Many hands make light work?

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?


  1. Of course Borlaug is to be commended for what he did in the 1930’s. However, just as we don’t practice medicine the same way as was done then, and have recognised that some of the so-called technological advances in the healing arts have done done harm as well as good, we need to recognise that simply because we have the technology to insert a gene from one species into the DNA chain of another doesn’t mean we have improved anything. In fact, to date the history of GMOs is a rather sorry one, and with the the known harm they cause to the environment and the vwery possible health risks associated with GMOs we are not doing poor farmers in the developing world any favors by saddling them a technology that is dependent on patented seeds, and synthetic inputs and expensive capital heavy equipment. Far more beneficial would be teaching them more efficient organic and bio-intensive methods of farming concentrating on local supply so that they would be less vulnerable to political upheaval in other regions and oil supplies/costs.

  2. 1. The health and environmental risks of the technology itself are actually very small, as I’ll explain in an upcoming post.

    2. Genetic engineering techniques can enhance or downplay genes from the species itself. Genes from other species are not required nor are they always used.

    3. GMOs don’t make anyone dependent on oil supplies, or require perfect democracy. The problems that exist in distribution are unrelated to the science of genetic engineering.

    I don’t think it’s very nice to ask poor farmers in developing countries to use these “efficient” methods, to the exclusion of technology – when scientists like myself are working to carefully develop crops that use less water, less pesticide, and have more nutrients. Why should they be satisfied with lower yields that require more labor?

    Genetic engineering can be integrated into other low-intensity methods, so that the earth is protected as much as possible while producing large amounts of high quality food. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

  3. “Sorry History”

    Hello nosmokes.

    Soil is eroding at rate of about 1.0 mm per year while new soil is forming at a rate of about 0.2 mm per year. This is largely due to tilling fields. The introduction of RoundUp Ready crops as permitted large-scale adoption of no-till agriculture, which conserves soil and subtantially reduces release of silt into our waterways. It also reduces the need for fuel for tractors. This is good for our environment.

    You might argue that RoundUp is hazardous. But the solution then is not rejection of GMOs and a return to tilling the soil, but to find a better herbicide.

    I have not come across a single example of large-scale no-till organic agriculture. GMOs and herbicides are essential replaced by tractors, diesel fuel, and pulverizing the soil. I suppose one could grow crops for one year, then leave the land fallow for tens years to rebuild soil, but this would effectively set aside 90% of our agriculture land during each growing season and require destruction of the few remaining wild areas on the Earth.

  4. “Known Harm to the Environment”

    Hello nosmokes.

    Can you provide some very specific examples of GMOs, simply because they are GMOs, harming the environment?

    Thank you.

  5. “Poor Farmers”

    The sweet potato or yam I mentioned in a different thread would have permitted African farmers to grow more food on less land and using less labor. This would have reduced the clearing of tropical forests for agriculture and enabled them to send their children to school, where they might learn about ecology and organic farming. Instead — because of concerned European anti-GMO activists — those farmers continue to clear land to produce enough food, continue to have large families so there is enough labor to grow food, and do not send their children to school.

    Which is worse… a GMO or the current state of affairs?

    By the way, the development of the sweet potato or yam was lead by an African scientist (who asked for help) and sponsored by Monsanto (which agreed to donate the technology to the farmers).

  6. John, I wholeheartedly agree. Why shouldn’t we develop superior crops that help people and the land? Whether it’s conscious or not, keeping technology from farmers in developing nations is a way of preventing them from being “developed”.

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