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November 10, 2009

The acromonius debate over the future of food

by Claudia Parsons, Russell Blinch and Svetlana Kovalyova

At first glance, Giuseppe Oglio's farm near Milan looks like it's suffering from neglect. Weeds run rampant amid the rice fields and clover grows unchecked around his millet crop.

Oglio, a third generation farmer eschews modern farming techniques -- chemicals, fertilizers, heavy machinery -- in favor of a purely natural approach. It is not just ecological, he says, but profitable, and he believes his system can be replicated in starving regions of the globe.

Nearly 5,000 miles (8,000 km) away, in laboratories in St. Louis, Missouri, hundreds of scientists at the world's biggest seed company, Monsanto, also want to feed the world, only their tools of choice are laser beams and petri dishes.

Monsanto, a leader in agricultural biotechnology, spends about $2 million a day on scientific research that aims to improve on Mother Nature, and is positioning itself as a key player in the fight against hunger.

The Italian farmer and the U.S. multinational represent the two extremes in an increasingly acrimonious debate over the future of food.

Everybody wants to end hunger, but just how to do so is a divisive question that pits environmentalists against anti-poverty campaigners, big business against consumers and rich countries against poor.

The food fight takes place at a time when experts on both sides agree on one thing -- the number of empty bellies around the world will only grow unless there is major intervention now.

A combination of the food crisis and the global economic downturn has catapulted the number of hungry people in the world to more than 1 billion. The United Nations says world food output must grow by 70 percent over the next four decades to feed a projected extra 2.3 billion people by 2050.

International leaders are gathering in Rome next week for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's World Summit on Food Security and will hear competing arguments over how best to tackle the problem. One of the fiercest disputes will be over the relative importance of science versus social and economic reforms to empower small farmers to grow more with existing technology.


Much of Europe has moved away from an agricultural system of small farms to mass commercial farming, but Italy still retains a base of family farmers who produce everything from olives to mozzarella cheese.

Oglio is one of them. A charismatic 40-year-old, he dropped out of an agricultural school after growing disillusioned with the farming methods being taught there. Today, he lets nature run its course as he grows cereals and legumes on his small family farm in Belcreda di Gambolo, about 20 miles (30 km) southwest of Milan.

He does not use any chemical, or even natural fertilisers or pesticides. He does not weed his fields. "All you need to do is observe nature, listen to it, do what nature suggests and it will take care of everything," he said.

His fields, in a low-lying plain that has a long history of growing rice used for risotto, replicate patterns found in nature. For example, clover and millet grow together, feeding each other with necessary minerals.

Oglio said his farm is eco-sustainable. He has slashed operating costs by eliminating expensive commercial products like herbicides and by reducing the use of agricultural machinery to a minimum. Such cheap and low-maintenance farming could be adopted in Africa and other regions hit by poverty and hunger, he said.

"Natural farming will not save the world. But it can feed poor families," he said.

But it's unlikely it can do so on the scale that most experts believe is necessary. And therein lies the rub. Affluent consumers may prefer the Oglios of the world to the Monsantos, but their skittishness about high-tech agriculture is making it more difficult to grapple with the mounting crisis over the lack of food.


The last time the world faced such dire predictions of famine was before the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when countries like India and China transformed their agricultural systems to become self-sufficient in food. They did so by harnessing plant-breeding technology to raise yields on rice, wheat and other staple crops.

Through massive state investment in hybrid rice, China, the world's most populous country, raised its yields from two tonnes per hectare in the 1960s to more than 10 tonnes per hectare by 2004. Chinese scientists seek further gains -- 13.5 tonnes per hectare by 2015, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which cites China's rice program as one of the true success stories in agricultural development in a study out this week (Nov. 12) called "Millions Fed."

To be sure, the Green Revolution had its downsides -- environmental damage, to name one. In India, for example, water tables are drying up and the soil has been degraded by pesticide and fertilisers. The movement also contributed to the rise of big commercial farms at the expense of small holders, fueling resentment from its early days at what critics see as the "corporatisation" of food.

But millions of people were saved from starvation, and the movement's architect, Norman Borlaug, received the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.

With their populations soaring, however, India and China -- not to mention most of Africa -- still face challenges, especially as climate change exacerbates environmental problems that have already slowed growth in food production.

IFPRI, part of a global network of agricultural research centers, said last month lower yields due to climate change would cut "calorie availability" for the average consumer in a developing country in 2050 by 7 percent, compared with 2000.

Higher temperatures reduce crop yields while encouraging pests and plant diseases. For almost all crops, South Asia would experience the largest declines in yields. IFPRI said rice output in the region would be 14 percent lower than if there were no climate change.

"India sorely needs another Green Revolution," said Kushagra Nayan Bajaj, joint managing director of Bajaj Hinduthan, India's top sugar producer, which is importing raw sugar after a drought hit the domestic cane crop.

But a second green revolution would face a strong counterinsurgency, even in a place like India that benefited so profoundly from the first one.

"The point is that chemicals destroy the sustainability of productivity in the long run ... Yes, a second green revolution is indeed very essential -- the very need of the hour. But it should not be the same kind of green revolution that the first was," said P.C. Kesavan, a fellow at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, set up by the father of India's Green Revolution.

Economists and scientists in India are demanding a raft of policy initiatives, including allowing genetic engineering, which its proponents argue does the same job as traditional plant hybridization, only quicker and more efficiently.

India has so far allowed GM seeds only for cotton, which has boosted productivity, but suggestions of allowing such seeds for edible crops have always evoked strong protests.


It's a similar story in Mexico, where Borlaug started his pioneering research in the 1940s at the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program. Mexico issued permits last month for the first time for farmers to grow genetically modified corn.

Considered by many the cradle of corn, Mexico is home to more than 10,000 varieties, used to make the classic tortilla, a staple of the Mexican diet. Corn was first planted in Mexico as many as 9,000 years ago and the grain was adapted by Spanish conquerors in the early 1500s and eventually spread to the rest of the world.

Mexico faces the same dilemmas over GM corn as do many developing countries -- balancing consumer fears with the need to grow more food.

"We see corn as our cultural heritage, our legacy. For us it's not just a question of food, but about conserving our traditions," said Celerino Tlacotempa, who works for an organization of native Nahuatl farmers in the southern mountains of Guerrero state.

"With genetically modified seeds we will lose our varieties of colored corn. There will be no more purple corn, black corn, white corn," Tlacotempa said. "Above all, we will be condemned to buy seeds from companies like Monsanto. It's not sustainable. It's a real risk for the wellbeing of these communities."

At the same time, other Mexican farmers in the north of the country have been cultivating GM seeds smuggled over the border from the United States for some time, attracted by the crops' greater resilience to drought and pests and higher yields.

Tomas Lumpkin, director of CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center that Borlaug started in Mexico, said the country now imports about half of the corn it consumes. With climate change and other pressures, he said, it was vital to raise production using all tools available.

"It is a much more complex and difficult world than Borlaug faced, but we have much more powerful tools than he had, and we need to start testing those and deploying those," he said.

"GMOs are just another set of tools in the toolbox, but we need to be able to use those tools," Lumpkin said. "If we could deploy those varieties so that the farmer in the developing world has the same powerful seed as the farmer in Iowa, why should they be handicapped?"


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