Cornucopia Blues | The Nation


Cornucopia Blues

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The globalization issue is further complicated by the charged debate over genetically modified crops. GM, or transgenic, crops are anathema to many in the good-food movement, who argue that they are a threat to biodiversity and may not be safe for human consumption, and note that the promise of significantly higher yields from GM seeds has by and large not materialized. The biodiversity issue, in particular, is troubling. The makers of GM seeds patent their products, thereby forcing farmers who would normally husband seeds from one crop for the next to buy expensive GM seeds each year. Given this level of corporate control, and the fact that so few crops are grown commercially (about 150, as opposed to the 7,000 or so that figure prominently in the diets of poor people around the world), there is legitimate concern that if the use of GM crops continues to expand, the biodiversity necessary to sustain subsistence agriculture in the developing world will be lost, turning farmers there into the serfs of giant seed companies.

About the Author

Brent Cunningham
Brent Cunningham is the managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.

In some ways, the revolutionaries have an easy target. Monsanto and the other GM seed makers have billed their crops as part of an effort to stamp out world hunger. "Produce More. Conserve More. Improve Farmers' Lives," reads the motto on Monsanto's website. But this credo is disingenuous, since Monsanto has thus far failed to invest seriously in research for the kinds of seeds (such as millet, sorghum and groundnut) and seed traits (tolerance of salt, drought, acidity) that would serve the needs of populations in those parts of the world where chronic hunger and famine persist. Instead, Monsanto and other agribusiness giants have preferred to focus their research and development on big commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans, and on the production of crops for ethanol. Given this, it is easy to wonder whether solving world hunger is as important to Monsanto as it claims.

Yet Monsanto's corporate motives shouldn't discredit the need for a discussion about the potential of GM crops. There are enough unresolved questions about transgenic seeds--concerning both their performance to date and their potential--that to rule them out as part of a global solution to hunger would be shortsighted. For instance, world population is currently 6.5 billion, and it is expected to rise to more than 9 billion by midcentury. In many of the world's most vulnerable societies, people are living longer and the fertility rate continues to rise. Even the most extreme GM opponent must concede that if the current food system leaves some 1 billion people suffering from hunger and malnutrition--the largest number since the 1970s--then the question of how those additional millions of people will be fed in the future is a difficult one.

Another difficult issue is the likelihood of farmers being forced to adapt to a range of new and extreme environmental conditions stemming from climate change. A recent study by the Program on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University and the Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust, for example, suggests that over the next forty years farmers in Africa will need seeds that can grow in temperatures "hotter than any year in historical experience." In light of this, it's crucial that the development of transgenic seeds capable of growing in very acidic soils, or in drought conditions, or on a diet of saltwater, be pursued, even if the business rules governing it (and the ways the technology and intellectual property are made available to farmers) need to be radically reconceived in order to ensure that GM seed development is more sensitive to the commonweal than to the price of a company's common stock.

The revolutionaries would say that the effects of climate change, and hence at least part of the rationale for GM seeds, could be dramatically reduced if industrial agriculture and the sea of oil that lubricates it were replaced by organic farming. Fair enough. But the case against organic farming, traditionally, has been that it simply can't produce enough food to feed the world without a dramatic expansion of the acreage devoted to agriculture. A recent study by University of Michigan ecologists suggests that this may not be true, that average yields from organic farming are much more commensurate with the yields of conventional agriculture than critics claim. "Our models...suggest not only that organic agriculture, properly intensified, could produce much of the world's food, but also that developing countries could increase their food security with organic agriculture." But the authors of the study also offer a significant caveat that, given the political realities in Washington, puts a sobering spin on the hopeful message of their study: broad conversion from industrial to organic will be difficult--"agronomically, economically, and educationally"--and will require "a committed public."

Even without that caveat, though, how do we square this good news about the potential for organic farming to feed the world with the emerging picture of some sectors of organic farming as a deeply compromised enterprise? In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan introduces us to Gene Kahn, the founder of Cascadian Farm, which began as a communal hippie farm in 1971 and today is part of the General Mills empire--and Kahn is now a General Mills vice president. In Pollan's book, Kahn is something of a poster child for the co-optation of the organic movement by the very industrial food chain it set out to replace. In order to profit from economies of scale, Kahn went from growing his own produce to buying it from other farmers and from an alternative distribution system to a commercial one. As Pollan puts it, Kahn is unapologetic about "the compromises made along his path from organic farmer to agribusinessman" and about how, as Kahn says, "everything eventually morphs into the way the world is." Whether you think Kahn is a realist or a sellout, the lesson he offers Pollan about his efforts to reform industrial agriculture is hardly irrelevant to the renewed effort to change that system today: "We tried hard to build a cooperative community and a local food system, but at the end of the day it wasn't successful. This is just lunch for most people. Just lunch. We can call it sacred, we can talk about communion, but it's just lunch."

Debates in the United States and Europe over the ethics of GM crops could very well be overtaken by events. In the past five years, the amount of land in the developing world planted with GM seeds has tripled, and worldwide it has doubled. China is poised to commercialize GM rice. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, together with the Rockefeller Foundation, is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into African agriculture--not just GM crops but soil improvement, market access and irrigation (precisely the kind of private-sector development that structural adjustment presumes). The plan, according to Peter Pringle, author of Food, Inc.: Mendel to Monsanto--The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest (2003), includes public-private partnerships to help scientists in Africa develop their own new seeds using royalty-free biotech material and intellectual property. As Pringle puts it, "In the end, the debate over biotechnology in agriculture may well be settled...ot by the arguments of advocates and critics but by the practical effects of the range of useful products available to humanity. In the meantime, it's easy to take a position pro- or anti-Bill Gates, as long as you don't have to address the problem of the world's food supply."

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