Genetic Engineering in Agriculture
Large-scale commercial farming of genetically modified
(GM) crops began in 1996. The bulk of the GM crops are soybeans, corn,
cotton, and canola that have been manipulated with foreign genes either
to be herbicide tolerant (Roundup Ready crops) or to produce an insecticide
(Bt crops). These crops are mostly grown on large industrial farms in
the U.S. and Argentina.
In this present commercialized form, genetic engineering
has been placed in the service of industrial agriculture, driven by
the investments and marketing of large biotechnology corporations. In
this respect, it is an extension of the industrial approach to agriculture
and only adds a new dimension of dependence on external factors. For
example, genetically modified (GM) seed is sold at a premium price,
with farmers paying around $15 to $20 per acre as a “technology fee.”
Farmers sign a contract in which they agree not to use the seeds produced
by the gm-crops; they buy new seeds and pay fees year after year.
The largest-selling biotech seed today is a herbicide-resistant
soybean. These plants have been manipulated to withstand spraying with
the herbicide glyphosate—which the farmer buys from the same company
that sells the seeds. So the farmers are doubly dependent on the companies.
In the eight years since their cultivation began in 1996, the amount
of glyphosate sprayed on soybean fields in the U.S. has increased by
a total of 75 million pounds (Benbrook 2003).
With the increased use of this herbicide, herbicide-tolerant
weeds have developed—an increasing number of weeds are no longer affected
by the herbicide (see: http://www.weedscience.org/in.asp.)
GM soybean farmers can only hope that biotech companies have a new line
of herbicides and herbicide-resistant crops in development to cope (temporarily)
with the new generation of weeds their previous practices unintentionally
brought forth. This is clearly not a sustainable practice.
One might expect that at least the soybeans would produce
greater yields, but this is, at least to date, not the case. In the
U.S. herbicide-resistant soybeans have on average produced five to ten
percent fewer bushels per acre since 1996 (Benbrook 2002) and lower
yields have also been found in Canada (Bohner 2003). This “yield drag”
is probably due to a number of factors and may be due more to the increased
use of glyphosate as an herbicide than to the transgenic plants themselves.
Glyphosate may be dampening the plant’s ability to fix nitrogen (Benbrook
2002) or reducing its ability to utilize manganese, which is an essential
see there: ASA Leader Letter
A 2002 study by U.S. Department of Agriculture economists
found that U.S. farmers rapidly adopted herbicide resistant soybeans—“even
though we could not find positive financial impacts in either field-level
nor the whole-farm analysis” (Fernandez-Cornejo and McBride 2002, p.
24). Agricultural economist Michael Duffy reached similar conclusions
in a study comparing the yields and costs of GM crops compared to conventional
crops in Iowa (Duffy 2001). So the most widely used GM-crop is not necessarily
benefiting—in a narrow economic sense—the farmers who are using it.
It may be that the desire to have a spotless, weed-free field and the
ease of applying only one herbicide outweigh the lack of economic gain.
We should not underestimate, in addition, the pull of “progress”—farmers
are strongly invested in the industrial model of agriculture and biotech
crops are viewed as the newest tool for advancement.
The example of GM soybeans illustrates how the dominant
present-day application of genetic engineering in agriculture is essentially
industry-driven. It has nothing to do with feeding the world and everything
to do with company profits.
Genetic Engineering Isolation and
Just because GM agriculture today is largely industrial
in scale, doesn’t mean it has to be so. This is what proponents of GM
crops for the third world often point out. As Ismail Serageldin of the
World Bank states, “Biotechnology can contribute to future food security
if it benefits small-farm agriculture” (1999). In its 2004 report, the
UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization gives some examples of how small
farmers have profited from growing insecticide producing GM-cotton as
a cash crop.
One can imagine GM crops that
are, for example, drought-resistant or tolerant to salt-buildup in the
soil. Drought and salt-buildup are major factors limiting cultivation
in arid regions of Africa, where there is widespread hunger. In a somewhat
different vein, there are the “nutritionally-enhanced” GM crops: “golden”
rice that contains beta-carotene, iron-enriched rice, and so on. Here
the GM plant would make up for what is otherwise missing in the diet.
