GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOODS and industrial monoculture are not the answer to feeding the world or to promoting sustainable agriculture. This was the conclusion of an extensive United Nations-led global agriculture assessment completed in Johannesburg, South Africa, in April earlier this year. After five years of research, an international team of 400 scientists and experts on agriculture found that most of the solutions to feeding the world, protecting biodiversity and natural resources, and creating social equity involve supporting organic, small-scale and traditional farming techniques. At the end of the process, 57 countries, representing two thirds of the world's population, signed their acceptance of the report's findings. Canada, along with the United States and Australia, refused to sign the report, further entrenching Canada's reputation as a saboteur of global environmental protection.
The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) was initiated in 2003 by a consortium of international development agencies, including the World Bank and several United Nations organizations, to review the policies of the agricultural Green Revolution, with an aim to redress social and ecological shortcomings of previous developmental policies. According to their report, "despite significant scientific and technological achievements in our ability to increase agricultural productivity, we have been less attentive to some of the unintended social and ecological consequences of our achievements." Understated as this admission may be, the report opens the way for recognizing the value of traditional technology and knowledge, and the unsustainability of current agro-industrial practices.
Acknowledging Past Failures
This past April, trade and environment representatives from the Canadian government met with their counterparts from around the world to discuss adoption of the report's recommendations. Widespread international support for the conclusions of the report signifies an international shift in the direction of agricultural policies. The report's findings acknowledge the contributions of women and indigenous communities, as well as recognizing the importance of technologies that incorporate both traditional knowledge and modern science. Instead of policies that force genetically engineered crops and other toxic technologies onto the developing world, the implementation of the IAASTD report could lead to a new, truly green revolution in agriculture that works with nature.
The second half of the Twentieth Century saw the greatest increases in economic productivity the world had ever seen. However, wealth was distributed according to the formula for capitalist development foreseen by Karl Marx a century earlier: "The accumulation of wealth at one pole is...at the same time the accumulation of misery, of agony, toil...at the opposite pole." This dictum holds true especially for the mainly agricultural economies of Asia, Africa and Latin America, which were the object of the so-called Green Revolution of the 1960s, as a result of which disparities in wealth have skyrocketed over the past few decades. For example, Indian per-capita GDP increased threefold over the period 1960-2000, while a quarter of the population--nearly three-hundred-million people--remained mired below the extreme-poverty threshold of forty cents per day. This was not the image of prosperity hawked by the development mongers at the World Bank forty years earlier.
The Green Revolution was a development strategy initiated by multinational organizations and agencies to create an industrial revolution in Third World agriculture. The ostensible purpose of the initiative was to combat hunger and boost productivity. From early on, farmers' organizations in India, the Philippines, Mexico and elsewhere recognized the true aims as being less benign. American agri-business used a crisis in global agriculture as an opportunity to make inroads for its products, ranging from chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizers to farm machinery and equipment. With American manufacturing dominance in the postwar era, the time was ripe to capture emerging markets while building barriers against Soviet influence in the region.
Initially, enormous gains in agricultural productivity were made as a result of the application of new seed varieties and the introduction of chemical fertilizers. This led to an extreme polarization of wealth, both within these countries and on a global scale. Even worse, many of these gains turned evanescent, as the policies that led to increased productivity robbed the soil of its nutrients, polluted local environments and degraded the productive capacity of the world's ecosystems. Many regions have experienced environmental collapse caused by increased pesticide and fertilizer usage. Arsenic and salt contamination render precarious water tables unusable. Nitrogen run-off into lakes and rivers causes poisonous algal blooms, while nitrous oxide emissions into the air exacerbate deadly climate change in already drought-and heat-stricken regions. The introduction of monocultures into India, the Philippines and Sub-Saharan Africa choke biodiversity in centres of origin for world agriculture.
After decades of criticism for their shortsighted policies, the World Bank and several United Nations development organizations have finally admitted that some mistakes may have been made along the path of the Green Revolution. Trade liberalization since the 1970s has subjected small-scale farmers in the global south to international competition with heavily subsidized European and American industrial agriculture. This unfair competition has resulted in "long term negative effects for poverty, food security and the environment." Many of the worst of these effects have been borne by the most economically and socially disadvantaged sections of rural society, in particular women and indigenous communities.
