Ignore poverty and hunger crises today, and dream of a new tomorrow with more biodiversity — that’s the ticket!

Biodiversity doesn’t feed people, but GM crops do
March 30, 2011, ACSH Despatch

During a United Nations meeting in Bali to discuss a treaty on plant genetics, La Via Campesina, which according to an article in The Atlantic, is said to be an international farmers’ movement comprised of 150 organizations in 70 countries, decided not to waste time addressing real agricultural problems like the rising cost of food, starvation in underdeveloped nations and the poor crop yields in certain areas. Instead, the group decided that “real” peace of mind can only be achieved when biodiversity is protected, which includes further restrictions and bans on the use of genetically-modified (GM) seeds.


In the article, reporter Anna Lappé further promulgates these anti-agricultural biotech ideologies by quoting from a 2006 report by Doug Gurian-Sherman, currently a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists: “With the recent approval of genetically engineered alfalfa in the United States, organic farmers here are ever more concerned about such a ‘genetic trespass.’”

“Organic farmers are concerned all right — about protecting their ‘organic turf’ and protecting their crops from ‘contamination’ with non-organic genes, not feeding millions of malnourished people worldwide or preventing the hundreds of thousands of deaths occurring annually due to starvation,” fumes Dr. Ross. “This is nothing more than pseudoscience since it is well-known that GM products increase crop yields and have the potential to actually enhance the nutritional benefits of crops. That is, if they were allowed to be harvested in the EU or several African nations, where they are currently barred from use.”

Likewise, the banana industry in Uganda finds itself at such a crossroads. Thirty percent of its banana crop has been infected with banana Xanthomonas wilt (BXW), a disease that is wiping out entire plantations — and that’s not okay for a country that is the second largest producer of bananas in the world. But scientists from the National Banana Research Program have found an answer to a problem that conventional methods were unable to solve. Using genes from a sweet pepper plant, they created bananas resistant to BXW, which sounds great — except that GM crops are illegal in Uganda, even though 95 percent of farmers are willing to grow them.

So perhaps activists such as La Via Campesina — and Ms. Lappé, albeit her agenda is less obvious — should stop pushing a political program posing as science policy and start representing what real farmers are asking for, such as Ugandan farmer Arthur Kamenya: “When someone is hungry, they’ve got to eat now! If people are going to die of hunger today, then we cannot be talking about the future, and if GM is going to provide that solution, then as Africa, we need to embrace that.”

Written by David Tribe

David Tribe’s research career in academia and industry has covered molecular genetics, biochemistry, microbial evolution and biotechnology. He has over 60 publications and patents. Dr. Tribe's recent activities focus on agricultural policy and food risk management. He teaches graduate programs in food science and risk management as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Agriculture and Food Systems, University of Melbourne.

22 comments

  1. I’m sorry, I don’t understand how it’s a choice between biodiversity and GMOs. When we make a GMO we ADD a new gene to the gene pool INCREASING diversity. Biodiversity does feed people when a disease rolls through and wipes out a strain.

  2. Emerson,
    Biodiversity is more of a mantra than a true discipline. Primarily because the use of the term has been hijacked by gang-greens.
    There is, actually, a dynamic underlying the misapplication of notions of biodiversity and the threat of GMOs.
    You see, farmers like GMOs a lot. They like GMOs so much that they don’t want to buy the other stuff. Which means, all those family farms producing seed either go out of business — resulting in the loss of antique germplasm — or they become a franchise for the big multinationals.
    Proof of how much crop biodiversity has been lost is evident in the vast number of accessions to the Svalbard ‘Doomsday Vault’ of seeds. It’s a museum of outdated cultivars, each of which have been lost to biodiversity, due to farmers abandoning them for something better. Boo hoo? Not really.
    As usual, what the cranks and whackos say has a financial motive. Who would want to embarrass themselves for free?
    Not even the Raelians do that. Not for free that is.

    1. All of this I understand, I disagree with the notion that outdated cultivars are not worth keeping around however. There are doubtlessly potential threats that our crops have not faced fully yet, these threats might exploit some characteristic of biochemistry that becomes uniform for productivity reasons. Having lots of diverse (and uncommon) germ plasm available in seed vaults means that we can rapidly test diverse germ plasm against a pathogen and find solutions.
      The problem is not that the “green” movement has hijacked the concept, it’s that they have misidentified a technological solution as part of an economic problem.

    2. Where I live seed farmers are clamoring for more crop biodiversity. Much of what was here 50 years ago has been lost due to regional specialization. The economics of this specialization have gone negative in the past 3 years.
      A professor that was keeping old cultivars in storage died recently and now someone is trying to find and comprehend the organization of his collection, as it contains the sorts of crops farmers now want but can’t find commercially. If only we had invested in maintaining regional cultivars that were (temporarily) non-commercial and didn’t have to scramble so.

        1. Food flax, hulless barely, chick peas, lentils, feed soybeans, hard red wheat, and probably many more but those the main ones.

          1. Since I can find these items, and things made from them, in the grocery store, I now must wonder how they are produced without farmers having access to seed. Perhaps Sheldrakian morphogenic fields are being employed. Or Aristotle’s ‘spontaneous generation’.

