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September 14, 2008

High-tech, input-heavy agriculture is not the panacea for Africa

by Tom Philpott

People involved in the sustainable food movement have been debating the best ways to promote "local adaptation" with regard to food and agriculture. The point is to shift away from a paradigm of relying on a fossil fuel-powered agriculture system to feed people living far away from the actual farms where the food is grown.

On the other side of this conversation are powerful interests who, under the guise of the imperative to provide food and nutrition to the world's poor, want to consolidate the grip of industrial agriculture over the global food system. Echoing Margaret Thatcher's old chestnut about corporate-led globalization as the only possible economic system, they declare that "there is no alternative" to handing control of food production over to Cargill, Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, and a few other companies.

In a recent article in Time, Bryan Walsh concluded that "Organic farming yields less per acre than standard farming, which means a worldwide Slow Food initiative might lead to turning more forests into farmland." Right.

And now former British chief scientist Sir David King has been using his bully pulpit to thunder against organics and in favor of GMOs, going so far as to accuse sustainable-ag advocates of helping "keep Africa poor."

These are knotty issues, and I've dealt with them before. Time's Walsh is essentially refrying an old Economist attack on sustainable agriculture, which I rebutted.

Walsh actually interviewed me for his recent piece; my perspective landed on the cutting-room floor. I essentially told Walsh that a) industrial agriculture has never proven it can feed the world; you've got millions of hungry people even in places where it's most established, like the U.S. and Brazil; b) industrial ag has never proven it can actually nourish folks; everywhere it is embraced, diet-related maladies surge; c) industrial ag will be hard-pressed to sustain itself much longer -- it's too dependent on finite resources like petroleum, natural gas, and mined fertilizers, as well as chemical pesticides, antibiotics, and concentrations of waste; plus it generates more than a sixth of global greenhouse gas; and d) decades of government policies propping up industrial ag will make it extremely difficult to switch over to new, region-based, locally adapted, low-input systems -- systems that could indeed feed the world.

As for Sir David King's tired calumnies, I've written about the so-called Green Revolution in Africa that he's championing as well. Sir David behaves as though "Western environmentalists" have somehow blocked petrochemicals, hybrid seeds, and irrigation projects -- the so-called "Green Revolution" package -- from establishing in Africa. That's wrong; these things established themselves Africa in the '60s and '70s, just as they were taking root in Asia. But in Africa, they largely failed -- they simply weren't adapted to local growing conditions.

Unabashed, Sir David insists that a second Green Revolution -- this one involving genetically modified seeds -- is the answer to Africa's food woes. Can he name a single genetically modified seed strain relevant to Africa that has actually raised yields?

Second, before he blusters about agro-tech as the only answer for Africa, he should look over the ocean to the example of India -- the first Green Revolution's greatest success. India has also embraced genetically modified seeds.

In the span of just two generations, industrial-scale farming has drawn down the water table to perilous levels across large swaths of India. Meanwhile, farmers on the GMO/agrichemical treadmill have been gripped by a sustained wave of suicides, attributed in large part to the severe financial strain from debt incurred from buying pricey inputs.

No doubt, Africa faces a tragic food crisis. But Sir David disgraces himself by presenting high-tech, input-heavy ag as a panacea. In truth, the "traditional" ag techniques that he treats so contemptuously have been systematically under attack for more than a generation, as the IMF and World Bank have pushed national governments to dismantle farmer-support programs.


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