GM crops and the war on poverty

field of wheatOver at The Guardian, Professor Mark Tester stands up to say that genetically modified crops are an essential component of the struggle to erase world poverty and hunger:

GM crops are not the answer to this shameful global situation, but I argue strongly that they provide another tool, another option to try to address the problem. And I do not think those of us sitting in comfortable wealth have a right to deny people the opportunity to improve their production of food. The technology is just that, a technology. Like nuclear technologies (radiotherapy or nuclear weapons) or mobile phones (communication or bomb triggers), how we use it is the main issue. I hope that the plants we have generated provide a subtle use of GM technology that will allow some positive benefits for the developing world.

He’s quite correct, of course; as we mention here quite often, the morality of a tool comes from the hand that wields it. And therein lies the rub: while GM crops have the potential to improve the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves, they can also be (and allegedly are) used to paint them into an economic corner for the purposes of maximising profits – selling farmers the only seeds that will survive the pesticides which you also manufacture, for example. [image by James Wheare]

I don’t know how it is in the States, but here in the UK GM crops are a hugely sensitive topic with a sharp polarity of opinion that has been amplified by propaganda, celebrity campaigning and emotional button-pushing from both sides of the debate. Such extreme viewpoints actually end up clouding the issue; somewhere in the shades of grey is a way to use genetic modification safely for the benefit of everyone, but until we start meeting each other half way we leave the field wide open for both poverty and profiteering to continue.

8 thoughts on “GM crops and the war on poverty”

  1. You can trace an interesting progression of farm technology by viewing farming paradigms as a function of the free energy available in a society for use in farming: during the reign of Louis XIV (just for a time-mark) the height of farming tech was the 2 nitrogen depleting crops, 1 nitrogen fixing crop (+ fallow field) 4-field rotation.

    We began liberating chemical energy from the earth coincident with the development of simple harvesting robots, ergo our continued reliance on massive combine machines that burn oil to harvest crops and the continual agroscience focus on making more crops robot-harvestable (see: tomatoes).

    GM crops are an artifact of the monopolies supported by the Industrial Revolution-era political machines in combination with cheap oil for fuel and early robotics technology. We’ve learned from studying ecologies that it’s incredibly difficult to get biomass yields in monocultures anywhere near what you see in nature, and that its only possible to continue monocropping our foodstock with a continued supply of fossil fuels for fertilizers and to drive the harvestbots.

    Jared Diamond argues in G,G, & S that one of the reasons the American farmers got such use out of the ecological mimicry approach to agriculture was that they lacked domesticated work animals. Domesticated work animals are a critical precursor to the chemical-farming industry: energy-wise horses are nowhere near as dense as oil, but one horse can pull much more heavy equipment than a human. This could be understood to explain the reluctance to adopt monocrops in the Americas prior to European invasion, as there would be no way to pull plows with human labor. This also explains why Americans invented the wheel (independently, if I remember a-right) but never put it to use for anything but toys.

    It is possible to run a civilization on ecological farming techniques, it’s just very very labor intensive. Capitalism (that economic paradigm that stretches back to AT LEAST the European invasion of the Americas) always seeks to find efficiencies: in the context of the case of agriculture those efficiencies are in switching from labor-intense ecological farming approaches to less labor- and more robot/fuel+ intensive monocropping. Horses and farming tech introduced from Europe were vastly more efficient (in terms of labor, the limiting reactant so to speak of early farming programs) and so outcompeted the Native American agricultural techniques.

    (I have a point, I swear!)

    We find ourselves at the beginning of explosive improvements in everything chip-related: relevant to our case this means actuators, sensors and processors. Actuators to pull crops off the plant, sensors to identify the crop from its nearby neighbors and processors to apply rules about ripeness and when to harvest plants that share the same space.

    So we trace the trajectory from ecologically-inspired agriculture to early crop rotation (time and labor consuming) relying on the concentration of labor in domesticated farm animals to more efficient, synthetic farm animals (combines and oil-powered harvesting machines) to a system where we’re so far into diminishing returns that we’re actually monkeying with our crops’ genetic code.

    What will the next stage of agricultural technology look like? Arguing from the above information, I hold that we should see another wave of robots moving into the fields to supply the labor that intensive ecological farming requires, driven by smarter on-board chips pulling sensor info from microfluidic lab-on-a-chip devices designed to identify aromatics plants give off when ripe, linked into adaptive farm-management software cycling nutrients intelligently through trophic levels.

    And shoot, if the goddamn hippies get out of the way and let us build the nukes we need for it we could even build open-air steel-frame farm+skyscrapers and convert nuke energy to plant carbohydrates via high-pressure sodium lights and run the whole thing with robots!

    This screed declaims the diminishing-returns nature of genetic engineering in favor of the (robot!) labor-intensive ecological approach. This is also why I’m chasing mechanical engineering and biology degrees – I want to change the world, but I’m not willing to work for Monsanto (aka Great Satan).

  2. The major problem with GM has nothing to do with science. It is twofold; first, the ag companies have gone all greedy by locking farmers into certain seeds. Second, we have developed a breed of know-nothing ignorant hippies who are completely ideological in their anti-science thinking (if one can call knee jerks thinking.)

    This comes from a guy who buys nothing but organic food, and local, if possible.

    For an interesting alternative view about all things science, I highly recommend:

    You may not agree with the guy on everything, but he tries to be rational and highly skeptical.

  3. I dispute your assertion that ignorant hippies are a bigger problem than relying on monocrops for food production on the basis that educating ignorant hippies will make the world less better than transferring away from monocrop food production.

  4. Lol!

    The issue isn’t necessary about monocrops.

    Consider the real benefits that could come from plants that have better salinity/draught resistance and a better balance of nutrients.

    I think the technology has to move away from monopolies such as Monsanto and over to agricultural colleges who conduct research on local crops to benefit local communities.

  5. The issue is *only* monocrops. The reason we have to engage in genetic modification to increase our food supply is because we have hit diminishing returns on investment in monocrop-style food production and because engineered food-producing ecologies are too labor-intensive to make money without sophisticated robots. Imagine how much damage to the planet we could mitigate by not feeding our crops with synthetic fertilizers.

  6. I think we’re talking about different things here. I couldn’t care less about large-scale agro business and their greedy schemes, but sadly they are the loudest and pushiest and have forever dirtied the reputation of GM crops.

    The methods are very straightforward. These plants can be engineered in any college-level lab/greenhouse and grown by local farmers. ‘Sophisticated robots’ are not needed. You’re making it sound like a car factory 😉

    In principle I’m all for golden rice. Once the IP issues were resolved, the technique was used to modify local strains, thus potentially maintaining diversity. However, a more pressing issue may be to adapt crop species to cope with increasingly adverse conditions as a result of environmental degradation. It’s sad that this is happening, but it’s inevitable.

    The most pressing issue is about making the technology available at the grass-roots level, or at least as close as we can get (i.e. local colleges and research centres), so that local scientists and farmers can adapt the crops they require for the region they are grown in.

  7. It would be nice if you’d read my comments instead of merely parsing them for things to quote.

    When I talk about sophisticated robots, I’m talking about switching our food production over to nutrient cycling loops and solving the work problem with mechanized labor. Tightly-knit food cycles produce just as well as monocrops, and my position is that we should be investigating the potential of labor-intensive farming techniques instead of meddling with plant genetics.

    I think our split is that you don’t see anything wrong with monocrops and genetic engineering, and I say that we could build a less environmentally degrading food-production infrastructure without resorting to genetic engineering of plants for food.

    I’m all for genetically engineering plants in the name of material science, though. There are some interesting applications in that field.

Comments are closed.