The fight over the future of food
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, fertilisers, heavy machinery—in favour 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 8 000km 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 US 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 one billion.
The United Nations says world food output must grow by 70% 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 UN 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.
‘Listen to nature’
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 30km south-west 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.
Learning from the past
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 programme as one of the true success stories in agricultural development in a study out this week 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 centres, 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%, 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% 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 PC Kesavan, a fellow at the MS 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 hybridisation, 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.
Cradle of corn
It’s a similar story in Mexico, where Borlaug started his pioneering research in the 1940s at the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Programme. 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 organisation 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 Centre 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?”
Rich consumers resist GM
Monsanto launched the world’s first genetically modified crop in 1996 and GM crops are now grown in countries ranging from Australia to South Africa, the Philippines and Brazil.
Up to 85% of the massive US corn crop is genetically engineered, as well as up 91% of soybeans and 88% of cotton, according to US data.
As ingrained as GM crops may seem, a backlash against the technology appears to be growing.
Opposition to genetic modification of seeds has long been strongest in Europe. The European Union severely restricts use of GM seeds on its territory, as well as imports of products containing GM-derived food. Individual countries including Germany ban even GM seeds that are authorised, such as an insect-resistant maize type, MON 810, developed by Monsanto.
Now consumer resistance to what British tabloids long ago dubbed “Frankenfood” is taking root in the United States too.
With North America’s industrial farming system, consumers who buy packaged goods from grocery stores are probably eating GM products without even knowing it, according to environmental group the Centre for Food Safety. The group, which was involved in a successful court battle to stop introduction of Monsanto’s genetically engineered alfalfa seed, also contends that up to 70% of soda, soup, crackers and other processed goods sold under major household brands are GM derived.
“There really is no human health analysis of GM crops,” said William Freese, science policy analyst for the center. “It’s a real result of the policy that our government has put in place, which is basically a presumption of innocence.”
A banner issue for US anti-GM crusaders is genetically engineered growth hormones for dairy cows, known as rBGH. Introduced in the United States in 1994, rBGH is a drug to extend milk production after a cow gives birth. It was developed by Monsanto but recently sold to Eli Lilly.
Health Care Without Harm, a global coalition of hospitals and other health groups, believes the drug is dangerous because it increases the likelihood of infection in the cow’s udder, which leads to greater antibiotic use in the animals. That contributes to antibiotic-resistance in humans, they argue.
Other critics say it may be linked to cancer in humans, despite US Food and Drug Administration approvals.
Proponents have won over a string of big names to reject the drug, including the big yoghurt makers Yoplait and Dannon, and have also lobbied coffee chain Starbucks to oppose rBGH.
A Starbucks spokesperson said the firm’s entire core dairy supply comes from suppliers that do not use the hormone.
“Our core products, coffee and tea, are not genetically modified,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We have no plans to purchase coffee or tea that is derived from GM sources, now or in the future.”
The industry notes that GM research is supported by a number of august groups, including the Royal Society of Britain and the US National Academy of Sciences.
For those seeking to end global hunger, rather than just satisfy rich consumers’ craving for cappuccino, Africa presents the greatest challenges.
Monsanto, together with corporate rivals, is working with poor countries and charitable groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, set up by Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates and his wife.
At the annual World Food Prize forum last month, Gates warned that the fight to end hunger was being hurt by environmentalists who insist that genetically modified crops should not be used in Africa. He said it was vital to help small farmers there boost production by all means, including GM crops, fertiliser and chemicals.
“This global effort to help small farmers is endangered by an ideological wedge that threatens to split the movement in two,” Gates said at the forum for the prize, which was created by Borlaug, who died in September at the age of 95.
“Some people insist on an ideal vision of the environment,” Gates said. “They have tried to restrict the spread of biotechnology into sub-Saharan Africa without regard to how much hunger and poverty might be reduced by it.”
Rajul Pandya-Lorch, who has worked for the IFPRI thinktank on food for 22 years, summed it up like this: “I’m a Kenyan. I resent very much people telling us in Africa ‘OK, this biotechnology is not good for you.’ Well, we have different problems than you do, and if it helps us to solve a problem, we should try it.”
