by Miriam Garvi
The green revolution led to large-scale, resource-intensive, heavily subsidized industrial farming crowding out small-scale farming in most parts of the world, making it increasingly difficult for people anywhere on the globe to make a decent living from farming the land. A revolution that augmented yields of a selected handful of crops up to a certain point, whilst boosting sales of pesticides and fertilizers for agrochemical companies, the environmental and human costs of which are gradually coming to light. Now a biotech revolution for agriculture and food is taking its place, where scientists make customized plants and corporations tailor species characteristics to fit their business interests. Whilst pesticide plants may be falling out of grace with the environmentally aware, the promotion of GMO species is tuned towards the “feeding the planet” debate, with new seed products pushed onto the markets of developing countries under the label “feeding the poor”. What is to be left untouched?
Golden Rice and BioCassava Plus are examples of new seed products promoted to replace subsistence crops of developing countries. Sorts of supra-nutritional strands for those corners of the world where malnutrition remains a real issue (unlike more affluent parts of the world where we suffer the causes of over-nutrition). What’s the big deal, you may wonder? Well, it is manifold. Firstly, better solutions are out there, found in nature, and viably implemented. The rich diversity of existent genetically pristine species that can naturally grow in challenging environments and produce all the nutrients that are needed for people even in arid areas to have well-balanced and healthy diets is impressive, as shown for instance by decades of work and research by the Eden Foundation in Niger, West Africa. But to know more about this, one needs to be asking the right questions, questions that seek to understand how we can work with nature, rather than change nature to suit our dominant purpose. And of course there would be little money in it for big corporations, which might help explain why the Gates Foundation is actively supporting the opposite solution that leave Third World farmers at the mercy of “benefactors” rather than providing them with the means to sustain themselves independently. If we really wanted to think progressively about farming, then we would be looking into such options as perennial farming - which merits have long been known, but fail to gain wider support as it is a less lucrative business option for those controlling the resources upon which farmers are increasingly dependent. And we would be researching and debating the functional trade-offs of promoted products such as golden rice in terms of how gearing the plant to produce vitamin A hampers its production of other elements such as vitamin E, chlorophyll and giberellic acid that have important natural functions.
Research offers unique opportunities to better understand the function and purpose of various mechanisms in nature found at macro and micro levels. This fascinates me, but also instills a combined sense of awe and responsibility: marveling at the intricate beauty, at the combination of simplicity and complexity that I fail to see in anything man-made, whilst knowing that unless we learn to take care of this rich canvas of resources it will slip through our fingers, and we will be left with poor imitations of our own creation. For me, the choice is simple. I love the beauty of the uniquely diverse. I want people all over the world to have the means to support themselves. I want them to be able to lead dignified lives that are fulfilling to them and have constructive rather than destructive implications for other people, the nature on our planet and the generations who will inherit this earth after us. I wish some of these goals would move into the agendas of powerful corporations and foundations, though I have no illusions that they ever will. What I do know, however, is that there are more people out there who as myself find meaning in dedicating ourselves to causes that can provide good fulfillment for people, in a way that builds on and enhances purposes found in nature.
Viable and constructive alternatives matter. They offer people a real choice. And that definitely makes the effort worthwhile.