          2. Seriously? You don’t understand my point?
            Varieties of many of these used to exist for this region but not longer do commercially. Farmers want them back.

          3. Eric, can you find the local cultivars for every location in the U.S.? Many locations had strains selected over many decades or centuries to do well in the prevailing local conditions, and those were replaced with the major commercial varieties in the process of industrialization.

  3. Inserting disease resistant genes from one plant species to another and various other applications of genetic technology don’t scare me, so I can appreciate the frustration on this list.
    However, the name calling about greens and enviro wackos and organic proponents and the general lack of comprehension of the science behind many (not all) of their proposals is disheartening too.
    Many of you are just as bad as those you detest.

  4. The article just shows how people with different agendas and world views talk past each other.
    One group wants to support peasant agriculture. They want land tenure, and appropriate development so the poor can be more healthy and secure. They don’t believe that methods requiring high technology or expensive inputs are appropriate for much of the world and that hunger is primarily a problem of local development of knowledge and simple material capital.
    The other group believes in integration of land into the global system of production for free trade. They believe in specialization and comparative advantage and see peasants as standing in the way of this and not understanding the opportunity buying into the global system brings–such as higher wages and better health and security through trade.
    Both sides, however, are not monsters. Both care about feeding people and probably to some extent protecting biodiversity.

    1. The article just shows how people with different agendas and world views talk past each other.

      So true. And so unfortunate. In both individual arguments there are beneficial and detrimental claims. Why are people so unwilling to carefully examine the individual arguments within the larger positions in order to develop new ways of agriculture that fit in modern economic systems a little better but don’t turn people into widgets?

    2. One group wants to support peasant agriculture… They don’t believe that methods requiring high technology or expensive inputs are appropriate for much of the world and that hunger is primarily a problem of local development of knowledge and simple material capital.

      That’s all well and good, but nature keeps stepping in and wrecking things. The poor are struck by the same locusts that strike the wealthy. The great thing about germ plasm is that it is so very scalable, we can afford to provide the poor with varieties that will help them to need fewer expensive inputs. Keeping technology away from the poor is not coming from a place of understanding but rather from a place of fear. Even with out free and open trade we can just send the technology in to them and let them use it, and a variety of problems will be solved in what amounts to an instant.

      1. Yes. Those who want the poor indigenous farmers to plant only antique indigenous crops want those poor farmers to be uncompensated caretakers of museums of antique indigenous crops. They want the cost of inefficiently maintaining the germ plasm of those strains to be borne by those least able to afford those costs.

  5. Perhaps the conversation would be improved by a discussion of the many dimensions to biodiversity. Biodiversity within a crop, biodiversity within a farm, region, or globally are all worth talking about but are very different measures.
    Biodiversity by itself is not necessarily always worth increasing. Pest biodiversity is perhaps even a bad thing

    1. Dr. Pundit, friends:
      More than several years ago, I was privileged to attend a convocation of the American Seed Trade Association. Among the exhibitors was a company — I wish I could remember its name — which dealt quite directly with biodiversity in germplasm.
      Using ATOF/NIR (you can likely google that), they could take the most supposedly ‘uniform’ germplasm, from the same field, same rainfall and all the rest, and sort the seeds.
      The result: some seeds higher in protein, others higher in carbohydrates, others higher in fats. And the system makes it possible to make this an important part of crop breeding.
      Those fearful of biodiversity in current crops can take heart in their results: there’s major biodiversity in what people call “green concrete”.
      This will also be disheartening to the biodiversity advocates, since the results enable increased production of specialty crops for food, feed, etc., which of course decreases “biodiversity”.
      Given the aims of modern agriculture, it’s increasingly obvious that ‘biodiversity’, as popularly imagined, is not the farmers’ best friend.

    2. I agree. I think there are also different measures of biodiversity within any one domain. If you have biodiversity in immune function in plants (and I do not know a lot about plant immune function so you’ll have to forgive me for stopping there) it is probably a good thing, but if you have biodiversity among stalk length factors and auxin responsiveness within your crop that will make it disastrously difficult to harvest.

    3. Very good. I appreciate this display of understanding of the nuances. The article itself is very bad.
      Biodiversity specialists are fanatically about scale issues. Terms are used such as alpha, beta and gamma diversity, for example, which are akin to the ways genetic variation can be described in a nested system from within an individual, a population or a species.
      This does apply to farm issues. When I plan to incorporate hedge rows on a farm, for example, and I talk this over with a sheep rancher it goes like this…
      Rancher: “What will the hedge row do for me.”
      Me: “Well, it has a number of positive such as wind breaks (both to reduce animal stress and rate of pasture drying), alternative forage, and once it gets big we can run the stock beneath it during heat waves. Also, it will attract birds and snakes that will sweep over the fields and eat both animal and plant parasites. The crop farmers will appreciate the pollinators and insect predators it harbors.”
      Rancher: “I can imagine coyotes finding shelter in them too.”
      Me: “Yes. Well, we know that geese avoid small fields because of the ratio of field area to edge and the advantage this gives to predators. So, we don’t want the fields to be made small by placing hedgerows throughout. And we want to keep it easy to move equipment around.”

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