The Founding Fables of Industrialized Agriculture

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Governments these days are not content with agriculture that merely  provides good food. In line with the dogma of neoliberalism they want it  to contribute as much wealth as any other industry towards the grand  goal of “economic growth”. High tech offers to reconcile the two  ambitions – producing allegedly fabulous yields, which seems to be  what’s needed, and becoming highly profitable. The high-tech flavour of  the decade is genetic engineering, supplying custom-built crops and  livestock as GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms).

Piedmont, Italy

So it was that the UK Secretary of State for the Environment and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, told The Independent recently that the world absolutely needs genetically-engineered “Golden Rice”, as created by one of the world’s two biotech giants, Syngenta. Indeed, those who oppose Golden Rice are “wicked”: a comment so outrageous that Paterson’s own civil servants have distanced themselves from it.

Specifically, Golden Rice has been fitted with genes that produce  carotene, which is the precursor of vitamin A. Worldwide, approximately 5  million pre-school aged children and 10 million pregnant women suffer  significant Vitamin A deficiency sufficiently severe to cause night  blindness according to the WHO. By such statistics a vitamin A-rich rice seems eminently justified.

Yet the case for Golden Rice is pure hype. For Golden Rice is not  particularly rich in carotene and in any case, rice is not, and never  will be, the best way to deliver it. Carotene is one of the commonest  organic molecules in nature. It is the yellow pigment that accompanies  chlorophyll in all dark green leaves (the many different kinds known as  “spinach” are a great source) and is clearly on show in yellow roots  such as carrots and some varieties of cassava, and in fruits like papaya  and mangoes that in the tropics can grow like weeds.

So the best way by far to supply carotene (and thus vitamin A) is by  horticulture – which traditionally was at the core of all agriculture.  Vitamin A deficiency is now a huge and horrible issue primarily because  horticulture has been squeezed out by monocultural big-scale agriculture  — the kind that produces nothing but rice or wheat or maize as far as  the eye can see; and by insouciant urbanization that leaves no room for  gardens. Well-planned cities could always be self-sufficient in fruit  and veg. Golden Rice is not the answer to the world’s vitamin A problem.  As a scion of monocultural agriculture, it is part of the cause.  Syngenta’s promotion of it is yet one more exercise in top-down control  and commercial PR. Paterson’s blatant promotion of it is at best naïve.

For Golden Rice serves primarily as a flagship for GMOs and GMOs are  very big business – duly supported at huge public expense by successive  governments. It is now the lynch-pin of agricultural research almost  everywhere. The UK’s Agriculture and Food Research Council of the 1990s  even had the words ‘Agriculture’ and ‘Food’ air-brushed out to become  the Biotechnology and Biological Research Council (BBSRC). We have been  told that GMOs increase yields with lower inputs and have been proven  beyond reasonable doubt to be safe. Indeed, journalist Mark Lynas has been telling us from some remarkably high platforms that the debate on GMOs is “dead”; that there is now “a consensus” among scientists worldwide that they are necessary and safe.

In reality, GMOs do not consistently or even usually yield well under field conditions; they do not necessarily lead to reduction in chemical inputs, and have often led to increases; and contra Mark Lynas, there is no worldwide consensus of scientists vouching for  their safety. Indeed, the European Network of Scientists for Social and  Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER)  has drawn up a petition that specifically denies any such consensus and  points out that “a list of several hundred studies does not show GM  food safety”. Hundreds of scientists are expected to sign. Overall,  after 30 years of concerted endeavour, ultimately at our expense and  with the neglect of matters far more pressing, no GMO food crop has ever  solved a problem that really needs solving that could not have been  solved by conventional means in the same time and at less cost.

The real point behind GMOs is to achieve corporate/ big  government control of all agriculture, the biggest by far of all human  endeavours. And this agriculture will be geared not to general wellbeing  but to the maximization of wealth. The last hundred years, in which  agriculture has been industrialised, have laid the foundations. GMOs,  for the agro-industrialists, can finish the job. The technology itself  is esoteric so that only the specialist and well-endowed can embark on  it – the bigger the better. All of the technology can be, and is,  readily protected by patents. Crops that are not protected by patents  are being made illegal.  Only parts of the EU have so far been pro-GM but even so the list of  crops that it allows farmers to grow – or any of us! – becomes more and  more restricted. Those who dare to sell the seed of traditional  varieties that have not been officially approved can go to prison. Your  heritage allotment could soon land you in deep trouble.

