Can Industrial Crops Feed the World? No.


Two important bits of news from the world of agricultural technology. First, we’ve a report that genetically modified soy beans yield less than ordinary ones. The study was motivated by a professor who heard soybean farmers asking “how come I don’t get as high a yield as I used to?”. A good question indeed. One answer – it wasn’t designed to yield more, it was designed to withstand a herbicide sold by the same company that sells the seed.

But there’s a bigger answer to the question of the future of agricultural technology. It comes with a report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). Snappy title? No. Bed-time reading? Hardly. It’s hundreds of dense pages long (and I’ll be reading it over the next week, so you won’t have to).

But already, the IAASTD is an acronym to remember. Like the Nobel-prize-winning IPCC, this panel is an independent collection of experts and scientists from across the world.

They were convened by the UN, and in partnership with a range of other organisations (including the World Bank) to look at the global problems of hunger and food. They assessed a range of agricultural technology, including industrial agriculture, genetically modified and agroecological. Their conclusion? Not only is there a way of feeding the world with sustainable farming, it’s the only way.

This rather cuts the legs out from under the industrial agriculture acolytes, and the bores who insist that criticisms of the Green Revolution are all well and good, but there’s no other way to feed the world. They’re wrong, and it’s tremendously important to have corroborated, by so impressive a body, the work of so many people concerned with sustainable agriculture.

In answering the question “can sustainable ag feed the world”, a new one emerges, though: how to we promulgate sustainable agriculture? What needs to happen so that governments do something – after all, the private sector solutions of industrial and biotech really have been part of the problem for decades, and it’s unlikely that change is going to come from them, no matter how finely they dress themselves in the garb of green.

The countries that have tried sustainable agriculture had active governments in which sustainability was a priority. But, like climate change, it’s only going to be something that governments do when they’re dragged kicking and screaming to do it by their people.

Already, there’s intransigence. The US, UK, Canada and Australia have all refused to endorse the report (despite the participation of many scientists from those countries).

We all know how hard it was to get governments to take climate change seriously (and there’s ample evidence that they’re still not taking it seriously enough). This is yet another battlefront but it’s one that, because of food shortages and protests, might be one that gets us further, quicker. Nothing like a food rebellion to light a fire under governments. This is exactly what’s happening in Mali- something I’ll be writing about in more detail soon…