Such crops are being developed and the research is
funded at least in part with grants from governments and foundations
such as the Rockefeller Foundation. Yet even where GM technology is
in this way driven by altruist goals, the question remains: can we overcome
the limitations inherent in the technology due to the way it was developed
in the first place? I have discussed this question in detail in connection
with the example of “golden rice” and will not repeat that discussion
here (see Holdrege and Talbott 2000).
Genetic engineering is a method of isolating DNA from
different kinds of sources (viruses, bacteria, plants, animals, and
humans), combining DNA from these different sources to make a “gene
construct,” and then introducing the construct into a living organism
in the hope that it will transform the organism in a specific way. The
successful incorporation of the gene construct into an organism rarely
occurs. To genetically transform a soybean or corn plant, you must shoot
DNA-coated projectiles into embryonic tissue of hundreds or thousands
of plants. Only a few are altered in the desired way, which means that
the trait is heritable and the plant has not suffered marked “side-effects”
due to the manipulation itself. How and where the gene construct is
incorporated into the plant’s genome and whether multiple copies or
fragmented copies are taken up is only discovered, if at all, after
the fact (Makarevitch et al. 2003).
For example, four years after Monsanto’s herbicide
resistant “Roundup Ready” soybeans had been on the market, Monsanto
scientists discovered that the plants contained additional partial copies
of the foreign gene construct. This was a total surprise. I was once
admonished by a virologist who does genetic manipulations, “Craig, don’t
call it genetic engineering; it’s genetic tinkering.” One is affecting
a whole complex system, has limited control of what happens in the organism,
and only bits and pieces of understanding of the processes.
Once a few successfully transformed plants have been
found, scientists then use traditional breeding techniques to produce
a viable farm breed. The whole process from beginning to end is very
expensive. North Carolina State University scientists estimated the
costs of developing a transgenic variety of corn to be $1,300,000, while
traditional breeding of a new variety costs $52,000 (reported in Cox
2001). In addition, GM plants are weighed down with many patents: Beta-carotene
enriched “golden” rice has “as many as 16 important patents and 72 potential
intellectual property barriers” (Beachy 2003). Even if we imagine GM
seeds being given away by the scientists who produced them, the high
production costs and the intellectual property rights would remain present
as external factors.
Genetic manipulation aims to introduce clearly defined
alterations into plants. But genetic studies over the past decades and
the results of genetic manipulation experiments show vividly that genes
do not act in isolation. A gene construct may be physically located
in one specific place in a chromosome, but physiologically it is part
of a dynamic and changing system. In other words, it becomes part of
the ecology of the organism and, as in any ecosystem, every change in
the part has effects within the whole, just as changes in the whole
affect the part. So when we add a gene construct to an organism, we
can expect multiple effects. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Different lines (genetic varieties) of genetically
engineered potatoes were created that break down the sugar sucrose in
different ways. This entails a small genetic change that is associated
with the production of a specific enzyme in each of the transgenic lines.
The scientists wanted to know if additional changes were being effected,
so they carried out a so-called metabolic profile. They investigated
the amounts of 88 different substances (starch, different sugars, different
amino acids, etc.) being produced in the tubers. Surprisingly, there
was not just a change in amount of the substances in the specific breakdown
pathway affected by the genetic manipulation, but in most of the 88
substances. The transgenic lines differed from each other and from the
non-manipulated potatoes. For example, the transgenic potatoes often
produced more amino acids than the non-manipulated potatoes, and nine
substances were found in the transgenic potatoes that could not be detected
in the non-manipulated potatoes (Roessner et al. 2001).
Scientists carry out much basic genetic research with the small weed Arabidopsis
which is a member of the mustard family. Plants were genetically transformed
to be resistant to the herbicide chlorosulforon. Surprisingly, the plants
produced 34% fewer seeds and half of the plants were not as physiologically
and environmentally robust as their non-GM relatives. In other words,
the genetic manipulation affected much more than herbicide resistance,
altering the vitality of the plant (Purrington and Bergelson 1999).
There are many
examples of how the internal ecology of a plant is changed in unforeseen
ways by genetic manipulation (Cellini et al. 2004). Genetic engineering is born of the mindset that
seeks to find powerful, single-target solutions to problems. It is the
same mindset that aims to increase yields in plants via fertilizers,
attending to the success of that application while ignoring as far as
possible the changes this practice has on the whole system. As we have
seen, by making fertilizer-enhanced yields the focus of your attention,
the unintended consequences become externalities that affect the ecosystem
(water pollution, diminishing soil fertility, and so on). After more
than fifty years, we can no longer overlook the unintended effects of
industrial agriculture on the farm, landscape, and society.
