Appropriate technology for sustainable agriculture

An appropriate technology, as asserted by the economist Schumacher in his book Small is Beautiful, should promote values such as health, beauty, and permanence. Low cost and low maintenance requirements are also of prime importance in Schumacher's definition.

Considering both Schumacher's observations and the goals for ecological farming:

⢠Produce abundant, safe and nutritious food
⢠Reduce harmful environmental inputs
⢠Provide healthful conditions for farm workers
⢠Protect the genetic make-up of native species
⢠Enhance crop genetic diversity
⢠Foster soil fertility
⢠Improve the lives of the poor and malnourished
⢠Maintain the economic viability of farmers and rural communities

, it is apparent that GE will sometimes be appropriate for crop improvement and sometimes not. This is because GE is simply a tool that can be applied
to a multitude of uses, depending on the decisions of policy makers, farmers, and

Still, GE comprises many of the properties advocated by Schumacher. It is a relatively simple technology that scientists in most countries, including many developing countries, have perfected. The product of GE technology, a seed, requires no extra maintenance or additional farming skills. Its arrangement of genes can be passed down from generation to generation and improved along the way. It is therefore clear that humans will likely reap many significant and life-saving benefits from GE.

This is because even incremental increases in the nutritional content, disease resistance, yield, or stress tolerance of crops can go a long way to enhancing the health and well-being of farmers and their families. There is also potential for applications of GE to reduce the adverse environmental effects of farming and enable farmers to produce and sell more food locally. Indeed, as described in previous posts, the use of GE has already drastically reduced the amount of pesticides sprayed worldwide, rescued the U.S. papaya industry, contributing to poverty reduction in India (Qaim, 2009, Nature Biotechnology 27:803) and provided new tools to save the lives of impoverished children with vitamin A deficiency.

For our work with flood tolerant rice, we used a rice gene from a local landrace and introduced it into the crops favored by farmers using precision breeding with molecular assistance. This was the most appropriate technology because it was efficient and did not require that we go through the regulatory approval process required of GE crops. One can imagine another scenario where the gene was not found in rice but was only present in wheat. In this case, GE would be the most appropriate technology. The goal is to save millions of tons of rice from being lost to floods. If we want to increase food production in a sustainable manner, we need to pick the most appropraite technology for the job.

More like this

Some thoughtful and interesting letters in response to the OpEd that James McWilliams and I wrote recently for the NY Times. Here are some highlights: I think that there are many in the organic food movement who recognize that genetic engineering has a role to play in the future of food. But…
The journalist Marc Gunther recently posted a thoughtful article discussing public perceptions of the role of organic agriculture in a future sustainable food system. He found that many consumers believe that there are only two ways to produce food: "The first can be described, depending upon who…
This Op-Ed just published today in the NY TImes. Here it is with links and a few edits. A REPORT by the National Research Council last month gave ammunition to both sides in the debate over the cultivation of genetically engineered crops. More than 80 percent of the corn, soybeans and cotton grown…
The ‘Frankenfoods’ debate is coming to your dinner table. Just last month, a mini-war developed in Europe, when the European Union’s chief scientist, renowned biologist Anne Glover, said that foods made through genetic engineering, such as soy beans—about 80 percent of US grown soybeans have been…

I am not sure how much E. F. Schumacherâs advice has to do with economics and how much, like Pollan, it is a personal aesthetic posing as a guide. In Shumacherâs case, a guide consisting of a heavily filtered and westernized Buddhism that gloms onto Dharmic poverty fetishism. With all due respect, this is why many E. F. Schumacher Society members sound like they are Marie Antoinette playing at being a milkmaid.

I understand that genetic modification of crops seems to suit Schumacherâs original mission statement but since his passing his followers are the first to paint all scientific advance with the same bile dipped brush.

The goals offered by Schumacher make a nice Fragonard painting however nobody ever romanced the squash bugs off the zucchini.

I will pass on some economic advice from a successful organic gardener of over 35 seasons (thanks dad).

Donât try to do too much with not enough too soon in the wrong climate in a poor location while underestimating the competition and overestimating market demand.

