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July-August 2010
Vol. 35, No. 4

Food security: Agriculture’s future in debate

An important debate currently is taking place in the U.S. Congress and media regarding the future of food and agriculture, provoked by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which is a consortium of biotechnology firms including Monsanto and Syngenta, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. AGRA argues that the only way to feed the world’s growing population is to dramatically increase the use of genetically engineered (GE) crops and intensify a global food system where a few countries produce food for the rest of the world. The other side of the debate says that the best long term solution is to use agroecological farming, a science that studies natural processes and shapes agricultural techniques to be most in harmony with those processes. The MOGC is an active part of this side of the debate for a variety of reasons. See related article here.

GE crops not as productive

First, GE crops are not nearly as productive as widely believed and agroecology is much more fruitful than thought. “Failure to Yield,” the Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2009 study of 20 years of genetically modified crop production in the U.S., concluded that “GE soybeans have not increased yields, and GE corn has increased yield only marginally on a crop-wide basis. Overall, corn and soybean yields have risen substantially over the last 15 years, but largely not as result of the GE traits. Most of the gains are due to traditional breeding or improvement of other agricultural practices.”

Even in India, often portrayed as the best example of the benefits of GE crops by their supporters, the results have not been nearly as positive as touted. While initially providing impressive increases in production, those gains shrunk significantly in later years. Many poorer Indian farmers found the use of GE crops to be especially disastrous. Although they are engineered to produce more (theoretically), the seeds are also designed to not reproduce, so farmers must buy new seeds every year in addition to the required chemical insecticides. This has resulted in heavy debt for millions of farmers. The desperation of being unable to pay off these obligations has driven thousands of farmers to commit suicide; ironically, many did so by drinking the GE chemicals. (See May-June 2009 NewsNotes for a related article.)

Organic crops more fruitful than thought

Meanwhile, organic agroecological crops are more productive than commonly perceived. A 2007 study by the University of Michigan, comparing data from almost 100 studies of conventional and sustainable agriculture, concluded that a worldwide switch to organics could actually increase global food production by as much as 50 percent — enough to feed a population of nine billion people without any additional land. A 2003 peer-reviewed analysis of 208 projects (with almost nine million farmers) in over 50 “developing” countries found a 93 percent increase in food production when farmers switched to sustainable methods.

Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa, a 2008 study by the UN Conference on Trade and Development and Environment Programme, analyzed 15 organic agriculture programs in East Africa. It found that “organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and ... it is more likely to be sustainable in the long term.” The study found that the conversion from traditional low chemical input farming to full organic practices did not result in loss of productivity — in fact, as the organic farms became more established, they out-produced traditional farms and matched the productivity of conventional farms that rely on fertilizers and other chemical inputs.

Much evidence shows that organic agriculture helps farmers adapt to and resist climate change, which is already affecting farmers around the world. After Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America in the late 1990s, researchers found that farmers using sustainable methods lost less money and less soil in the disaster, and were able to recover faster than their conventionally farming neighbors. Both the USDA and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have noted the ability of organic methods to store carbon in the soil, which decreases the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Finally, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), perhaps the largest study of agricultural practices in history, involving over 400 scientists and development experts from more than 80 countries, and whose results have been endorsed by 58 countries, determined that conventional industrial agriculture has significantly degraded the world’s soils and other natural resources, and threatens water, energy, and climate security. The report warns that expensive, short-term fixes — including GE crops — are not likely to reduce long-term hunger and poverty, and could even worsen environmental and social problems in many communities.

Other concerns with GE crops

Even if GE crops were as productive as supporters portray, they are not a long-term solution. Both the manufacture of GE seeds and the chemicals that they require, as well as the machines to plant and spray, are heavily dependent on fossil fuels like natural gas, which is estimated to reach global peak production within the next two decades. After reaching this peak, the price of natural gas will rise quickly and significantly, making GE crops even more expensive and unsustainable. In addition, manufactured phosphorous and nitrogen, perhaps the center of modern agriculture, are also predicted to peak within the next 20 years.

Perhaps a larger worry about GE crops is the concern of having a small number of corporations control the food production for much of the world. Not only are more and more countries and farmers adopting GE crops, but these crops also spread naturally through wind and rain, contaminating unplanted fields and affecting non-GE crops. Clearly having such severe concentration in the production of the food we eat is not a good idea.

Finally, as a Catholic organization, Maryknoll objects to the idea of modifying the genetic code of plants and animals to be different than that which was created by God. Some may think that they can improve on God’s plans, but we believe that it is wiser to respect the will of God. For many centuries, humans have used science to change nature to fit humans’ needs. GE crops are a prime example of this mania. We believe this must change and that science should help us understand the workings of nature so that we can change human activities to be in harmony with them. Agroecology tries to do exactly that, which is why we believe it is the best method for current and future food production.

Farming is more than food production

The MOGC is a member of the U.S. Working Group on the Food Crisis, soon to be renamed the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, a collection of farmer, consumer, community, religious and environmental organizations working toward “ending poverty by rebuilding local food economies.” They argue, and the IAASTD research shows, that agriculture is important for more than just generating food. Farms are not only for growing produce, but guaranteeing livelihoods for robust rural communities. They see firsthand the destructiveness of huge fields of single crop, genetically engineered fields on nature as well as on communities. They know that a healthy rural community depends on smaller, diverse farms that offer work for many more than highly mechanized monocrop plantations. In the majority of countries in the global South where most of the populations remains in the rural sector, it is especially important to guarantee vigorous rural communities.

U.S. trade policy works in many ways to replicate the U.S. agriculture system where a very small percentage of the population works on large, highly mechanized and chemical-dependent farms to produce food for others. Perhaps Mexico is the best example of the failure of that system, seen in the North American Free Trade Agreement that allowed cheap GE corn into that country, forcing millions of farmers off their land into already overpopulated cities or across the dangerous border into the U.S., while contaminating dozens of indigenous species of corn. A similar process is happening in many other countries in the global South.

Real solutions for agriculture

We favor democratically controlled, local and regionally focused agriculture systems that combine new organic technologies with traditional practices to work most in harmony with nature to produce food. Maryknoll missioners around the world see people using ancient techniques and local seeds to adapt to conditions of drought and excess water, producing well in difficult conditions. Huge inputs of chemicals and foreign technology are not necessary. In fact, dependence on these things are unsustainable both ecologically and financially for small farmers.

Go to the website of the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance for more information.

Faith in action:

Use the MOGC’s statement on genetically modified organisms as a reflection tool.

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