Feature
February 3, 2014

A senseless fight

Combatants on both sides of the food wars are fighting for the same ends, writes Elizabeth Finkel.

Golden Rice can tackle the blindness inflicted on 500,000 of the world’s poorest children each year, yet activists oppose it.Credit: REUTERS/Erik De Castro

The sickly toddler is about two years old. Holding the hand of her thin, ragged mother, her eyes are horrible to behold, just a bluish membrane where eyes should be. She is, of course, blind and will probably not live beyond her third year. Like 500,000 other children born in poor countries, her blindness is a result of vitamin A deficiency, a problem that could have been fixed by a diet adequate in vegetables such as carrots or tomatoes. These contain beta-carotene, which her body could convert into vitamin A. But in the rural east of India, while rice is affordable, year-round vegetables are not.

Twenty-two years ago, Ingo Potrykis at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer at the University of Freiburg, set out to solve the problem by creating a rice plant that could produce its own beta-carotene. They did it by transferring genes from maize into rice to create so-called Golden Rice; golden because it produces the same pigments that yellow vegetables do. The scientists spent close to a decade tackling the difficult techniques required to transfer the genes and another to meet the stringent safety requirements for genetically modified organisms (GMO). Finally Golden Rice was trialled in the Philippines last August. You might think the trial would have been met with celebration. Instead a mob of anti-GMO activists, bussed in from the city but claiming to represent farmers, tore into the crop. Globally their actions were championed by Greenpeace and plenty of others.

How could anyone in good conscience seek to thwart technology that has even a remote chance of tackling the problem of vitamin A blindness? 

Many readers will have no trouble providing an answer. The anti-GMO clichés go something like this: GM crops are unsafe to eat; they are bad for the environment; they are a tool of agribusiness corporations; and they exploit poor farmers who must buy seed as opposed to their traditional practice of saving seed. The first points have been disproved over the past two decades, which is why food and environment safety agencies around the world have declared them as safe as conventionally grown crops. The trope about agribusiness does not apply, either. Golden Rice is being developed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which is a not-for-profit institute, and the seeds will be distributed to farmers who can resow them as they wish. In these cases, the argument switches to “Golden Rice is a Trojan horse”. In other words, by sneaking below the barriers of suspicion, it will open the floodgates to GMO technology and from then on to a slippery slope and the takeover of the world’s seed supply (See Speak of the Devil, page 74). Even if that is a legitimate concern, it is an issue for regulators not a reason to demonise a technology. 

Some of the concern over GMOs is a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of transferring foreign DNA into our crops. But this happens all the time in traditional breeding. DNA from wheat species that are little more than weedy grasses is bred into wheat using various tricks of the trade. And microbes naturally ferry genes between species. The fact is, it’s only GM crops that have to be tested so rigorously on a case-by-case basis. Arguably they are not just as safe as traditional crops, but safer.

The battles against GMOs are  just the visible skirmishes of a war that has raged for decades: a war against modern agriculture. Somehow, the peaceful fields of farmers have become the stage for airing political agendas (see The country that has forgotten Borlaug, page 46) and stoking environmentalist rage (see The denialists’ double standards, page 49). 

An Indian stamp from 1978 commemorates wheat research (above). The Green Revolution transformed the country from “ship-to-mouth” to self-sufficiencyCredit: istock

The battle doesn’t make much sense. On either side of the line you find combatants in fierce agreement about the key issues – the right of all people to affordable nutritious food, protection of the environment and giving poor farmers a viable livelihood. Yet the battle rages with ever-greater heat. Last December, the Hawaiian island of Kauai outlawed the cultivation of new GM crops, despite the technology having saved its papaya industry from the Papaya Ringspot virus. (Papaya farmers will still be allowed to use the resistant GM variety but no new GM crops are to be planted). Those who led the push for the ban saw themselves as champions of the political left and of the environment. But so do many plant scientists. 

“It hurts…these are my people, they’re lefties, I’m with them on almost everything,” Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist at the University of Hawaii told New York Times reporter Amy Harmon. For Robert Zeigler, the Director General of IRRI, Shintaku’s sentiment was all too familiar. Zeigler has worked with poor farmers in Africa and Asia for most of his life, yet IRRI’s experimental rice fields were attacked by “leftists”. “Shintaku’s response resonated very deeply,” he said.

As we face the challenge of feeding a planet poised to add the population of two more Chinas by mid-century, this warfare does no one any good. 

Famines did not eventuate because of the Green Revolution and its visionary leader, wheat breeder Norman Borlaug.