The philosophical marriage of small scale sustainable farming with a sort of anti-capitalist luddism is deadly to a garden. 75% fail in the first three years for the same reasons 75% of any capitalist endeavors fail in the first three years.

I suppose my dadâs advice makes sense to few since E. F. Schumacher like his equally influential compatriot John Maynard Keynes predicted that we would have stopped talking about money entirely by now {sarcasm}.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 17 Nov 2009 #permalink

This article is just so much more lies by Big Agra or is it Big Pharma - one never knows these days who is producing our industrialized food - it's certainly not our idea of farmers.

One of the lies in the above comment is this:
"Indeed, the use of GE has already drastically reduced the amount of pesticides sprayed worldwide,"

This not true, and in fact, the use of pesticides has actually increased, but then, I'm sure you know that.


I do not believe Dr.Ronald is being funded by any biotech companies (and please correct me if I am wrong). I do not think this article contains any blatant lies.

There are many clear examples of the use of GM crops reducing pesticide use and having a positive impact on the environment. Not only have I seen it on my own farm but a quick search in peer reviewed literature reveals the same thing (examples below).

I agree that there are issues over who is producing our food and that what people envision as farmers may not be accurate. In anycase that is not what this article is about. It is about using the right tool for the job, which in some cases means using GE. Clear examples are given.

Cattaneo et al 2006 Farm-scale evaluation of the impacts of transgenic cotton on biodiversity, pesticide use, and yield, PNAS
Pray et al 2002 Five years of Bt cotton in China and the benefits continue, Plant Journal

Prometheus, your Dad is right on target. I am not even selling my produce AND I am married to an organic farmer AND I live in a near perfect farming environment and still I overestimate my capabilities. I spent hours weeding yesterday...

NO to GMO, I am a professor at a non-profit institution, but then, I'm sure you know that.


Obviously there is some discrepancy between your sources, and the sources cited here - lets accept that for the moment and assume that the issue is undecided (for the sake of arguement)

From a purely logical standpoint - how, or why, would the use of GMOs have increased the amount of pesticides used?

Roundup ready crops resist a single incredibly potent herbicide, which reduces the number of different herbicides which need to be sprayed - I can see possibly in this instance that due to various different formulations and quantities of herbicede required that it is possible in some cases that you may require physically more of the herbicide to do the job - however, quantities aside, research point out that the environmental impact of herbicide use on roundup ready crops is significantly lower than the alternative used on non-roundup ready crops in an 'industrial agriculture' environment (to compare apples to apples)

With Bt crops - I cant think of a reason why insecticide use would increase, unless you count the Bt protein produced by the plant in the equation - in which case I'd guess that yes, technically it is possible that more insecticide is used (although you'd need to know the biomass of all Bt producing crops and the average per unit weight protein level to make a meaningful comparison) - if insecticide use were to increase when using Bt crops then they simply wouldnt be used.... farmers would just utilize conventional crops (at least in regards to insect control genes) with the conventional quantity of insecticide.

From a pure common sense angle the arguement that GMOs have increased pesticide use doesnt really make any sense - if they did, then why would they be so commercially successful? Roundup possibly in that it makes farming easier to do, Bt - there is no plausible reason for the success of the tech unless it does reduce pesticide use.

Of course now that the logical arguement is out of the way, I'd just like to reiterate the peer reviewed data quoted above which clearly shows a reduction in pesticide use with GM crops - and guess that the 'increased pesticide use' propaganda comes from non-peer reviewed drivel akin to the 'failure to yield' document from the Union of Concerned scientists (or wherever it came from...) - I believe they released some other drivel recently about pesticide useage which no doubt will do the rounds and be taken seriously because it is written by 'scientists' without any thought given to the fact that it is self published rather than peer reviewed.

Actually, I agree with NOtoGMO. The use of pesticides has increased since GMO's have been in use. Its a well known fact. Except, NOtoGMO, its because more land is being used for agriculture and more 'conventional' crops are being sprayed in larger quantities as nations develop. NOT because of GM crops. Like the others say, GM has proven to comparitively reduce pesticide use.