As GMOs spread – and governments like Britain’s would love to follow  the US lead in this – they could soon become the only options; the only  kids on the block. Then all of agriculture, the key to human survival,  will become the exclusive property of the few huge companies that hold  the patents. By every sane judgment this is a horrible prospect. Among  many other things, the obvious loss of biodiversity will make the whole  world even more precarious than it is right now, especially if climate  changes the growing conditions year by year. Yet our government’s  support for GM technology and for the thinking behind it is unswerving.  Government wants agriculture to be seen as big business. Lip  service is still paid to democracy (young men and women are sent to  their deaths to defend the idea of it) but in truth we have rule by  oligarchy: a virtual coalition of corporates and government, with  establishment scientists in attendance. This monolith, and the crude  thinking on which it is founded, is a far bigger threat to humanity than  North Korea or “terrorism”, or the collapse of banks or dwindling oil.

Yet we have been assured, time and again, that there is no  alternative; that without high tech, industrialized agriculture, we will  all starve. This is the greatest untruth of all; though it has been  repeated so often by so many people in such high places that it has  become embedded in the zeitgeist. Whether the officially  sanctioned untruths spring from misconception or from downright lies I  will leave others to judge. But in either case, their repetition by  people who have influence in public affairs, is deeply reprehensible.

Specifically we have been told that the world will need 50% more food  by 2050. The Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government, Sir John  Beddington, said this in his “Foresight” report of 2012 on The Future of Food and Farming [1] His argument was, and is, that a billion out of the present seven  billion are now undernourished; that numbers are due to rise to 9.5  billion by 2050; that people “demand” more and more meat as they grow  richer; and that meat requires enormous resources to produce (already  the world’s livestock gobble up about 50% of the world’s cereal and well  over 90% of the soya). So of course we need 50% more – and some have  raised the ante to 100%. Thus the message comes from on high, we must  focus on production, come what may.

But others, including some far closer to the facts, tell a quite different story. Professor Hans Herren, President of the Millennium Institute in Washington, points out that the world already produces enough staple  food to support 14 billion – twice the present number. A billion starve  because the wrong food is produced in the wrong places by the wrong  means by the wrong people – and once the food is produced, as the Food  and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) has pointed out, half of it  is wasted. The UN demographers tell us that although human numbers are  rising the percentage rise is going down and should reach zero  by 2050 – so the numbers should level out. Nine and a half billion is as  many as we will ever have to feed – and we already produce 50% more  than will ever be needed. The task, then, is not to increase output, but  to produce what we do produce (or even less) by means that are kinder  to people, livestock, and wildlife; more sustainable; and more  resilient.

The truth is that for commercial purposes – for the maximization of wealth – it is too easy to provide good food for everyone.  A few years ago, after all, when the economy was tweaked a little  differently, farmers in Europe and the US were embarrassed by gluts of  wheat and maize; and as farmers have always known, gluts are second only  to total crop failure as the route to financial disaster. The obvious  and sensible solution would be to reduce production: to tailor output to  need and to genuine desire. “Set-aside” was a crude stab at this. But  the far more lucrative course is the one we have taken- to overproduce –  and if it turns out that people really don’t need more food, then those  who seek primarily to maximize wealth must pretend that they do. So the  word is put around, backed by well-chosen and uncritical statistics,  that we will need 50% more in the next few decades.

The resulting surpluses are then fed to livestock. Livestock that  could, incidentally, be fed in more than adequate numbers if we made  better use of the world’s grasslands, which account for about two-thirds  of all agricultural land; or – which is a straightforward scam, though  again it can be made to look respectable – the surplus wheat and maize  can simply be burnt if labelled “biofuel”. “Demand” (in this scenario)  is judged not by what people actually say they want (who ever said they  wanted wheat-based biofuel, or cereal-fed beef rather than grass-fed  beef?) but by what can be sold by aggressive PR and successfully lobbied  through complaisant government.

Then we are told that the 50% increase we are said to need can be  provided only by industrial agriculture and that this industry, like all  human endeavour, works most efficiently when driven by the maximally  competitive global market. The pious slogan that is meant to justify all  this is “sustainable intensification”: more and more output per  hectare, achieved by high tech. The magic bullet of GMOs is just part of  the hype.

For if we really did need more food (and it would be good to produce  more in some places) then the industrial high tech route is not the one  to go down.  As the IAASTD report [2] of 2009 pointed out – this being one of the few official reports of  recent years that is truly worthwhile – the industrial farming that is  supposed to be feeding the world in practice provides only 30% of the  world’s food. Another 20% comes from fishing, hunting, and people’s back  gardens – and the remaining 50% comes from the mostly small, mostly  mixed traditional farms that the industrialists and their political  assistants tell us are an anachronism; and small mixed farms can be the  most productive of all, per unit area [3].  Furthermore, to produce  their 30%, the industrial farms gobble up enormous quantities of oil for  their industrial chemistry with immense collateral damage, not least to  the climate. In contrast traditional farms are low input, and at least  when properly managed, need not be damaging at all.