The Opposite of Science

The Financial Times is doing what it usually does – providing concise and honest insight into how the elite bosses think, this time around genetically modified crops. The recent op-ed by John Gapper follows a logic that I’ve been bumping into increasingly.

  1. We need to increase food production to feed the world.
  2. Yield-increasing science has worked before.
  3. The nay-sayers want to reduce output through organic agriculture.
  4. Monsanto, on the other hand, is investing in science.
  5. Therefore we ought to embrace GM technology to fight the food crisis.

Almost everything about this argument is wrong.

First, while acknowledging the need to increase the amount we grow, the reason people go hungry today is not because of a deficit of food, but a surfeit of poverty. The problem is distributional, and doubling the amount of food isn’t going to make poverty go away.

Second, it’s true that yields went up in the first few years of ‘green revolution technologies’, but the effects of that intervention have led to long-term ecological ruin and, indeed, have stoked the climate change that we now need to address – the graph above the fold there shows just how much climate-change-causing fuel is needed on farms, and how much of it is directly related to fertilizer production. More and more evidence suggests that Fertilizers and pesticides are environmentally unsustainable.

Third, there’s increasing evidence that agroecological farming outperforms conventional agriculture, providing a greater range of ecosystemic services, without the environmental degradation or expense. And it requires a great deal of science to get this going in the right way. Although there are attempts to portray those who reject GM as anti-science, nothing could be further from the truth.

Fourth, Monsanto’s investment in science is parasitic on public sector research, as I note in Stuffed and Starved and millions of research dollars have been spent not in developing traits, but in finding and patenting already-existing traits, and creating Genetic Use Restriction Technologies to protect their intellectual property.

Fifth, then, GM technology is more about enriching a few corporations than seriously addressing climate change and the food crisis. We’ve already got working models for how to do this, and they involve not the magic bullet of GM, but sustained building of soil fertility (something GM can never do), integrated pest management, reduced energy footprints, and equitable local distribution systems.

When I was in Willits, California (about 3 hours drive north of San Francisco), I ran into a range of wonderful people, including Jason Bradford. He has a presentation [5MB pdf], which he explains here, and which he uses to make the case for sustainable agriculture. Do check out his blog. It’s one of many resources that help to show that the alternative to GM isn’t some backward looking faith in traditional methods so much as a forward looking scientifically-engaged sustainable agriculture.