Using the plight of the Poor to sell the Biotech Package Fr. Sean McDonagh, SSC (January 25th 2009)

Last week I wrote about the United Nations Report on organic farming and food security in Africa.  The data uncovered by the Study showed that organic agriculture can increase agricultural yields and can raise incomes by employing low-cost, locally available appropriate technologies.  This demolishes the popular myth that organic agriculture cannot raise farm productivity.   In opposition to claims made in the Abstracts of more than one of the presenters scheduled to speak at the Pontifical Academy’s Study Week, the research found that “organic agriculture is not directly and specifically supported by agricultural policy in most African countries; indeed, it is sometimes actively hindered by policies advocating the use of high-input farming management practices…. If organic agriculture and its associated positive side-effects are to be scaled up, any enabling policy environment is critical.”[1]

The Study makes a point which I became very aware of when working with the T’boli people in the 1980s that much more is known about intensive, high-input farming systems, than is known about sustainable organic systems. Agricultural professionals who worked with us had to unlearn many of the things they had been told at the Agriculture Department in the University and relearn the fact that organic agriculture is knowledge-intensive. Support for organic farming must include both formal education centres in which it is taught and better linkages between farmers, scientists and agricultural workers.   In the Philippines such a coalition of interests between scientists and farmers called  MASIPAG has existed since 1987. It has assisted farmers in developing of new rice and corn varieties that produce better yields with minimum pest infestation. The practical work of MASIPAG proves that even without the use of GMOs, farmers can produce safe, clean and nutritious food in a profitable manner.

The centrality of organic farming in meeting the food security needs of Africa and other countries as well was also confirmed in the second  study published by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) in April 2008.

Unlike the heavy North American bias of the Pontifical Academy’s speakers,  this study drew on the expertise of over 4000 agricultural and development experts drawn from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Global Environment Facility (GEF), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the World Bank (WB) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).  Experts from government  ministries, universities and civil society organizations (CSOs) were also involved in this multidisciplinary approach to agriculture.  In this study farming is not seen merely as a way to produce food.  It has multiple functions such as providing food and fodder, social security and ecosystem services while also having a landscape value.  Furthermore, the study attempted to recognize the rights and needs of small, subsistence farmers and women farmers. Both groups are often overlooked in the agricultural policies and programmes of  governments, universities and agribusiness corporations.   It recommended that food producers ought to try to use “natural processes”  such as  crop rotation and organic fertilizers, rather than synthetic processes.

The Study found that progress in agriculture, especially in the petro-chemically intensive phase, had delivered unequal benefits and come at high social and environmental costs.  There is little support for GM crops in the IAASTD report.  Robert Watson, the director of the IAASTD, and chief scientist at the UK Department of Environment, Food, Rural Affairs,  was asked a question from a Daily Mail reporter– Are GM crops the simple answer to hunger and poverty? His reply was,  I would argue, no. [2] The report concludes that; Assessment of the technology lags behind its development, information is anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty about possible benefits and damage is unavoidable.[3]

Initially biotech companies such as Syngenta and Monsanto took part in this study. However, they resigned before it was published. Many commentators believe that the reason they resigned is because they were not getting their way on GM crops. These crops would make billions of dollars for them if they were an essential ingredient in tackling world hunger. This was bad  news for the Corporations’ bottom line. Since the publication of the IAASTD Report the publicity machines of the corporations have been attempting to undermine the document’s conclusions and recommendations. Once again, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences would be better employed promoting the ideas contained in this seminal document rather than furthering the interests of big business.. If the IAASTD findings on small scale, low-input agriculture were implemented it would change current agricultural policies which favour chemically-intensive agriculture and provide food and food security for the poor.

[1] “Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa,” United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, United Nations Environmental Programme,  New York, Geneva, 2008, page x.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Vidal, “Change in Farming Can Feed the World”, The Guardian, April 16th 2008.


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