But what about
genetic engineering? Even if we paint a best-case scenario and imagine
GM techniques stripped of profit-driven agendas and the bond to industrial
agriculture, a problematic core remains. The intention to effect discrete,
single-target changes in an organism lies at the heart of genetic engineering.
And this approach is an inherently unecological way of dealing with
life. It is this frame of mind, assuming one-directional cause-and-effect
mechanisms, that flows via the technology into the organism. We’re boldly
changing organisms but have next to no knowledge of how we are affecting
the internal ecology of the whole organism. One thing, however, we can
know for sure: we are, in more and less subtle ways, affecting that
ecology, and the organism will carry the effects with it wherever it
is not one to be addressed with some new “solution,” some new tweak
in the existing approach. The task is to stop thinking about the world
in terms of single causes and single-shot solutions. As philosopher
David Keller and plant breeder Charles Brummer summarize the task, “agricultural
science and practice must become context-sensitive and holistic in methodology”
(Keller and Brummer 2002). Inasmuch as genetic engineering has arisen
out of a mechanistic, single-target way of thinking, it will have to
change radically before it can become part of an overall approach that
is inherently ecological—if indeed this is possible.
more sustainable farming seeks to make the best use of nature’s goods
and services whilst not damaging the environment. It does this by integrating
nature and regenerative processes, such as nutrient cycling, nitrogen
fixation, soil regeneration and natural enemies of pests, into food
production processes. It also minimizes the use of non-renewable inputs
(pesticides and fertilizers) that damage the environment or harm the
health of farmers and consumers. It makes better use of the knowledge
and skills of farmers, so improving their self-reliance. And it seeks
to make productive use of … people’s capacities to work together to
solve common management problems, such as pest, watershed, irrigation,
forest and credit management.
agriculture technologies and practices must be locally-adapted. They
emerge from new … relations of trust embodied in new social organizations…,
leadership, ingenuity, management skills and knowledge, capacity to
experiment and … [innovation] in the face of uncertainty.
(Pretty and Hine 2001, pp. 37-38)
lucidly describes the intentions of a sustainable approach to farming.
Jules Pretty and Rachel Hine studied 208 projects in 52 countries in
Africa, Asia, and Latin America that were using some form of sustainable
agriculture practices. The study encompassed 8.98 million farmers working
28.92 million hectares (71.4 million acres) of land. Most of the farmers
had small farms, with a typical household farming about 1.5 hectares
(3.7 acres) of land.
96 of the projects
had reliable information on food production, which could be compared
with yields before sustainable practices were implemented. Small cereal
farmers (rice, millet, sorghum, etc.) saw a rise in production from
2.33 to 4.04 metric tons per household per year. Small root crop (potato,
sweet potato, and cassava) farmers saw their production more than doubled
(from 11.02 to 27.5 tons per household per year). These are remarkable
figures and show that relatively small changes in farming practices—such
as using integrated pest management or improving soil fertility through
composts—can lead to a rise in productivity.
As Pretty and
Hine point out, “each type of improvement, by itself, can make a positive
contribution. But, the real dividend is likely to come with appropriate
combinations” (p. 48). What’s important is that by orchestrating the
whole system, from soil fertility to credit financing, synergistic effects
arise that make the whole more productive and stable. Here are a few
Rice-Fish Farming in China: In a three-year project in the Jiangsu Province in China, rice farmers were
supported in their efforts to transition from rice monocultures to rice-fish
farming (Kangmin 1998). Growing fish in flooded rice paddies is an old
practice that nearly died out in Southeast Asia. This was at least in
part due to the increased used of short-stemmed, high-yielding “green
revolution” rice varieties and the concomitant increase in the use of
pesticides and fertilizers. In these fields there is too little water
and too much poison for fish to thrive.