I've heard NOtoGMO's argument a lot -its just more use of misquoting data.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 17 Nov 2009 #permalink

"I live in a near perfect farming environment and still I overestimate my capabilities. I spent hours weeding yesterday..."

Spread a layer of dry sorghum stubble between your rows as weed mats. Smells nice, composts well, confuses the moles, prevents water evaporation, rabbits hate the exposure/noise and it keeps the mud off your boots.

You can fill deep rows with the stubble after it starts to rot and grow spuds in it. Clean potatoes that you can sort out with a garden fork are better than digging them up and sorting them out of the mud. You lose less of smaller delicate varieties like fingerling and redskin because you won't cut them with the spade.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 18 Nov 2009 #permalink

Pesticide Use: This is an issue that is ripe for mis-interpretation. "Pesticides". a broad term that covers anything under the sun. And the common measure of usage: pounds per acre. Are we really trying to equate a pound of RoundUp to a pound of Oust to a pound of "Bt"? We need to be more specific here.

I don't know what NotoGmo is refering to here, but a common study pointed to on the issue deals with the introduction and use of RoundUp Ready and Bt crop varieties (see C. M. Benbrook, 2004 ). While I believe the study still suffers from the generalizations above, it does find both sides to be correct on herbicides in that, while herbicide use initially went down, they eventually increased due to decreases in herbicide pricing, increases weed resistance and increased reliance on one weed control technology. IMO, herbicide resistance is an exceedingly poor (if not predictable) use of GE tech.

Bt crop use has appeared to reduce insecticide usage (as measured by poundage!), although it is noted that many acres are now planted to Bt crops where Bt susceptible pests would not have been present anyway. To me, Bt GE tech has shown itself to be a good use of the technology. As Pam says in the post, GE is a tool. Sometimes it will work well, sometimes it won't. But the later should not be a reason to discard it altogether. These cases need to be evaluated one at a time, not in broad generalizations.

My biggest problem with NOtoGMO's comment is the way he starts it by saying it MUST be conspiracy by Big Pharma or Big Agra. I pretty much decided I could stop reading the comment at that point, because it was premised in fallacy.

Wake up. Big Supplement is at least as greedy and influential as Big Pharma, except the latter actually helps people occasionally as a side-effect of trying to make a profit. And if you don't think Big Organic has lobbyists in congress tailoring the regulations for Certified Organic so as to keep their giant operations going at the expense of more sustainable practices, then you aren't paying attention.

If any idea that is in any way associated with a corporation trying to make a buck off of it immediately becomes tainted, then you are reduced to sitting in your room with the lights off. Oh wait, you can't even sit in a room, because of Big Contracting that probably built that house, and lobbies to effect the building code. Nevermind...

If we entertain a vision of the year 2100 you will see a dovetailing of GM crops as part of a sustainable food resource plan. The technology fits Schumaker's criteria spot on.

I maintain that moving a gene or two around, where function is known and it can be traced, is much less haphazard than traditional breeding where wide crosses are performed to increase genetic diversity and exploit new germplasm. There you shuffle tens of thousands of genes in ways that would never happen without human intervention. Surprise! That's the basis for just about every single vegetable and fruit in the grocery store.

Kevin - your post, and the recent 85% of corn not being corn malarky... makes me wonder if perhaps artificially selected crops tend to be more gene jumping about crazily on transposons compared to wild species - kind of a selection of selectability which went on alongside the selection of traits (and kinda like the postulated evolution of evolvability discussed by Dawkins on and off) -more genomes please (preferably teosinte)

It'd be a nice little aside to complaints about vandalizing genomes if you could comprehensively show that the majority of 'selected' genomes are constantly self vandalizing anyway.

Likewise, it should not matter how God created life, whether it was through a miraculous spoken word or through the natural forces of the universe that He created. The grandeur of God's works commands awe regardless of what processes He used.

I'm totaly in favor for perfect farming environment, my myself i begon small, in my own garden. If everybody would do this we could save the earth without very big efforts. But i'm afraid that this idea will stay a "perfect dream" forever ...