Forum
Friday, September 6, 2013

Bananas date back 5,000 years in Africa, but BXW disease only 30. It didn’t cause Mama Moses’s crisis. Neither did the absence of genetic engineers. The crisis was caused by the conditions that made her bananas susceptible.

Unsupported farmers, genetic uniformity, poor soils, and lack of water are what cause vulnerability to epidemics. But funding for farmer education and agricultural technologies that address these root causes of epidemics withers in favor of “solutions” with stronger patent potential. As a result, poor farmers are set up to be rescued by genetic engineering from what should be avoidable catastrophes.

Yet BXW can be treated through properly managed crop rotation, altered soil nutrition and planting practices, and the use of more resistant varieties. BXW-resistant banana varieties exist, but there is little will to build them into a mixed-cropping model that suits local conditions. A method such as genetic engineering, which preserves genetic uniformity on the landscape level, can hardly count as a sustainable solution to epidemics.

Unless we change the conditions that create agricultural catastrophes, we will always have them.

Meanwhile, genetic engineering hasn’t solved the old challenges of weeds or pests despite nearly twenty years of trying, even in wealthy countries. Those problems seem to be getting worse in GE agroecosystems—and because of the way GE plants are used in them. Unless we change the conditions that create agricultural catastrophes, we will always have them. 

Contrary to what Pamela Ronald suggests, farmers don’t choose vulnerability to epidemics: they buy the seed on offer. According to the National Research Council, the southern corn leaf blight epidemic in the United States was a result of powerful economic and legislative forces behind genetically uniform seeds. There were promising alternatives, but they were neglected because hybrids, like GE seeds, were compatible with seed suppliers’ proprietary claims, if not with the demands of food security.

What would Moses’s future look like if she were to adopt Ronald’s solutions? At least three outcomes are likely. First, she will continue to be dependent on others for varieties of bananas resistant to future plagues because each solution fails to address the root causes. Second, she will experience further economic marginalization as she and Uganda remain dependent on imported technological inputs. Finally, she will be denied training resources and opportunities to gain from crop and crop-management innovations that might take her off the treadmill of dependence because resources are being diverted toward ever more complex technologies.

This diversion of resources has significant consequences. The focus across the university, public, and private sectors is on agricultural technologies that satisfy narrow market criteria and on compliance with the strictest available intellectual property rights, not on solutions that deliver long-term social value.

Successful simple-tech solutions are not hypothetical. Ecological farming methods are consistently demonstrating their value, especially to poor and subsistence farmers. They are raising yields substantially in a large variety of crop types and are better for building local economies than are agroecosystems dependent on high-cost inputs. And these simple-tech alternatives have so far thrived in spite of little research investment, making their potential more remarkable still.

Ronald frames the future as less food secure than the present, blaming production shortfalls that could be avoided using genetic engineering. However, studies have shown that if we put our effort into reducing food waste rather than promoting unsustainable production increases, the world would maintain a calorie surplus well beyond the needs of ten billion. It is true that poor and subsistence farmers should be helped to produce more using fewer damaging inputs in order to raise local calorie reliability, satisfy nutritional and cultural needs, and lift farmers and their communities out of poverty. But genetic engineering has not proven to be a source of reliable and sustainable solutions to the problems poor farmers face.

Without irrigation water, for example, GE “golden rice” will fail in Africa; with water, Africans could grow a variety of crops to satisfy their vitamin A and other requirements. Bananas genetically engineered to resist BXW still won’t thrive in soils without adequate nitrogen, potassium, calcium, and manganese and will be more susceptible to disease. Better soils hold water better, too. Using local compost and cover crops would help to achieve these ends without resorting to imported fertilizers. These solutions sound boring, but they work.

It is possible to address water- and soil-quality issues through education, research, and simple changes in crop genetics and management. This is not a promising model for a vertically integrated industry built on strict intellectual property rights or for elite universities creating black-box technologies, but it is a great model for nourishing the world.

Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg said, “Our imperfect solutions aggravate every problem.” There may come a problem one day for which genetic engineering is the best solution. If that day comes for agriculture, we genetic engineers need to be around to help solve it. In the meantime, let’s look for real solutions.