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Every time I read something Vandana Shiva has written, I become more convinced that she is either 1) willfully ignorant on the subject of farming or 2) willfully ignoring a whole swath of problems in order to focus on a pet peeve. She is another sad example of a self-styled celebrity who plays games with people’s lives because she is unwilling to move from her ideology. One would think she would at least adapt her diatribes to fit peer-reviewed research or the numerous surveys of the people she claims to protect. Unfortunately, she’s still using the same old talking points and flat out lies that have accomplished nothing.

Case in point: Shiva writes about the plight of Indian farmers in the Huffington Post article From Seeds of Suicide to Seeds of Hope: Why Are Indian Farmers Committing Suicide and How Can We Stop This Tragedy? in April of 2009. Instead of focusing on real solutions or the real source of the problems, she points a lazy finger at the boogeyman Monsanto. I don’t have any particular love for big M (or for capitalism in agriculture in general), but it’s reckless to ignore all of the other issues, as she does in this article (and many others). Shiva writes:

Farm saved seeds were replaced by corporate seeds, which need fertilizers and pesticides and cannot be saved.
Corporations prevent seed savings through patents and by engineering seeds with non-renewable traits. As a result, poor peasants have to buy new seeds for every planting season and what was traditionally a free resource, available by putting aside a small portion of the crop, becomes a commodity.
The shift from saved seed to corporate monopoly of the seed supply also represents a shift from biodiversity to monoculture in agriculture. The district of Warangal in Andhra Pradesh used to grow diverse legumes, millets, and oilseeds. Now the imposition of cotton monocultures has led to the loss of the wealth of farmer’s breeding and nature’s evolution.

The majority of “corporate seed” is hybrid. If farmers save seed from hybrids, the resulting plants will not have the benefit of hybrid vigor. That’s biology, and has nothing to do with corporate greed, patents, or genetic engineering. Hybrids can be grown without fertilizers and pesticides, but they will then yield less. Local varieties yield less without fertilizer and pesticides as well. In other words, hybrid seed grown in farming methods that de-emphasize chemical inputs will do as well if not better than saved seed, assuming that the hybrid is appropriate for the environment (wet or dry soil, etc). Sadly, no one is researching the use of improved seed in alternative farming systems. This is not physics, it’s crop science – which might be why she doesn’t seem to understand it. Some activists argue that we shouldn’t be using hybrids at all, but removing hybrids of all types from the food supply would spell starvation for a lot of people.

There is no corporate monopoly of the seed supply in India. Ironically, things might be better if seeds there was such a monopoly, but seed is often bought from cut rate dealers selling counterfeit (mislabeled or fake) seed. To solve this problem, India would need to adopt some sort of seed certifying system. It would also be useful to have more government research into crop varieties including genetically engineered traits, then distribute them to farmers at low cost, as China does.

Farmers are welcome to continue using local varieties; there is no legal requirement for them to take out loans they can’t afford to buy fertilizers, pesticides, and seed (or larger houses, extravagant weddings, etc). One of the biggest problems plaguing farmers and small business owners all over the world is credit – absurdly high interest rates are a bigger problem than Bt could ever be.

Shiva never asks why “corporate seeds” were snapped up so quickly by farmers (perhaps she thinks they are stupid). Farmers all over the world are buying Bt seed of various species because it works. Bt decreases pest damage without increasing pesticide use. It isn’t a silver bullet, though. Bt only controls certain pests, and the specific varieties the trait is in may or may not be suited for the local environment. The best way to use traits like Bt are to integrate them carefully into an Integrated Farm Management Plan and to put the trait in locally adapted varieties.

To solve the existing farm problems in India – including eroded soil, misuse of fertilizers and pesticides, monocultures, and misuse of Bt – India needs farm extension and price regulation. The farmers surely remember how to grow millet, legumes, and oilseeds, but why would anyone choose to grow those if they could get a higher price for cotton?

Some of these and many other issues surrounding the problem of farmer suicides and Bt cotton in India can be found in a report by IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) in October of 2008. I wrote about the report in November of 2008 in Bt cotton and suicides in India.

h/t Luigi.

 

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Even before Tomorrow’s Table graced the shelves of bookstores across America, I was intrigued by the idea of combining science with traditional farming methods. In this week’s Nature Genetics, Jonathan Gressel reviewed Tomorrow’s Table and may have coined a term to describe the combination of organic and transgenic methods – orgenic! What do you think of the term?

Dr. Gressel is interesting in his own right, a professor emeritus of plant sciences at Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, and author of ” Genetic Glass Ceilings: Transgenics for Crop Biodiversity“. I can’t wait to find a copy and let you know what he has to say. A preview is available at Google Books. He argues that we need to use biotechnology in order to break the glass ceiling – alluding to the decline in crop yield improvement over the past few years. According to the reviews, he also addresses problems with biotech and ways to overcome them.

At its heart, organic ag is based on biology – understanding biological processes in order to coax food out of the soil. Conventional ag has forgotten things, such as how soil-bacteria interactions can affect soil fertility, how polyculture (or at least rotation) can help prevent disease, or how natural predators can be used to keep pests away. In short, conventional ag is chemistry while organic is biology.

Even though the technology is new, biotech is biology, not chemistry. This is eloquently described by Raoul Adamchak in Tomorrow’s Table. For example, giving plants the means to protect themselves from disease with technologies like RNAi is very different from spraying potentially toxic chemicals, and doing so is fundamentally true to the idea behind organic farming.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many people who are listening. For example, when I brought this up in a Sustainable Agriculture class at Iowa State, the response was:

Organic agriculture is defined by law (unlike other forms of agriculture) and as such, the rules prescribe that transgenic forms cannot be used in organic agriculture.

The rules about what is and is not organic may be defined by law, but they aren’t defined by science. Some of the additives allowed by the organic rules are quite dangerous and don’t follow from the idea of biologically conscious agriculture – such as the use of sulfur and copper (see p133-137 of the Google Books preview of The Truth About Organic Gardening).

The line drawn to exclude biotechnology is arbitrary. Included are techniques like chemical and radioactive mutagenesis, forced hybridization across species, grafting to form physically chimeric plants. Excluded are techniques like cell fusion, microencapsulation and macroencapsulation, and recombinant DNA technology. There is one distinction I can see: techniques allowed in organic farming have been in use for decades and can generally be done with minimal equipment while techniques excluded from organic farming are new, patentable, require expensive equipment and trained technicians.

It has been suggested that the organic movement (specifically the anti-GM movement) is actually a reflection of anti-capitalism and in some cases anti-technology sentiment. The regulations support this theory, but I think at least some of that can be left in the past. I hope we can all look forward to redefining organic to stay true to its original meaning of biologically based agriculture. Without an integrated farming strategy – orgenic farming – I’m afraid we won’t have much left to eat.