Thursday, February 18, 2010

GMOs, the Antithesis of Sustainable Development

Yesterday I went to see a lovely farm in Ngubreti, just a few kilometres north of Mogotio, in Kenya's Rift Valley province. Of course, if you like farms, many of them are beautiful. But when the climate is hot and dry for most of the year with flash floods that can wash everything away, the odds could be stacked against the farm being beautiful. This farm is beautiful because the farmer has employed numerous techniques to get as much as he possibly can from a twenty acre plot.

This farm has 30 or 40 orange trees, 80 or 90 mango trees, vegetable crops, grain crops, animal fodder, 20 or 30 beehives, a tree nursery (which has already produced 2000 seedlings), cattle, sheep and, most importantly, water pans for collecting and storing as much as possible from those flash floods. It's hard to believe there is so much variety on this small farm but it's encouraging to see everything doing so well, given the amount of work that has been put in over the years.

One of the sickening things about institutions like the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) is that they can (and do) produce research to show that the way forward for farmers in developing countries is to increase support for farm inputs, provide extension programmes, improve infrastructure and other somewhat obvious things.

Obvious, except that the same two institutions also give loans with conditions that include reducing public sector employment, cutting expenditure on extension programmes and banning anything that could be considered a subsidy, such as grants, loans or anything else to help farmers afford farm inputs, fertilizer, pesticides and the like. Never mind that these are allowed in rich countries, that's not the point. The point is that these institutions are run for the benefit of rich countries and what is good for them would never be allowed in developing countries.

Well, the new head of the UNDP (United Nations Development Program), Helen Clark, has now said that she thinks there should be more public funding for agriculture, for extension services and for research that improves productivity and yield. There should also be public funding to help farmers to reduce inputs. The last one is especially gratifying because 'modern' agriculture often involves a constantly increasing dependence on things like fertilizer and pesticide. So there would still be inputs but the financial costs would be significantly lower and the environmental costs incalculably so.

In the case of the farmer in Ngubreti, I said the water pans were the most important initiative on his farm. The failure to avail of cheap water harvesting techniques in the area is quite extraordinary. But this farmer has taken heed of what the local agricultural extension officers have taught him. He has two water pans, one that is just fed directly, the other which is fed by run-off water from the main road. These supplies ensure that the farm does not run out of water, even during prolonged dry periods.

I shouldn't leave out the point that the head of the UNDP was actually responding to a question about genetically modified organisms (GMO). Ms Clark said that world food security depends on getting "back to the basics" with agriculture, it does not depend on GMOs. She also said that crops for biofuel competed with crops for food, despite the lies to the contrary that we so often hear from those investing in biofuels. So congratulations to Helen Clark. She could really benefit farmers in developing countries.

The farm in Ngubreti was the scene of a number of agricultural extension programmes yesterday, including improved cooking stoves, cooking baskets, solar lighting and phone charging, beekeeping, water harvesting and various other ways of increasing the productivity of small farms. I'm hoping that Ribbon of Hope can try some of the things being done there, especially water harvesting and perhaps growing tree seedlings.

It is clear from visiting a farm like this that GMOs have nothing to offer, especially in the sort of dry areas that make up so much of Kenya's land. The farmers are almost all smallholders, whereas GMOs are designed for farmers with huge tracts of land (that they can afford to waste, presumably). The farmers are poor but GMO seeds cost several times more than conventional seeds. Inputs for GMOs are far higher than inputs for conventional crops and increase over time (and conventional crop farmers usually put by their own seed every year). Organic methods, which increase yields, improve resistance to pests and to bad growing conditions and therefore cost less, are inimical to GMO production.

GMOs are the antithesis of organic farming, indeed, the antithesis of sustainable agriculture. And there are many other problems with GMOs, as make clear. It's good to know that much of Kenya's land is, as yet, unspoiled by modern agriculture. The same is true of much of the land in most developing countries. So it's time to ensure that it stays that way by resisting GMOs and anything else that compromises the future of the world's food security.


No comments: