Saturday, June 8, 2013

Pesticides, Cash Crops, and GM...Oh My


How conventional agriculture has created socially generated food scarcity through the loss of biodiversity and how to solve the problem.


Living in a generation where over 925 million people globally experience food scarcity (World Hunger Education Service, 2010), it is important to understand the difference between absolute scarcity and socially generated scarcity. Socially generated scarcity is insufficient necessities for some people and not others, while absolute scarcity is insufficient resources no matter how equitably they are distributed. Throughout history there have been examples of both, however, I would argue that socially generated scarcity is at the root of the hunger issue the world is facing today (Hildyard, 1996). Time Magazine (2008) argues that there are four interlinked trends contributing the global food crisis. First is the low productivity of farmers in the poorest countries, which is caused by their inability to afford seeds, fertilizer, and irrigation. Second, are the misguided policies in the U.S. and Europe that heavily subsidize the diversion of food crops to produce biofuels. The third contributor is climate change, which has taken a noticeable toll on global grain production in recent years. The final trend is the rising global demand for food and feed grains, being caused by growing populations and urbanization. I will argue that each of these trends can be traced back to a single underlying issue, which is the destruction of biodiversity through environmentally degrading “conventional” agriculture techniques.


Figure 1 (www.ifpri.org)
            The “Conventional” agriculture movement has been fueled by technological advances in machinery, fertilizers, and the development of genetically modified high-yielding varieties of wheat and corn. Many argue that large scale agriculture is necessary to feed the growing global population (Beus, 1990), but the ecological degradation that results is only exacerbating the food crisis while benefiting the agrochemical industries, large petrochemical companies, manufacturers of agricultural machinery, dam builders and large landowners (Shiva, 1991). Figure 1 illustrates how water, energy, and land policies can threaten sustainable food security. The Green Revolution in the Punjab was fueled by these agricultural techniques and dubbed the Green Revolutions “most celebrated success story”, yet the actual affects of the revolution have been devastating.
            Before the Green Revolution, maintaining diversity was central to traditional agriculture in the Punjab. Biodiversity in an ecosystem contributes to the stability of the system and thus it’s productivity. It confers resilience to pests, disease, and extreme weather, while sustaining the health of the soil for subsequent generations. The Green Revolution reduced this biodiversity in two ways. First, it reduced species diversity by replacing mixtures and rotations of crops such as wheat, maize, millets, pulses, and oil seeds with monocultures of wheat and rice. Second, it reduced the genetic diversity of the crops because the wheat and rice varieties planted came from a very narrow genetic base (Shiva, 1991). These reductions in biodiversity were perpetuated by the myth of “high-yielding varieties” that require exponentially more inputs of chemical fertilizer and water, causing soil erosion, water shortages, and overall degradation of the ecosystem. The social impacts that followed this reduction of biodiversity were devastating. Many farmers experienced initial financial rewards but the practices were not sustainable environmentally or economically and, before long, the farmers were in extreme debt due to the increased capital intensity of farming and the shifted control of land from small farmers to large corporations. Thus socially generated food scarcity spread through the Punjab in order to produce high-input, low-quality food for the rest of India. The video above shows an interview with Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist, regarding the Green Revolution that took place in India.
Figure 2 (swwb.org)
            Kenya faced a similar Green Revolution that left their lands degraded and food supplies dwindling. Gathuru Mburu, a Kenyan ecologist, has been sharing knowledge with local communities that are suffering greatly from hunger to improve their situation through the enhancement of biodiversity (Sevier, 2009). He explains that the root of the problem is that the soils are ‘dead’ and because of this people are starving. The first step is to rejuvenate those soils by removing chemicals completely or reducing them gradually in order to bring back small-scale, non-chemical based, farming. Figure 2 shows Rael Ochimbo weeding her maize field in the Nyando river basin in Western Kenya. Kenya is already feeling the affects of climate change when it comes to food production. The massive amounts of cash crops grown due to the Green Revolution do not do well in times of drought because they are not adapted to such an environment. By producing indigenous crops that have evolved in such a climate, such as yams, you will get higher yield, healthier soils due to the reduced need for chemical fertilizers, and more security due to their storage capabilities. The enhancement of biodiversity often comes with the restructuring of a community one household at a time. Many families produce tea as a cash crop but have such little land that they cannot grow enough food to support their families. They don’t make enough money from selling the cash crop to purchase food, because the majority of this money goes towards medical bills to address health issues arising from their poor diets and the chemicals used to grow their crops. Again, the health of the people, soil, and their livelihoods can be inextricably traced to the enhancement or loss of biodiversity.
            The World Bank, large corporations, and many governments feel that the solution to the food crisis is a second wave of Green Revolution where investments in fertilizers, high-yield seeds and GM crops are the focus. However, we have seen that these techniques lead to further food scarcity through the loss of biodiversity. In an article in The Ecologist (2007) Ed Hamer and Mark Anslow give ten reasons why organic can feed the world and why GM won’t. In an analysis of more than 286 conversions to organic farming in 57 different countries, the average yield increase was found to be 64 percent. Organically produced crops use 25 percent less energy than their chemical counterparts, and even have the potential to produce excess energy. Organically produced food can also cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, and water use. By localizing food production we will grow more sustainable crops and further reduce pollution by cutting back on packaging, and transportation. An organic system will reduce the dependency on pesticides thus increasing the health of ecosystems and communities through improved nutritional benefits. Finally organic farming encourages an increase in genetic biodiversity by planting local varieties and saving seeds that could confer an advantage during times of climate change, while also creating jobs in an industry that has been experiencing steady declines in numbers.
GM has failed to deliver their promised advantages on many occasions, they cost the Earth due to their heavy reliance on pesticides and water inputs, and they create a multitude of social and environmental issues with regard to contamination and gene escape. They have been shown to cause health risks, often leave communities hungry, create new problems through their proposed solutions such as breading resistance, and are bound to fertilizers and fossil fuels. These reasons along with the massive public outcry against companies such as Monsanto (more information on this in the video below) show that it is time that we rethink our diets and farming practices to protect the biodiversity that keeps our human populations, ecosystems, and planet happy and healthy.

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