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Will Biotech Feed the World?
The Broader Context

Craig Holdrege

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 ( 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 elsewhere — hunger 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 this — albeit inadequate — safety 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 people.

The Green Revolution and Industrial Agriculture in a Larger Context

Green 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 yields.

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, low-input farming;
  • export-oriented production;
  • increase in pesticide-related health problems;
  • greater water pollution (fertilizer and pesticide runoff).

Hidden Costs

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 its eradication.

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 the world.

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 Today

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: 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 micronutrient (, see there: ASA Leader Letter 10/19/03).

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 the Whole

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 grows.

This problem 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.

Ecological Farming

A 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.

Sustainable 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)

This quote 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.

Ninety-six 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 examples.

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 crops.

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, undated).

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 2000).

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” (Stocking 2003).


Feeding the world is not just a question of increasing yields. When we believe it is, we divert our attention from the much broader social, political, economic, and ecological issues influencing food production and hunger. If we continue to live under the illusion that we will find a technological solution to world hunger, and if we set our hopes on such solutions and channel our money and energy into their development, we can be pretty sure that world hunger will only grow.

What’s needed is a shift in our way of viewing that can inspire and inform a different kind of practice. The shift means no longer thinking of the world’s problems in terms of individual causes that can be manipulated or alleviated by single-target solutions. In the mode of thought that leads to industrial agriculture and genetic engineering we isolate “causes” out of a whole ecology and try to affect changes by manipulating these causes.

An ecological view takes a different approach. The focus is not on individual causes but on orchestrating the whole system. The whole is embodied in its interactions and in the synergies that arise out of these interactions. We attend to the reciprocal relations within the context of the whole rather than isolating linear pathways and manipulating them as though the rest of the system didn’t exist.

In this way of viewing, there could be nothing more absurd — even if, on the short view, it produces lots of food — than, say, a factory farm housing thousands of pigs. The animals suffer under the narrowly confined conditions, unable to carry out many of their natural behaviors such as rooting. The concentration of animals fosters health problems, leading to the widespread use of antibiotics. The pigs produce enormous amounts of feces and urine that are considered waste. “Stored” in lagoons, the fumes from this waste are a health hazard for people in neighboring towns, and the sewage pollutes ground and drinking water. Since huge amounts of corn-based feed are required, the corn, perhaps genetically modified, is grown in some other part of the country, and is fertilized with chemical fertilizers that also pollute streams and groundwater. It’s hard to imagine a more unecological, unsustainable system. This is not a way to feed the hungry; it’s a way to destroy the planet.

There is no fixed model for sustainable approaches. Since they are ecologically oriented, they must be adapted to local conditions and those local conditions include the culture and people who live there. There can be no one grand “feed the world” plan. Ecological approaches to agriculture will take on different forms and different dimensions in different places; the many examples described in the Pretty and Hine study show this. As in other aspects of life, we learn through examples, which we modify to meet our situation, and then develop further.

What will be essential is that these kinds of approaches find the necessary economic and political support — that they at least be given the room to be tested and developed. When government farm subsidies are tied to acreage and commodity crops, as is the case in the U.S., they directly support industrial agriculture at the cost of ecological farming. Much hinders the further, widespread development of an ecologically based agriculture. But there is no reason to doubt that true food security and the ecological health of the planet will depend on its taking root around the globe.

* The long-term sustainability of pesticide-producing GM cotton is highly questionable: bollworms have become resistant to some pesticides and although they can now be killed by the new pesticide-producing cotton, it is a matter of time until resistance to the GM plants arises. There may also be other ecological and agronomic negative effects of these new plants, as some evidence in China suggests (Dayuan 2002).

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