Myth-making will never feed the world
The FT's chief business commentator tells us, for instance, that Monsanto wants countries such as Brazil to raise yields with high-intensity methods: "Monsanto's vision and that of the US is that US-style farming needs to spread across Latin America and Asia."
But large-scale industrial farming, making full use of Monsanto's products, is already well established in several Latin American countries. Paraguay, for instance, is now the world's 4th largest exporter of soya, while Argentina is number 3, and Brazil number 2.
And we can see the consequences - massive deforestation, an ecalating use of pesticides and increasing social conflict. Meanwhile, and this is a critical point, people in all these coutries remain hungry. Indeed, food insecurity is also rising rapidly in the US itself, a clear indication that there is something awry with Gapper's analysis.
Another myth that Gapper promulgates is that the current problem of rapidly rising food prices to not just down to "biofuels" but to the fact that "in China and Asia, a middle class is emerging that wants meat from grain-fed animals".
As Daryll E. Ray at the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, has shown from the US Department of Agricultire's own data on China and India's grain trade, neither country's sucking in grain in the way that's being claimed -China "has remained a net exporter of all grains since the 1996/1997 crop year”¦ India has been a net exporter for 15 out of the last 18 years." In short, "”¦there is no demand for feed grains from China and India, and none from Indonesia and Brazil as well."
Once this is understood, then the role of "biofuels" comes into much clearer focus. In fact, the very reason that the Bush adminstration, have been working so hard to promote the myth that feed grain demands in India and China are a key factor in the food crisis has been in order to muddy the waters as regards the role of "biofuels", and in particular Bush's massive increase in ethanol subsidies, as a critical catalyst in triggering the current crisis.
What the biofuels debacle should teach us is the danger of rushed policies driven by heavy lobbying - notably by big agribiz and biotech interests - undertaken in a crisis atmosphere (energy insecurity/climate change).
We should be equally cautious about the current campaign - by exactly the same interests - to exploit the food crisis to bounce us into GM crop adoption.
Bickering will never feed the world
By John Gapper
Financial Times, June 11 2008
Long-running feuds often go quiet for a while but it takes only one incident to make them flare up again. So it is with the argument between exponents of organic farming and those who prefer technology-intensive, industrialised agriculture.
The latest provocation is the global food crisis, which has led to prices of crops such as maize and rice rising sharply, consumers in developed countries feeling the pinch in supermarkets and millions of people in the developing world facing starvation.
The rapid increase in demand for food is the biggest cause of the price spiral. Biofuels have started to compete with the food industry for resources such as sugar cane and maize and, in China and Asia, a middle class is emerging that wants meat from grain-fed animals.
The consensus is that the world must boost agricultural production to meet higher demand. Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, called last week at a UN summit in Rome for a 50 per cent increase in global food output by 2030.
There the consensus ends. This week Monsanto, the US seed company that became a bÃªte noire of European environmentalists in the 1990s by pushing genetically modified seeds, made its suggestions for meeting the output gap. It wants countries such as Brazil and Mexico to raise yields with high-intensity methods.
Monsanto's vision and that of the US is that US-style farming needs to spread across Latin America and Asia (even if Africa remains a special case). The farmers there must use high-yield hybrid seeds bought from Monsanto or rivals such as Syngenta, nourish them with fertiliser and water, protect them with chemicals and get more out of the same land.
Monsanto would prefer farmers to buy pricier, genetically modified seeds that resist insects and require fewer chemicals. But even the European tack a ban on genetically modified seeds but the adoption of other high-intensity farming practices would, it argues, help.
"We are a piece of the solution. Seeds are the starting point," says Hugh Grant, the Scots-born chief executive of Monsanto, who is trying to rehabilitate its global image. Mr Grant has pledged to develop seeds that will double the yields of maize, soyabeans and cotton by 2030 and require 30 per cent less water and other inputs to grow.
Monsanto has won some friends among non-governmental organisations but still has many critics. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth say that "the old paradigm of industrial, energy-intensive and toxic agriculture is a concept of the past". They see more hope in farming by smallholders using traditional seeds and less water and chemicals.
Tempting as this sounds and appropriate as it may be in Africa or places that lack the infrastructure for high-tech farming it is not the solution to the global food crisis. To reach Ban Ki-moon's target, ecological sustainability by itself is insufficient. Global yields must keep rising in the 21st century as rapidly as they did in the 20th in the US and Europe.
Intensive farming using commercial hybrid seeds, which must be replanted each year, has a long record of raising yields. Cotton yields per acre in the US have risen five-fold since the 1930s, when these techniques started. US maize farmers obtain 150 bushels per acre while those in Mexico, Brazil and India get only a third of this.
"There is no question that these technologies work. Technically, they are triumphs," says José Falck-Zepeda, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC. He argues that new forms of GM seed, including crops that tolerate drought or salty water, will be needed in developing countries affected by climate change.
This does not mean that everyone has to use GM seed; in fact, results from GM seeds in the US over the past decade have been mixed. Farmers have been able to reduce the amount of labour and management needed to cultivate crops because they require less spraying, but GM seeds have not always increased yields noticeably.
Furthermore, industrial farming has led to abuses in both developed and developing countries. Water aquifers in the US Midwest and California are being drained by agriculture, which consumes 70 per cent of US water. Agricultural land in developing countries has been spoilt by over-use of fertilisers and pesticides and inadequate irrigation.
Nor is technology enough in itself. Farmers need to invest more in seeds and fertilisers, which often requires access to credit. If they succeed in growing bigger crops, they need to hedge financial risks in futures markets and sell to export markets. Many farmers in developing countries opt not to produce crop surpluses because of such complications.
But Mr Grant is correct to say that Monsanto or the tradition it represents is a part of the solution. Handled correctly, biological research could help to increase yields while reducing the thirst for chemicals and water. This could even help to prevent degradation of land and the environmental wastage in the developing world.
History suggests that technology helps if it is applied adroitly and not relied on to do the work by itself. This presents NGOs and governments with a difficult choice: do they carry on resisting industrialised farming because of fears about environmental damage or do they encourage farmers to seek out the benefits while minimising side-effects?
The answer is obvious. There is no need to stop worrying and learn to love Monsanto but yields have to rise if people are not to starve. It requires old feuds to be put to one side and both sides to co-operate. The stakes are too high not to do so.