Can We Feed the World Without Damaging It?

The word is spreading- we can feed the world without damaging it, if we can entertain some new ideas.

Check out Paul Voosen's article in the NYT and let me know what you think.

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As a layman, and amateur historian, it is obvious that without past technological advances in agriculture the Earth could not sustain even our current population. It would seem, then, that the future will require even greater gain in crop yields; and those gains will most sustainably come from the plants rather than chemicals. Again, as a layman, I trust the scientific community to assure that genetically engineered crops are safe, however, I don't feel the same way about the large agri-business corporations that may be driven by profit and stock prices.

well-said. The agri-business groups main driving force is profit. There is a role for that in carrying out research to improve seed that farmers wish to buy to make their farms more productive. Still we cannot rely on for-profit groups to feed the world. That is the job of the non-profit sector.

Still we cannot rely on for-profit groups to feed the world. That is the job of the non-profit sector.

Then it's probably not a good idea to let Monsanto/Seminis control much of the world's seed supply.

India had a green revolution decades ago, and now has a higher population and needs another green revolution. If we can feed the world population today (now fast approaching 7 billion) without damaging the earth, can we feed the new, higher, world population tomorrow, without damaging the earth? I don't think we can.

I do think that it is worth questioning whether the larger goal for some GM drivers *is* feeding the world. That is, while I don't doubt that many individual researchers have the goal, many of the corporations that subsidize them don't - that is, most of their research has focused on crop yields in places already facing overproduction like the US, and on high cost changes that really aren't accessible to the poor. In many cases, what is needed most in low producing areas would be very simple things like subsidies to allow people to buy fertilizers - rather than newer high cost seeds. That's not to say that better crops for adapting, say, to climate change aren't necessary. But I'm skeptical of the idea that many of the drivers here are actually concerned with feeding the world.


I personally believe that both the profiting sector and the not-for-profit sector contribute to the world's food supply, although differently and therefore both are needed. However, the not-for-profit sector (in which I work) has received nothing but budget cuts since the late 1970's. We really need a much stronger economical support for the not-for-profit sector in agriculture and even more for agricultural biotechnology including many more things than GM.

It's not nice to see so much money being almost wasted on developing "alternative" genetic engineering technologies to achieve the same objectives as with GM, but different so as not to get the infamous GM label.

#1 - I'd imagine that the profit motive, when applied to food, forces a corporations hand to ensure safety in its products in so far as it is possible (and I would pretty much guarantee that safety studies and efforts to avoid allergenicity and toxicity early on in the research process in large agribusiness probably ends up with a budget higher than most non-profit research projects would have from start to finish) - a non safe product, once on the market, is bound to be discovered - once this occurs it would essentially spell death for the company in todays climate (and rightly so) - for the sake of comparison look at the recent judgement against Pfizer for a little misinformation about what drugs can be used for..

On the public/private capacity to feed the world - we need both, big biotech will undoubtedly remain heavily focused on industrial agriculture - however it may well be that offshoots of this will benefit non-industrial ag users (hopefully in 10 years time this will be self evident assuming success of the WEMA project to which big biotech (in the form of Monsanto) has donated breeding expertize and the use of drought tolerance genes royalty free) - think of the future potential of introducing increased yield plants, nitrogen efficient plants (which to me seems equally if not more worthy a goal for a WEMA type project - I cannot help but think that lack of soil nutrition plays a massive role in the disparity in yields between the first and third worlds) even insect resistant and to a certain extent herbicide resistant plants (RR soy goes off patent in the next couple of years, the first transgenic crop plant to do so - it will be very interesting to see what happens during this transition, likewise as other patents expire and the technology opens up for all to use (insect resistance particularly could be a monumental patent expiry)) - where big biotech probably won't be making inroads is in non-commercial or smaller area of utilization crops - when you have to invest ~$100M to commercialize a product then if there is no profit to be had, or profitability may be very low, then only a handful of crops are ever likely to be targetted for this sort of work (Corn, Soy, Canola, Cotton being the big four(and I guess rice, which for reasons which escape me isn't in the Monsanto portfolio), with I would guess followup projects such as RR for various crops (alfalfa, sugar beets) - non-profits can do more focused work on other crops, without the requirement to turn a profit at the end of the day, hopefully leading to disease resistance and nutritional improvements in other staple crops (and hoepfully seeing more funding in coming decades, its a sad thing when trillions can be dropped on a personal vendetta gone wrong yet researchers with ideas which may save millions of lives struggle to get even the most paltry of funding)

"Still we cannot rely on for-profit groups to feed the world. That is the job of the non-profit sector."

