AGRA Watch Letter to Scientific American

Read AGRA Watch’s letter to Scientific American, in response to their article, “Food Shortage Aid Should Start with Lessons in Agriculture.” Please check back to see if they publish it!


In regards to your article “Food Shortage Aid Should Start with Lessons in Agriculture.” [Aug 2008], isn’t it time that groups in wealthy developed countries stopped professing to know “the solution” to hunger in Africa? If Scientific American is concerned about “putting African bread on African tables,” maybe you should be reporting on, and supporting, the many agroecological projects on that continent and elsewhere that have increased productivity using means more readily available to Global South farmers. [For example, the NY Times has reported that just intercropping of rice strains can double yields (Carol Kaesuk Yoon, “Simple Method Found to Increase Crop Yields Vastly,” August 22, 2000)].

Many farming organizations in Africa have, with comparatively little international support behind them, achieved amazing agricultural successes through endogenous innovation, biointensive farming, and other organic farming methods, without the use of genetically engineered seeds.

We disagree with your support of Green Revolution technologies as a solution for African farmers. Green Revolution packages of hybrid seed, mechanical instruments, and chemical inputs were previously introduced in much of Africa, and for the most part, they failed due to their incompatibility with place-specific agricultural production patterns. Elsewhere in the world, they have led to significant negative consequences –consolidation of farms, massive debt for smallholders, and subsequent suicide epidemics. They did not reduce global hunger.

High tech inputs may be suitable for large mechanized industrial farms (although even here they present significant problems), but they are completely inconsistent with the needs of smallholders in the Global South. For example, while these technologies benefited those large farmers who were well-connected, they failed to address the politics of class. Patented GE seeds can not be legally replanted, shared with neighbors, or crossed with other varieties-the techniques that enabled these people to feed themselves for millennia.

The recent report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, prepared by the World Bank and the UN, refused to support the further industrialization and globalization of agriculture and, in particular, reliance on genetically engineered plants, because the analysis shows that this route is unlikely to achieve the goal of feeding a hungry world.

GE issues are intensely political, as are agricultural issues in general-hunger in Africa and elsewhere is at least partly attributable to problems with unequal global distribution of food, political instability, and international trade regimes. However, your article leaves out the various political and economic aspects of the problem; these will not be fixed by technological improvements in agriculture.

Given our concern with the global state of agriculture and food security, we encourage Scientific American to consider all factors contributing to world hunger and to feature non-genetically engineered approaches that combine agricultural science with social, political, and economic non-technological solutions in your pages.


Prof. Philip L. Bereano and Ashley Fent
on behalf of AGRA Watch, Seattle

Read the original article:

Scientific American Magazine – July 29, 2008
“Food Shortage Aid Should Start with Lessons in Agriculture”

The U.S. needs to expand support for agricultural science targeted at developing countries [Note: This story was originally published with the title, “We Can Do More”.]

By The Editors

Global food prices have roughly doubled in three years. At the World Food Summit in Rome in early June, United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon recalled that on a trip to Liberia he encountered people who had once bought rice by the bag and whose cash now suffices for a meager cupful. The current crisis means that another 100 million hungry may join the 854 million who already lack sufficient daily nourishment.

An immediate response should include policies that discourage grain hoarding, that reapportion the way food aid is delivered and that ensure that subsidies for food purchases are carefully targeted to reach the truly poor. Just shipping more grain to Africa, by far the most vulnerable region, will not suffice. Over the long haul, science and technology have a big role to play. Finding nonfood substitutes for ethanol produced from corn or sugarcane would help. But the only lasting solution to hunger in Africa and elsewhere must focus on poor agricultural productivity.

U.S. secretary of agriculture Ed Schafer called on participants at the summit to consider the use of biotechnology to grow crops with higher yields that are capable of resisting assaults from inclement weather, disease or pests. Some activists, invoking fears about genetic manipulation of food crops, have jumped on the administration’s stance as pandering to agribusiness and overhyping benefits from genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

That criticism is unfounded. Nongovernmental organizations that advocate exporting the organic food movement to Africa are at best misguided. Much of Africa practices what political scientist Robert Paarlberg calls “de facto organic farming,” and overall productivity has plummeted. African small farmers achieve crop yields only one third of those obtained by farmers in developing countries in Asia. GMOs have the potential to increase productivity by incorporating beneficial traits that would, for one, allow crops to thrive even when rain is a rare event.

The Bush administration, never a beacon of enlightened social policymaking, would have come across more convincingly if it had incorporated biotechnology into a well-defined framework of research and development assistance. At the moment, genetically modifying cassava or cowpeas against viruses or insects is akin to producing hydrogen fuel cells in the energy arena. Both hold tremendous promise, and both are not ready for wide commercial dissemination.

The best hope for improving African crop yields today would be to borrow technology from the decades-old green revolution that transformed agriculture in Asia and Latin America. Using conventionally bred hybrid seeds, farmers in certain fertile areas of Ethiopia have witnessed their fields turn into a breadbasket that is rivaled in the sub-Saharan region of the continent only by South Africa. Eventually these same farmers will likely demand still better yields that will leave an opening for acceptance of genetically modified crops.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (a partnership of the Rockefeller and Gates foundations) signed an agreement with three U.N. food agencies at the June summit meeting to bolster the lot of African small farmers. The Bush administration had asked in May that part of a recent aid package to address the food crisis go to agricultural development, including the planting of GMOs. More is needed, though. As the world’s largest food aid donor, the U.S. channels most of its dollars to pay for acute emergencies, a response that, by law, requires shipping crops grown in Iowa or Kansas to needy countries-largely on U.S. ships. Meanwhile the U.S. Agency for International Development’s funding for agricultural science in Africa dropped by 75 percent after inflation from the mid-1980s to 2004.

To avoid a crisis without end, we should back a program that not only delivers better seeds to African farmers but also devotes still more assistance to support improvements in soil, irrigation, roads and farmer education. Then, when necessary, we should use remaining aid money to buy either hybrid or genetically modified crops grown in African soil for local distribution. The U.S. farm lobby will howl in protest, but this action will be the best way to work toward putting African bread on African tables.

Posted in Agra Watch Blog Posts.

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