Gender and the Green Revolution
The Green Revolution entailed not merely a shift in technology; it introduced a watershed in social relations in affected societies. Increases in productivity were tied to market specialization and liberal market principles of comparative advantage. Only those products that could be traded in international commodity markets held value. The traditional economic contributions of women were consequently devalued in this process.
Women in many traditional agricultural societies play key roles in fostering healthy soil and in supplying households with food, medicine and other materials foraged from forests and the local environment. The Green Revolution reduced the power of women in several ways. Increased reliance on industrial fertilizers and pesticides replaced women's specialized agricultural knowledge, while the spread of intensive monocultures left fewer margins in which forage could be successfully carried out. Frequently barred from formal education and access to property ownership, women became even more disadvantaged once the monetary economy rose to penultimate importance. These changes led to a widespread feminization of poverty, a trend increased by male migration to urban areas.
Policy makers have consistently undermined the traditional knowledge of local indigenous communities, favouring instead the intensive industrial technologies imported from Europe and North America. Farmers are cajoled and encouraged to shift production to a few commodity crops, notably cotton, soy and tobacco, at the cost of losing tremendous biological diversity. The knowledge embedded in traditional production technologies has been lost. Small-scale farmers have been shown to add considerable ecological value to their regions, and have reduced greenhouse-gas emissions compared to larger intensive agriculturists.
Traditional crop varieties that have survived have lately been hunted down for exploitation by the new colonialists: bio-pharmaceutical, chemical and seed firms eager for new patents and monopolies. Indigenous communities, reliant on shifting agriculture and extensive foraging, are pushed aside to make way for millions of hectares of genetically engineered soy for animal feed in Argentina and Brazil. As local knowledge loses out, farmers become increasingly dependant on multinational seed and chemical companies. The loss for the environment, as much as for human culture, is acute.
Future Directions in Agriculture
To address these problems, the IAASTD report suggests a number of initiatives, which if implemented could help alleviate some of the worst aspects of the Green Revolution. The report proposes strengthening the capacity of public institutions following decades of neoliberal attack. Women, who have often been left out of development, could be offered better access to education and micro-credit. One of the most innovative ideas is to compensate farmers for the ecological contributions they make. Farmers could then concentrate of fostering biodiversity, healthy soil and reducing climate change without being subject to the extreme vicissitude of commodity markets.
The report also proposes support for marker-assisted breeding, a sophisticated technology that avoids the gene-crossing risks inherent in genetic engineering, but strengthens the ability of breeders to select desired traits. From an environmental perspective, this technology seems promising. However, we need to monitor its implementation to ensure that it does not replicate at a greater scale the disempowerment of small-scale farmers that previous breeding technologies have promoted. Using a combination of new technologies, while respecting the knowledge built up by cultures over centuries, may provide a key to ending the depressing ecological and human catastrophe of the Green Revolution.
Canada's record at international agricultural and environmental forums of late has been poor. The embarrassment of Canada's role at the Bali climate-change negotiations last December remains fresh in our minds. Recently, Canadian governments have resisted the implementation of an international moratorium on Terminator seeds, and Canada has failed to ratify an international treaty regulating the cross-border movement of genetically engineered organisms. Once again, Canada, along with the United States and Australia, is blocking progressive reforms to support farmers and protect the environment.
It is not too late for Canada to reverse its position and sign on to the IAASTD report. I encourage readers to contact Canada's environment minister, John Baird, and let him know you support a global agriculture without genetically engineered crops, wherein protecting food sovereignty for small-scale farmers and advancing environmental sustainability are more important than endlessly growing trade.
PLEASE WRITE TO:
The Honourable John Baird Minister of the Environment Les Terrasses de la Chaudiere 10 Wellington Street, 28th Floor, Gatineau, QC K1A OH3
A copy of the IAASTD report can be found at: www.agassessment.org.