Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The mad farmer and the World Food Prize

The World Food Prize, also known as the 'Nobel Prize' for Food, was given to its 2013 recipients on October 18.  This year's winners were Mary-Dell Chilton, founder and researcher at Syngenta Biotechnology, Robert Fraley, chief technology officer at Monsanto, and Marc Van Mantagu, founder and chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach at Ghent University in Belgium.  All of these institutions have been involved in developing genetically modified crops.

The World Food Prize Foundation described the accomplishments of this year's winners this way:
Building upon the scientific discovery of the Double Helix structure of DNA by Watson and Crick in the 1950s, Van Montagu, Chilton, and Fraley each conducted groundbreaking molecular research on how a plant bacterium could be adapted as a tool to insert genes from another organism into plant cells, which could produce new genetic lines with highly favorable traits. 
The revolutionary biotechnology discoveries of these three individuals —each working in separate facilities on two continents—unlocked the key to plant cell transformation using recombinant DNA. Their work led to the development of a host of genetically enhanced crops, which, by 2012, were grown on more than 170 million hectares around the globe by 17.3 million farmers, over 90 percent of whom were small resource-poor farmers in developing countries. 
The combined achievements of the 2013 World Food Prize Laureates, from their work in the laboratory to applying biotechnology innovations in farmers’ fields, have contributed significantly to increasing the quantity and availability of food, and can play a critical role as we face the global challenges of the 21st century of producing more food, in a sustainable way, while confronting an increasingly volatile climate.
Biotech won big this year.

The World Food Prize Foundation was founded by Norman Borlaug, who himself received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work fighting hunger around the world, by using biotechnology of the time to increase agricultural productivity.  Called the father of the Green Revolution, Borlaug led efforts to improve agriculture in non-industrialized countries in the 1940's, 50's and 60's with higher yield grains, hybridized seeds, increased use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and improved irrigation techniques among other biotechnological innovations.  Borlaug is credited with saving a billion lives through his efforts.

Land area used for genetically modified crops by country (1996–2009), in millions of hectares. In 2011, the land area used was 160 million hectares, or 1.6 million square kilometers; Wikipedia

Food production did increase in countries that adopted Green Revolution techniques, particularly India, but, as agricultural journalist and economist Alan Guebert reminds us, there's a difference between productivity and efficiency.  He reports on his recent trip through the farmlands of California in his  Oct 20 Farm and Food File column.
If demographic California now looks like what experts say America will resemble in a generation or two—multi-cultural, multi-lingual, more crowded—then California’s agriculture may soon be America’s farming past.

The reason becomes clearer with every mile you travel in this beautiful, incredibly productive valley: It’s very hard to see any future to any food system that devours so many intensively concentrated resources—water, fuel, artificial fertilizer, chemicals—so America can eat strawberries in February. 
A few days later, a young environmental engineer in Berkeley disagrees when I offer that thesis. “California’s agriculture is too efficient to ever change,” he says.
Now I disagree. You’re confusing efficiency with production, I say. California is highly productive, no argument. But it is inefficient and without water it’s neither. 
This just about sums up the criticism many have of the Green Revolution; productive by not efficient.  Yes, productivity rose but at great cost -- the required energy input to produce food in this highly mechanized, biotech, fossil fuel-reliant way increased rapidly, and the crop output/energy input ratio has decreased over time.  Farmers around the world have become dependent on inputs -- fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, many developed from fossil fuels, and hybrid genetically modified seeds -- which can be prohibitively expensive, and ultimately unsustainable.

The work of this year's Food Prize winners is entirely in keeping with Borlaug's view of how to feed the world.  Indeed, he knew the three of them, and hoped that their efforts would one day be recognized with this prize.  Genetically modified foods remain controversial, of course, but the winners hope that the prize will help quell the opposition.  Chilton was quoted in a USA Today story, saying, "My hope is this will put to rest the misguided opposition" to the crops...  She called genetically modified organisms a "wonderful tool" in the fight against hunger.

But, despite what protesters so often say, genetically modified foods per se are not the problem.  It's the technologies that are required to produce them that are the problem, which are neither efficient nor sustainable, nor progress toward longterm food security.  Much of agribusiness depends on monocropping, which, as we wrote last week (here and here), can be less productive than rotating crops, and the cause of more soil erosion, and increased dependence on toxic chemicals and fossil fuels.  And, the grains produced are annuals rather than perennials which, because they are patented, means that farmers must buy seed every year, and become dependent on suppliers and their herbicides and pesticides, and on conventional agricultural practices.
The three nested systems of sustainability; the economy wholly contained by society, wholly contained by the biophysical environment: Wikipedia
Ecological economists, like Herman Daly or Josh Farley (co-authors of "Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications") or Rob Dietz (co-author of "Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources") would say that the problem is even more fundamental than dependence on biotechnology.  The problem extends to how we think about economies and ecosystems in general.  As Richard Heinberg says in his 2011 book "The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality", 18th and 19th century economic philosophers, like Malthus, for example, considered land (or natural resources), labor and capital to be the three essentials of the economy. In this equation, because natural resources are finite, growth must necessarily come to an end at some point.

Then Adam Smith came along, and with him, the idea that the economy could continue to grow and grow.  Heinberg says this is because of the "gradual deletion by economists of land from the theoretical primary ingredients of the economy (increasingly, only labor and capital really mattered, land having been demoted to a subcategory of capital)."  Ecological economics, however, returns to the view that natural capital is finite and in light of this, argues in favor of steady-state no-growth, or even degrowth economics, rather than the pervailing model, the growth economy.

In this view of the world, it could be said that this year's World Food Prize rewards the right people doing the wrong things.  Biotechnology harms the environment, leads to food insecurity, creates the farmer's and thus the consumer's dependence on industries that must attend first to their bottom line, and perpetuates economic practices based on the idea that natural resources are unlimited.  We know this, and we know what should be done instead.  Will it happen?

We end with a poem by farmer and poet of the land, Wendell Berry. 

The Mad Farmer Revolution

Being a Fragment
of the Natural History of New Eden,
in Homage
To Mr. Ed McClanahan, One of the Locals

The mad farmer, the thirsty one,
went dry. When he had time
he threw a visionary high
lonesome on the holy communion wine.
"It is an awesome event
when an earthen man has drunk
his fill of the blood of a god,"
people said, and got out of his way.
He plowed the churchyard, the
minister's wife, three graveyards
and a golf course. In a parking lot
he planted a forest of little pines.
He sanctified the groves,
dancing at night in the oak shades
with goddesses. He led
a field of corn to creep up
and tassel like an Indian tribe
on the courthouse lawn. Pumpkins
ran out to the ends of their vines
to follow him. Ripe plums
and peaches reached into his pockets.
Flowers sprang up in his tracks
everywhere he stepped. And then
his planter's eye fell on
that parson's fair fine lady
again. "O holy plowman," cried she,
"I am all grown up in weeds.
Pray, bring me back into good tilth."
He tilled her carefully
and laid her by, and she
did bring forth others of her kind,
and others, and some more.
They sowed and reaped till all
the countryside was filled
with farmers and their brides sowing
and reaping. When they died
they became two spirits of the woods.

On their graves were written
these words without sound:
"Here lies Saint Plowman.
Here lies Saint Fertile Ground."

                       Wendell Berry

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