Many hands make light work?

posted in: Food | 6

As discussed in “Farming in Utopia“, one of the benefits of modern farming is that it requires fewer people to produce more food. This benefit is ignored by those who wish to eschew technology in farming. People who have the luxury of choice shouldn’t force their choices on those with no choices at all. A prime example of this behavior can be found in Jose Bove. The actions and words of people like him mean that people in places like Africa haven’t been allowed to choose what types of farming are best for them.

Poor farmers all over the world are battling drought, insects, fungi… with their bare hands. They may have access to some pesticides and fertilizers. If they are lucky, their inputs are the right ones, and not too toxic. The farmers certainly aren’t stupid, but they haven’t had access to all the bells and whistles that farmers in the US, Europe, and Australia can choose.

There are many reasons for the disparity, including socio-political problems. The Gates Foundation is funding a new Green Revolution, with the goal of ending hunger in Africa, that includes a build-up of infrastructure with a healthy dollop of plant breeding. They recognize that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work in Africa, so they are “developing appropriate seeds to attain the best yields in the diverse environments of Africa and working to make sure these high-quality seeds are delivered to farmers who need them most.”

The Gates’ program has many facets, but the absence of one is striking. Bowing to efforts of anti-technology activists, the Alliance for a Green Revolution states: “Our mission is not to advocate for or against the use of genetic engineering.” They “will consider funding the development and deployment of such new technologies only after African governments have endorsed and provided for their safe use.” This is sad, because the African governments are held hostage by the same activists on the subject of GMOs. Genetic engineering could bring critical crop adaptations to the people who need them very quickly, much more quickly than depending on traditional breeding or mutation via radiation.

Some people, such as those at Food First, cringe at the mention of the Green Revolution, but I challenge their opinions on the subject. It is unethical to condemn Norm Borlaug for the Green Revolution that he brought about. His calling was to end hunger, using the methods he had. It is unfortunate that he bred lines that are dependent on fertilizer inputs, but the environmental consequences were not known at the time. Regardless, the impetus was to feed the hungry. Today, our knowledge is much greater, so we can do much better – especially with engineered crops that require little-to-no pesticide and fertilizer.

Can we, who enjoy the spoils of technology, prevent that very technology from getting into the hands of the poor?

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Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!