Thursday, February 3, 2011

the central problem of progress

"To wrest greater quantities of food from a wheat field, you need to breed varieties that give the greatest yield, that is, the greatest number of bushel per acre. To be successful, your breeding program requires a large and diverse gene pool, which gives you lots of choices. But when you finally come up with the most bountiful wheat, all the farmers plant it. The progeny of the favored variety overwhelms the wheat gene pool, forcing landraces and ancient types, and even useful related weeds, to disappear. Therefore, when you need to breed a new variety -- because the favored one has become stressed by bad weather or a killer disease -- there is less diversity remaining in the gene pool on which to base your search for a solution.

Repeat that scenario many times, and soon, so little diversity remains that breeding better wheat is almost impossible. It's like deliberate, programmed forgetting. Apply it to the glory of Greece and Rome, and you get the Dark Ages. Apply it to agriculture and you get famine, migrations of hungry people searching for food, and
inevitably, war."

-- Susan Dworkin, The Viking in the Wheat Field: A Scientist's Struggle to Preserve the World Harvest

I share this because it's one of the most succinct explanations of the need for biodiversity I've ever read. There is a direct relationship between security and a people's ability to feed themselves. You wouldn't think this needs to be explained, but so many people ignore or choose not to believe it's true.

This book tells a fascinating story about a variety of wheat rust that nearly decimated all the world's wheat crops. It began as a mutation of an existing wheat rust in Uganda, and because so much of the world's current wheat supply is genetically similar, it spread frighteningly fast. The story follows a scientist who made "gene banks" part of his life's work, believing in the power of biodiversity. That's all well and good, and I think barrels of seed from every known variety stored in a secret underground vault are probably a good idea. But if we think this can be an insurance policy against loss of biodiversity, we're sadly mistaken.

Seeds kept in a vault are vulnerable to rot, pests, and fire. But more importantly, they aren't growing. They aren't making the tiny adaptations to changes in drought patterns or pests that living, reproducing creatures can make. If you vault away a traditional wheat seed today and pull it out a hundred years from now, it may not be able to deal with the increased level of salinity, or the new armyworm, or a multitude of other pests we haven't even dreamed of yet, that have all been living and reproducing and interacting with the real world in the meantime. One of the most critical aspects of food security -- and by extension, peace in general -- is small farmers tending genetically diverse crops.

Monsanto and the other big seed companies seem to honestly believe in what they are doing. They believe that they can feed more people on the planet by growing more wheat on one acre. They believe they're helping the environment by helping to prevent more acres of forest from being cleared to serve as agricultural fields. I think there is probably a place for high-yield, hybrid varieties in a world food system, if only to feed the massive quantities of standardized ingredient requirements for things like military MREs and Chips-A-Hoy cookies. But those who think monoculture on its current hegemonic scale is truly the solution to world hunger are deluding themselves.

Any cursory student of international relations can tell you that the problem of world hunger isn't that there's a shortage of food -- some figures say we currently produce more than twice as much food as all the people on earth could possibly eat -- but that poor folks can't afford to buy it. Take a look at your own community if you're not convinced. Are the people who come to the food pantries and soup kitchens folks who couldn't find adequate calories in the grocery store? Of course not. There's plenty of food to go around, if you've got enough cash. And the rock-bottom prices of cereal grain commodities that are driving farmers off their land don't affect the much prices of Hamburger Helper at Safeway.

It's the same story the world over. And as Vandana Shiva said, when the very farmers who grow the food are having difficulty feeding their families as they sell their crops to pay off their loans, it ought to be a sign something is seriously out of whack with our food system.

What do you think? Is it possible to feed the world with organic crops? In the long term, can we afford not to?


  1. good timing with this post with the okay for gmo alfalfa. sad and scary. and infuriating. you think more highly of monsanto than i do as you feel they believe in what they do. i guess i'm just bitter - i feel they believe in the dollar. thanks for the post.

  2. Zev, thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to leave a comment. This post is very well put, and points out something that I've thought for a long time; that the problem isn't food shortage, but money shortage. I agree with Hopeful about how I feel about Monsanto. I honestly don't see them as caring about feeding the world's hungry. Rather I see them as trying to monopolize the food supply in order to monopolize food dollars.

  3. Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that's what Monsanto's propoganda arm would like people to believe, and lots and lots of people are believing it. The high-yield-is-best mentality permeates everything -- most alarmingly, the University agriculture programs that we are using to educate young people who could become the next generation of farmers. I was greatly disgusted with most of Penn State's ag department, specifically. Though both staff and students were friendly and intelligent, it seemed everyone I interacted with had so soundly swallowed the high-yield mantra that any mention of 'organic' was literally outsourced to another department of the university.

    I do think that some people really believe that high yields are more important than anything else, and Monsanto makes them a convenient ally.

  4. Nice article. very interesting, thanks for sharing.