The Gates project is doing some work engaging small farmers and sharing technology with African scientists, but researchers at the Community Alliance for Global Justice have found that a hefty portion of the Gates money is going to organizations connected to Monsanto.
Some farmers that have been working on their own sustainable, ecologically based farming systems to increase yields say they have been ignored. For their part, The Gates Foundation responded to these charges in a letter to the editor in The Nation. That letter (and others) can be read here.
According to Africa Files, “a network of people committed to Africa through its promotion of human rights, economic justice, African perspectives and alternative analyses,” AGRA is a “hoax.”
Africa Files accuses AGRA of promoting monoculture type farming that relies on heavy irrigation and ignoring the possibilities of economic gains when smallholders engage in organic farming.
According to Annie Shattuck, Policy Analyst for Food First, The Institute for Food and Development Policy, and co-author of the article in The Nation cited above,
“The pattern of the Green Revolution is to reduce agriculture systems to a monoculture crop that responds well to a highly limited set of circumstances and inputs. Trying to engineer genetic resistance to one more circumstance is not going to cut it for the agriculture of the future. We need systems that provide resilience to multiple hazards, and to do that we need diverse sustainable systems that also provide a decent living for the people who work them.”
The first Green Revolution begun in the 1970s was touted as a success. But today, it looks more like a disaster in India. While yields did go up, hunger did not go down. The reason for this is the high input technologies promoted tended to favor large, already privileged landholders. What it really did was push a lot of rural people into cities to try their luck there.
Today, despite the Green Revolution, there are famine conditions in India caused by drought and extreme weather. Suicide among Indian farmers has been epidemic as farmers find themselves in crushing debt when technological farming fails. Recent stories profile Indian farmers going back to organic methods.
What’s clear from the stories in India is that technological solutions only work for so long. Whether you are talking about chemical fertilizers, or genetic modification, such solutions are a crude fix overlaid across nature’s elegant variability. Currently, the only GM crop grown in India is cotton, but the country recently approved the development of GM eggplant.
“The myth of “one gene, one solution” to complex problems like climate change and poverty, (the root cause of hunger), is a myopic way to look at what is a complex ecological and social problem”, says Annie Shattuck. “So far attempts to engineer drought tolerance have been a miserable failure. The crops do well in drought years, but not in a normal year. We know agriculture will have to use less water and less fossil fuel in the future. It will also have to deal with increasingly wild weather – delays in the rainy season, erratic frosts, more intense storms. Unpredictability is the name of the game.”
Due to concerns about food security while agricultural land is being lost to rapid industrialization, China has been engaged in state-sponsored GMO research since the early part of this century. Details of the Chinese program are sketchy but the most interesting aspect of the program is that it is owned by the Chinese government rather than being funded by Monsanto, BayerCropScience, Syngenta or any of the other large agricultural biotech companies.
According to an article in Reuters, a large budget was approved in 2008 for GMO research with a huge portion of that budget earmarked for safety research. A good thing, because unauthorized GM rice has been found in processed foods imported into the EU from China.
With consumers in Europe among the least accepting of GM foods, China would do well to be cautious.
According to Chinese officials, the Chinese program “aims to obtain genes with great potential commercial value whose intellectual property rights belong to China, and to develop high-quality, high-yield and pest-resistant genetically modified new species.” Currently China grows large amounts of transgenic cotton. Rice, wheat, corn, soybeans, and a few food crops like peppers and papaya are in the development phase.
Just a minor quibble, but the only genetically engineered trait Monsanto sells that provides resistance to a chemical pesticide is Roundup Ready seeds, which are tolerant of the herbicide ghyphosate. Since glyphosate went off patent in the last couple of years, most farmers now buy cheaper generic brands from a bunch of different companies.
Not a single plant biologist I've ever encountered has said that biotechnology is "the Only Way to Solve Hunger" and repeating that false claim is sure to ignite people.
Here's a hint: plant biologists understand biology and ecosystems better than most of the people making claims around it.