Li Kangmin, a scientist who assisted the farmers, describes
the benefits of rice-fish farming:
A rice field is a small artificial open ecosystem. The
interaction between rice and fish has been called "waste not, want
not," which indicates Chinese philosophy: The by-products or waste
from one resource use must, wherever possible, become input into another
resource use-an ecological principle. Culturing aquatic animals in rice
fields can reduce the loss of nutrients in fields. Fish and other animals
will help control pests and will loosen the soil as a result of their
swimming and food searching activities, thus, aerating the soil, enhancing
the decomposition of organic matter and promoting the release of nutrients
from the soil. The excreta of aquatic animals directly fertilize the
water in rice fields. (Kangmin 1998, p. 10)
During the three-year project, rice-fish farming was developed on 69,000
hectares (170,000 acres) of land. By the end of the three-year period
the profit per hectare had increased 2.86 times compared to the previous
rice monocultures. Not only did farmers have fish to consume and sell
at local markets, but rice yields also grew by 10 to 15 percent. A welcome
benefit of the new practice was that the incidence of malaria dropped,
since the fish were also feeding on mosquitos and their larvae.
This example illustrates that when we work with more complexity, interactions
and "unintended consequences" arise that tend to have positive
overall effects. In contrast, when we strive to decrease complexity-as
in a monoculture where soil fertility practices are replaced with fertilizers-we
create a system that tends to create more one-sided negative unintended
effects such as pollution and disease susceptibility.
Integrated Pest Management in Africa: Where the main trend of today's
biotech agriculture is to isolate the farm from its environment, thereby
reducing the operation to the simplistic terms of a few manageable variables,
integrated pest management (IPM) at its best tries to work with the
environment, penetrating the boundless complexity with an understanding
that can turn intricate equilibria to good use.
It's one thing to take the heavy-handed biotech approach and engineer
a pesticide into every cell of a crop; it's quite another to manage
the ecological interrelationships of the farm so that the offending
insect is controlled by natural balances. Tragically, the more simple-minded,
single-target approach tends to destroy the possibilities inherent in
the more subtle practice. Among other problems, converting an entire
crop into a pesticide (as is the case with genetically engineered Bt
crops) virtually guarantees the emergence of pest resistance, which
IPM has taken such pains to avoid.
Working with natural complexity rather than against it is the aim of
a remarkable research organization in Kenya, the International Centre
of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE). The Centre brings together
molecular biologists, entomologists, behavioral scientists, and farmers
in an interdisciplinary effort to control the various threats to African
The most important pests of corn and sorghum on that continent are
the stemborer and striga (witchweed), which, together, can easily destroy
an entire crop. ICIPE researchers developed a "push-pull"
system: a grass planted outside the cornfield attracts the stemborer;
a legume planted within the cornfield repels the insect and also suppresses
witchweed by a factor of forty compared to a corn monocrop-all while
adding nitrogen to the soil and preventing erosion; and, finally, an
introduced parasite radically reduces the stemborer population (ICIPE,
ICIPE director Hans Herren won the World Food Prize in 1995 after the
Centre gained control over the mealy bug that threatened the cassava
crop, a staple for 300 million people. (A small, parasitic wasp was
instrumental in the success.) No chemical applications and no costs
to the farmers were involved. Yet Herren doubts he could obtain funding
for such a project now. "Today," he says, "all funds
go into biotechnology and genetic engineering." Biological pest
control "is not as spectacular, not as sexy" (quoted in Koechlin
Farmers' Self-Help Groups in Kenya: Pretty and Hine (2001) describe
a project in Kenya called the Association for Better Land Husbandry
that aids poor farmers in forming self-help groups to develop sustainable
farming practices. Most of the work has focused on home gardens, where
farmers learn to use compost and manure and plant a more diverse array
of fruits and vegetables. Family food security has increased and there
is significantly less hunger. Children were among the main beneficiaries.
Since these families supplied more of their own food, they needed less
cash to buy food. This had been a major reason why, previously, they
had sold their labor, often having to leave home for periods of time.
So not only has food production increased, but also the health and stability
of families and communities.
All three examples show clearly that sustainable agriculture is much
more than a set of new techniques. It provides the basis for a rejuvenation
of land-based communities and greater food production and security.
As Michael Stocking, an expert in tropical agricultural development,
writes, "Interventions that use community-based approaches that
empower farmers to manage their own situation therefore hold the greatest
promise for maintaining soil quality and ensuring food security"
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