We can easily conclude that the pro-genetically motified organism (GMO) camp generally falls in line with the pro-industrialized agriculture camp. On the other side, the pro-organic, anti-chemical alternative agriculture camp have GMO’s on their black list. But what is the nature of this disagreement? Can a middle ground be reached so that the benefit of high-technology seeds aligns with the benefits of low-technology organic agriculture?
Since scientific know-how in the genetics of plants is spreading and becoming cheaper, it is possible to expand research to a wide-range of crops, instead of just cash crops. If research and development of better seeds continues to focus on cash crops grown on an industrial scale by middle and large land owners, the benefits of new technology will never reach the Global South, where investment in poverty reduction and climate change adaptation is most needed.
On one side of the argument, critics of industrialized agriculture and GMO’s argue that they are inherently un-organic, given that they are produced in a laboratory under specialized conditions created by man. The general grievance is that GMO seeds are controlled by a few wealthy companies that create seeds that focus on increasing yields with more irrigation and fertilizer use, without regard for small farmers, who don’t have access and cannot afford these inputs. On a biological level, the argument continues, we do not yet understand how plants produced by these seeds affect the human body or all of the consequences that they may have on the ecology of the environment in which they are grown.
The pro-GMO camp holds that the world cannot be fed without them. For example, The Economist supports GMO research and a proliferation based on the assertion that crop yields will have to increase in order to match global population increase. Since organic farming has an upper limit on yields, the only solution is to invent technology that continually increases yields despite restrictions posed by nature.
GMO seeds per se are not a threat to rural farmers’ lifestyles and crops; rather it is the system surrounding research and distribution of seeds that is problematic. For example, the Green Revolution of the 1970’s that saw increased yields in developing countries as a result of increased fertilizer and herbicide use, irrigation, and seeds modified at an international scale intended for international distribution. Most of the benefits only reached large and medium-sized landowners that grew cash crops (rice and corn) and did little for subsistence farmers and poverty alleviation. If programs became more farmer-centered and focused on modifying seeds based on local seed varieties and conditions, both smallholders and local markets could benefit from advanced technology.
Organizations such as the Gates Foundation and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa support such an approach. This new Green Revolution focuses on small farmers and seeks adaptation of seeds based on local crops as well as soil conservation measures without increasing dependency on outside inputs such as fertilizers and herbicides. This is particularly important because fossil-fuel intensive fertilizers accelerate climate change which threatens yields on all crops. As a result, it will be useful to develop seeds that withstand drought, pests and disease, heavy rains, or a longer dry season in a way that is integrated with organic and associated agriculture practices that renew soil nutrients to keep agriculture ecosystems healthy and sustainable.
It’s time to stop creating seeds with built-in resistance to a specific herbicide that comes packaged with the sale. It’s also time to stop creating seeds that only focus on maximizing yield, since it will always require more seeds and technology to keep that maximization on track with desired profits. Now, more than ever, it is time to re-focus R&D funds on seeds and farm management techniques that will make the greatest difference for poor farmers and those most exposed to the negative effects of climate change. The bottom line is that there is no bottom line in choosing between GMO’s and alternative agriculture, and if there were, it would pose a threat to achieving zero-hunger.