Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ category

The Truth about Biotechnology, Agriculture and Sustainable Development

April 27, 2009

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel wants a more civil debate about them. Britain’s Prince Charles thinks they will lead to “real disaster,” and farmers in India are allegedly committing mass suicide because of them. In case you haven’t figured out what I’m talking about, maybe one of these terms will ring a bell: biotech crops, biotechnology, genetically enhanced seeds/grains or genetically modified organisms. The debate over this “gene revolution” is becoming especially important as global concerns about food security have made nations skittish about food production, supplies and whether biotechnology is a possible solution to their concerns. The issue of food security is so hot right now that just a few days ago the U.N. called for sustainable agricultural spending in Asia, stating that last year’s crisis was “a warning of things to come.”

While the fear-mongering headlines against biotechnology may seem alarming (ie. articles about how GMOs are bad for our health, the environment and the livelihoods of farmers worldwide) there’s another side of the story you most likely aren’t hearing. Biotech crops have a proven track record of alleviating poverty in developing countries and providing a sustainable lifestyle for farmers (and nations) who have adopted this technology. (Note, none of my notes are coming from GMO seed producers or distributors but from secondary sources.)

From a 2008 report issued by the non-profit International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications:

  • Biotech crops have improved the income and quality of life of small and resource-poor farmers and their families, and contributed to the alleviation of their poverty – case studies are cited in Brief 39 for India, China, South Africa, and the Philippines.
  • The impressive contribution of biotech crops to sustainability is reviewed: 1) Contributing to food, feed and fiber security including more affordable food (lower prices); 2) Conserving biodiversity; 3) Contributing to the alleviation of poverty and hunger; 4) Reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint; 5) Helping mitigate climate change and reducing greenhouse gases; 6) Contributing to more cost-effective production of biofuels; and 7) Contributing to sustainable economic benefits worth US$44 billion from 1996 to 2007. In summary, collectively these seven thrusts are a significant contribution to sustainability and the potential for the future is enormous.
  • Five principal developing countries: China, India, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa, with a combined population of 2.6 billion, are exerting leadership with biotech crops, and driving global adoption – benefits from biotech crops are spurring strong political will and substantial new investments in biotech crops in several of these lead countries. [Emphasis mine.]
  • Of the economic gains of US$44 billion during the period 1996 to 2007, 44% were due to substantial yield gains, and 56% due to a reduction in production costs (including a 359,000 tonne a.i. saving in pesticides); the production gains of 141 million tons, would have required 43 million additional hectares had biotech crops not been deployed – a land-saving technology.

And the list goes on. Case studies supporting the report’s findings can be found on the ISAAA Web site. (more…)


Analyzing the Greater Good of the Gates Foundation’s BREAD Program with the NSF

April 3, 2009

returning home after a day’s work, originally uploaded by martapiqs.

Earlier this week the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it was collaborating with the National Science Foundation in a $48 million partnership which will fund “research on ways to make crops resistant to drought, disease and pests; and improve soil quality and tackle a wide range of problems that limit agricultural productivity in Africa and other poor corners of the world.” [Seattle Times]

This is how it will work: Funding will be awarded to recipients based on the NSF’s thorough peer-review process and be made available to qualifying scientists from around the world, particularly those from developing countries.

The program is known as BREAD – Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development.

Research projects might focus on the use of nanotechnology to deliver tiny amounts of fertilizer without causing environmental damage, better approaches to livestock breeding or use of remote sensors to monitor crops.

Research on genetically modified plants or animals could be included in the program.

Critics claim the partnership fails to promote innovation at the grass-roots level within Africa and instead relies on importing knowledge from the outside.

“Why doesn’t the Gates Foundation offer money to grass-roots African organizations and villagers to fund their own ‘solutions’ rather than expecting that imported ideas, dreamed up by people who have never farmed for a living, will work?” questions Philip Bereano, emeritus professor of technology and public policy at the University of Washington.

Bereano makes a good point, but I wonder if his thinking is a bit myopic. (more…)

Why the Daewoo-Madagascar Deal Would Have Struggled Anyway

March 23, 2009

women in Madagascar, originally uploaded by Zé Eduardo….

A while ago I wrote about the issue of food security and the ethical implications that have arisen in relation to it, using the Madagascar-South Korea Daewoo deal as an example. The now failed agreement will serve as a text book case study for large conglomerates and nations seeking similar partnerships in the future, especially as they relate to issues of conflict-resolution.