Yet, even in Africa, there is suspicion of GM technology. Many countries there, such as Uganda, Zambia and Tanzania, do not allow GM seeds.
The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a Kenya-based group set up in 2006 with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Gates Foundation, targets its programmes specifically at small-scale farmers.
Three-quarters of the world’s poorest billion people live in rural areas, dependent on farming for their livelihoods.
Agra’s Programme for Africa’s Seed Systems uses conventional breeding to develop new varieties of maize, cassava, beans, rice, sorghum, and other crops resistant to diseases and pests. The goal is to develop and release more than 1 000 improved crop varieties over the next 10 years.
“We’ve adopted a small grant mechanism that gets money out to plant breeders on the ground, so that they can, over a period of years, and selections and lots of consultations with local farmers, and access to the world’s gene banks, come up with something that’s truly novel, much higher yielding and resistant to local diseases and with the taste and texture that local people want,” said Joseph DeVries, director of Pass.
“To leap to the GM model at this stage, just seems like it’s ignoring a lot of the things that make sense locally, that people can do locally without it,” he said.
Kostas Stamoulis, director of the FAO’s Agricultural Development Economics Division, said only a few food crops are in wide use in genetically modified forms, and most are not well adapted to the varied and often extreme environmental conditions in sub-Saharan Africa.
Africa has eight or more staple crops that are grown in a wide variety of climates and conditions, making it far more of a challenge than in Asia, where single staple crops, such as rice, are grown in relatively homogenous conditions over wide areas. Stamoulis emphasised the need for all kinds of technology, including traditional plant breeding.
He said there should be a balance between “people that, in my view, make the extraordinarily dangerous proposition that you can feed the world with organics, which is absolutely crazy, and those who are fanatic about GMOs without looking at the full balance of options.”
Where’s the money?
The FAO said last month the world needs to invest $83-billion a year in agriculture in developing countries to feed a predicted population of 9,1-billion people in 2050.
To achieve that, both public and private investment on a grand scale is needed, but the trend on the public side has been discouraging. Official development assistance to agriculture plunged 58% in real terms from 1980 to 2005, dropping from 17% of total aid to 3,8% over that period. It now stands at about 5%, the FAO said.
Yet, the payoff from agricultural investment, particularly by governments, can be seen in Brazil, a case study in how the Green Revolution transformed a developing country.
Within a few decades it developed from a producer of a handful of cash crops into one of the world’s largest producers of food stuffs, with an agriculture business worth nearly 300-billion reais ($172-billion) in annual sales.
Brazil began its Green Revolution in the mid-1970s, with the creation of the government farm research firm Embrapa, which resulted in increased diversification and productivity of crops as well as the expansion of cropland.
Each year Embrapa measures the return to society from research in agriculture. Latest figures show that each dollar spent on agriculture research generates a return of $13,50.
Last year’s food crisis, when fears of food shortages gripped grain markets—sending wheat and rice prices soaring to record highs and sparking hoarding and riots—was a wake-up call, one that experts hope will translate into sustained investment.
The unrest was a powerful reminder of the risks of food insecurity and helped spur the world’s richest nations to promise to spend $20-billion over three years to help small, subsistence farmers improve their productivity.
US President Barack Obama has launched a $3,5-billion hunger and food security initiative focused on agriculture.
Back on the farm in Italy, Oglio said an operation like his can be run on a shoe-string budget, without the sort of subsidies that prop up agriculture, even in the wealthy European Union.
The 35-hectare farm that his parents used to run in a conventional way was on the edge of bankruptcy 20 years ago, burdened by high operating costs and competition in the changing economy of Europe.
With his back-to-nature methods, Oglio turned the farm around and now makes profits.
But that is a very European story. His customers, he admits, are willing to pay more for his healthful products because many of them are environmentalists.
The world’s poorest people—one billion of them—may not have the luxury of making that choice. - Reuters