Then why has the private sector been doing this job for over half a century?

I thought it was GO tax profit used by NGOs to buy for-profit production or as Sharon refers to it, U.S. overproduction that was keeping a couple million East Africans alive this year.

Am I mistaken in this impression?

I guess my cousins Glen and Sam could be burning 27,000 acres of wheat just to watch the glow and telling me that it was exported but that seems like an odd and expensive practical joke.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

there is no doubt that for profit farmers (my husband used to be one) feed a large part of the world. What I meant was that we would be foolish to think that they are going to give it away (nor can they afford to). That is why we need to be sure that the non-profit sector provide seed that can be used by subsistence farmers (of which there are many).

Sharon, within 5 years it is predicted that most of the biotech crops will be produced by national organizations for their domestic markets. Thus, although it is true that most of the biotech crops are in the US and other developed countries for large farms, that is now changing.

Pam - on subsistence farmers - my personal hope is that public and private sector transgenics (alongside other initiatives) both have a role to play in eliminating subsistence farming as a way of life - there is no reason that with some measure of controlled licensing big corporations cannot provide transgenics for use by subsitence farmers, other than the fact it generates no immediate profit, but with the general stance of Monsanto in particular being that helping farmers is their primary goal, I'd hope to see future drought, nitrogen, and yield (as well as current Bt type genes) being made available in some sort of tiered system whereby a profit can be made from those farmers who can afford to use the technology in a commercial setting whereas farmers who are not yet in that position get a slight helping hand to help them out of the subsitence lifestyle and into the (19th century?)

"on subsistence farmers - my personal hope is that public and private sector transgenics (alongside other initiatives) both have a role to play in eliminating subsistence farming as a way of life - there is no reason that with some measure of controlled licensing big corporations cannot provide transgenics for use by subsitence farmers."

This opportunity has been ignored to date because of non-profit, to wit the nature of NGO intervention and first world aesthetic impositions on the subsistence farmer's lives.

As I think about wheat farmers in Mustang and sorghum and goat farmers in Somalia the only things they have in common is that they don't want to be subsistence farmers and the non-governmental assistance organizations are determined that they remain subsistence farmers.

This desire has been utterly ignored by a nonprofit political culture that claims cultural sensitivity and inclusive diversity when what they are is a bunch of morally bankrupt fatuous poverty fetishists who have taken the sixteenth century bullshit sentimentalist racist notion of the "noble savage" and dressed it up in a free trade Daura Suruwal so it can sip on Yerba mate at Caffe Strada and call itself progressive.

When we stop shipping bags of Kansas wheat with applied love letters from people who want to doom third world farm families to the status of some sort of historical reenactors on mush allowance instead of building farm roads and (clutch pearls now) power plants we will see a demand for the transgenic region specific diverse crops we are all going to need.

Short version:

Kick some nostalgic atavistic butts outta the way of my transgenic drought and locust resistant cow peas so I can sleep at night without nightmares over kids with distended bellies.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 06 Jan 2010 #permalink

It is not about food but the parallels are obvious. Find the book "Big Cotton" and give it a read. Found the one I read at the local public library.

By JimThomerson (not verified) on 23 Jan 2010 #permalink

While perhaps you are right that subsistence farmers no longer wish to remain so - you have not provided any concrete evidence to support that position. This is not to say that I condemn them to substance farming myself. I just want to see some evidence for your position (especially since it seems you hold it so firmly).

Sharon, I agree with you - there is overproduction of food - eggs, milk (to keep prices low), fruit and veggies (that are too small, too large and too ugly in other ways to be acceptable to consumers) - hence there is a need to ask the question whether higher yields are the answer. Perhaps distribution is?

The article mentions that available water is on a decline and available land for farming is too. Perhaps planting things like hemp would be an answer - high in protein, drought tolerant, does not require very fertile land.

By Rock Star (not verified) on 23 Jun 2010 #permalink