(For background details on the issue, please click here.)

Over the weekend we learned that the tenant farming deal is now null. Due to political unrest in Madagascar, the island has brought into power a new leader who has scrapped the deal with Daewoo, much to the pleasure of the country’s citizens.

Says the BBC:

Correspondents say Malagasy people have deep ties to their land and some had condemned the deal as “neo-colonialism”.

While there is no denying that such a deal had the potential to bring about positive change for the impoverished nation, even if the agreement had gone through to implementation, Daewoo and Madagascar’s government would have faced an uphill battle from the start.

If the people such changes are meant to benefit aren’t on board with the plan, conflicts are sure to arise. Judging by the reports I have read, there was little support among the domestic population for this agreement.

This isn’t to say that over time, the domestic population would not have gradually accepted the agreement and would have come on board with the plan, especially if they were seeing immediate positive change. Of course, that is such a big “if” when they are resisting the proposal from the get-go.

A great book that deals with issues of development, the environment and indigenous peoples (although in the context of Southeast Asia) is The Politics of Environment in Southeast Asia: Resources and Resistance, edited by Philip Hirsch and Carol Warren.

While the tone of the book did tend to have me on the offensive (as I am a strong believer in development and the good it can bring impoverished populations), I did take away one important thing and that was the realization that there is a wrong way and a right way in terms of dealing with the web of relationships involved with international development, relationships that include the physical development itself, the environment, the people who will benefit and the people who will not (in many cases indigenous communities whose land and resources are affected by the changes).

While it’s not my place to point a finger at any one party in relation to the failed Daewoo-Madagascar deal, I will say that the approach taken in introducing the plan to the domestic population seemed to lack citizen participation in the decision-making process. (At least based on the mainstream media reports I have been reading). And while citizen participation may not have necessarily saved the deal, it could have perhaps lessened the feelings of antagonization that developed further down the road.

The Ethics of International Development and Food Security

February 9, 2009
Last year, South Koreas Daewoo corporation announced tentative plans to lease agricultural land in Madagascar for the purpose of growing corn in the midst of international concerns over food security. (Photo via Laurel714, Flickr.)

Last year, South Korea's Daewoo corporation announced tentative plans to lease agricultural land in Madagascar for the purpose of growing corn in the midst of international concerns over food security. (Photo via Laurel714, Flickr -

When South Korea’s Daewoo announced last November that it was in negotiations with the impoverished African island of Madagascar for the leasing of 1 million acres of agricultural land for a period of 99 years, the issue sparked several debates about the ethics of food security and international development.

Advocates called the proposed arrangement a win-win situation. Korea, which has limited land space for crops, would be able to grow its own supply of corn in the midst of rising commodity prices. Madagascar, it was argued, would benefit financially from Korea’s investment as the money would go toward further developing the nation. Daewoo also said that during the next 20 years, it would invest $6 billion in Madagascar to build ports, roads, irrigation systems and other infrastructure related to its agribusiness endeavors on the island. Such investments would create more jobs for local citizens, thus supplying people with enough money to buy food and other necessities, Daewoo argued.

Some critics, on the other hand, compared the arrangement to modern-day colonization and questioned the ethics involved:

Not everyone is convinced that Daewoo’s move is the most effective way of promoting food security. Riots have shaken dozens of countries across the world over the past year as poor people have found themselves unable to pay the rocketing prices for staples such as rice, corn and sugar. The U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) runs school-feeding schemes for children in Madagascar, where about 70% of the country’s 20 million people live below the poverty line. The island’s residents also rely on WFP emergency-food-relief programs because of the frequency with which they are struck by cyclones and droughts. Given those hardships, the prospect of a corporate giant growing hundreds of tons of food to be consumed by people and animals in Korea raises “ethical concerns,” says David Hallam, head of the FAO’S Trade Policy Service in Rome. “If we have another world food crisis, and you have a poor country where food is produced by foreign investors and then repatriated, that is ethically and political tricky,” Hallam warns.

What are the limits when it comes to propositions such as tenant farming? Are there more reasonable alternatives to fufilling both the needs of a country like Korea and Madagascar? Or is the proposed plan an example of the new face of foreign investment, food security and international development?