 We’ve been here before. In the late 1960s mass famine was predicted across Asia – particularly in India and Bangladesh – as rapid population growth threatened to outpace farmers’ ability to grow food. Bestsellers were published on the topic, including Famine 1975! by William and Paul Paddock in 1967 and The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich in 1968. The Paddock brothers even suggested halting food aid from America on the basis that it was merely prolonging the inevitable. Many Indians still recall those days of “ship to mouth”. 

The famines did not eventuate because of the Green Revolution and its visionary leader, wheat breeder Norman Borlaug. In March, much of the world will celebrate his 100th birthday. Others will never have heard of him or the Green Revolution. And many who have, will rail against it. Because together with the seeds of high yielding wheat varieties, the Green Revolution also sowed the seeds of the conflict that embroils agriculture today. 

 At its heart the Green Revolution was all about genes. It began in the 1950s with an institution funded by the philanthropic Rockefeller foundation and the Mexican government. Here, Borlaug developed varieties of wheat to meet the needs of destitute Mexican farmers. Most importantly these were bred to resist the fungal scourge known as rust. Borlaug also found that when he applied fertiliser and irrigated the tall spindly Mexican wheat varieties, the heads grew satisfyingly fatter but the top-heavy plants now toppled over. To solve the problem he crossed the Mexican wheat with a “dwarf” variety of Japanese wheat. The result was spectacular, and unanticipated. The short stocky wheat plant relocated the resources it would have spent on the stem, into the grain. Overnight Borlaug bred a wheat variety with double the yield. Nothing has been seen like it in plant breeding before or since. 

Breeders in Mexico in the 1950s compare high-yielding semi-dwarf wheat to traditional varietiesCredit: CIMMYT

Borlaug’s 14-year-long efforts also produced another extraordinary fringe benefit. An impatient man, he wanted to speed up the traditional annual breeding cycle of wheat. Mexico offered a unique opportunity. In the highlands near Mexico City, crops were planted in the spring and harvested in summer. But down in the baking heat of the Yaqui valley near Obregon, they could plant in the autumn and harvest in spring. That meant seeds could be harvested in one region and sown straight into the next, delivering two crops a year. It also delivered an unexpected dividend. These seeds could grow at two different altitudes, tolerate two different types of ecology and ignore the waxing and waning of the day length. The ultimate product was wheat that was not only rust resistant and high yielding; it was versatile enough to grow in many different environments. After Mexico, India and Pakistan were the beneficiaries. Breeders later used the same dwarfing strategy with rice to realise similar fantastic yield gains.

In humanitarian terms, the result was a triumph. By 1976, India had gone from a ship-to-mouth country to food self-sufficiency. And yet almost from the beginning there was opposition. 

In India, the political left feared it would lead to a dependence on foreign technologies, explains Robert Paarlberg, a professor of political science at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. The Gandhian tradition, for instance, was seeking to restore India’s homegrown capabilities. And Western critics such as Francine Frankel, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, concluded that the Indian gains were uneven. In a book published in 1971, India’s Green Revolution, Economic Gains and Political Costs, she reported that farmers with larger landholdings, such as the wheat farmers in the country’s north, benefited far more than small-scale rice farmers in the south and east, or landless labourers.

The debate over the benefits continues 43 year later. 

“My students see the Green Revolution as a Faustian bargain,” says Paarlberg. In other words, while the Green Revolution may have fed people, the cost was unacceptable in terms of damage to the environment through the overuse of pesticide, fertiliser and water. And it disadvantaged small-scale farmers because they could least afford those inputs. Paarlberg himself is an outspoken champion of the benefits of the Green Revolution. His position is based on firsthand experience in India in 1967, witnessing US food aid to hungry people. “I remember the pessimism and the call to stop giving food aid to India. I saw the Green Revolution nullify those arguments,” he says. But it doesn’t help Paarlberg too much when it comes to winning arguments with his students. “Their heroes are all opponents of the Green Revolution,” everyone from Indian activist Vandana Shiva, (see Seeds of deception page 77) to food writer Michael Pollan.

Norman Borlaug won a Nobel Peace Prize for feeding the world. Credit: Micheline Pelletier/Sygma/Corbis

The Green Revolution was not perfect, agreed. But what technical revolution is? And what was the alternative? Would the critics prefer that hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people starved to death to make the world an ecologically more balanced place? In a 2003 paper in Science magazine, economists Robert Evenson, from Yale University, and Douglas Gollin, from Oxford, wrote that, without the Green Revolution the world would have experienced a “human welfare crisis”. A 2009 report from the International Food Policy research institute estimated that 30 million children would have died in the developing world between 1970 and 2000. 

Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University, credits the Green Revolution with opening “the escape route from extreme poverty for huge populations”. And indeed recent analysis suggests that the benefits were not as uneven as made out. Paarlberg, who has published several books on food politics, found that between 1973 and 1994, the incomes of small-scale poor farmers rose by 90%. Meanwhile landless labourers had access to more work during the harvest and transportation. Their incomes went up over the same period by 125%. In China, with the introduction of high-yielding rice hybrids between 1978 and 1999, 200 million rural Chinese were lifted out of poverty. 

“The single largest mass escape from human poverty ever recorded in a two decade period,” wrote Paarlberg in Starved for Science, a book published in 2008. 

Recent analyses also show the revolution didn’t just benefit people, it benefited the planet’s biodiversity. That’s because it increased yields primarily on existing agricultural land. Over the past 50 years, while the world population doubled, food production increased by 300% but extra land taken for farming increased by only 12%. Had there been no Green Revolution, ecologists such as Jesse Ausubel, director of Rockefeller University’s Program for the Human Environment, calculate that the world would have needed to cultivate an extra area of land almost twice that of South America, taking the needed farming land from forests and grasslands. 

But there’s no doubt the intensification of agriculture that went hand in hand with the Green Revolution led to environmental disasters. Profligate fertiliser use led to algal blooms and dead zones in waterways; excessive irrigation raised the level of salty groundwater creating saline soils, and pesticide overuse not only caused environmental damage, it back-fired causing pest resistance. On the other hand, farmers in marginal lands without access to irrigation or fertiliser could not benefit as much from the new varieties of wheat and rice. 

My students see the Green Revolution as a Faustian bargain, says Robert Paarlberg, a professor of political science at Wellesley College.Credit: Robert Paarlberg

Environmental degradation, social inequality, poverty – these are immense problems, and the Green Revolution gets saddled with the blame for them all. The logic therefore became that the inverse of the Green Revolution must be the right way to go. Traditional farming methods, organic agriculture, and small-scale farming, are championed while all that is associated with the Green Revolution is reviled: in short, science and technology are bad; natural, organic and small-scale is good.

“What these critics of modern agriculture don’t realise is that they are working on an outdated model,” says Paarlberg. “They imagine the world as Rachel Carson painted it in her 1962 book, Silent Spring.” That was an ugly world of profligate chemical use and eroding soils. But in many parts of the world things have changed for the better. For instance energy use per bushel of corn grown has declined by 43% in the US since 1980. Over the same period corn production doubled but land use declined by 30%. What this means, says Paarlberg, is that “the increased productivity of modern agriculture is not from higher yields but lower inputs per bushel”. 

Infra-red imaging turns farmers’ fields into a patchwork of colour that guides the precise delivery of inputs.Credit: NASA

Some of these gains come from the precision agriculture practiced by large-scale farmers who use satellite navigation to keep their gigantic tractors on tram tracks. “It doesn’t sound like rocket science but it has a profound impact on the way farmers manage their paddocks,” says David Lamb, Leader of the Precision Agriculture Research Group at the University of New England. Because there is no overlapping of their tracks, there is no double application of fertiliser or pesticide, sparing the environment as well as the farmer’s wallet. And because the wheels stay on the tracks, the harmful compaction of the soil is minimised. Overall it can pay back tens to hundreds of dollars per hectare, says Lamb. But small-scale farmers also benefit with improved seeds that require less pesticide and water. A genetically improved seed represents a huge investment of science and capital, yet any farmer knows what to do with it. The fact is these technologies are “scale neutral”, says Paarlberg. 

The goal of the Green Revolution was to increase yields. But over the past two decades the key lieutenants of that revolution have turned their focus to sustainability. Gordon Conway called for a “Doubly Green Revolution”. MS Swaminathan favoured an “Evergreen Revolution”. Borlaug himself suggested a “Blue Revolution”, challenging the next generation of breeders to produce crops that use water more efficiently or as he put it, “more crop per drop”.

Science and technology are answering those calls. See for yourself. 

We face the challenge of feeding a planet poised to add the population
of two more Chinas by mid-century.

 In Australia, at CSIRO plant Industry in Canberra, Richard Richards has bred drought tolerant wheat varieties called Vigour X-25 and Drysdale that yield 10% to 20% gains in arid conditions.

In America, Monsanto released Genuity DroughtGard Hybrids, a new variety of GM corn that carries a bacterial gene that stops the plant from stressing out in response to drought. In trials so far it provides a more than 12 bushels-a-hectare yield advantage, roughly 5%, during drought. Genuity is largely targeted at US farmers in the Central Great Plains, whose corn is mostly used for cattle and biofuel with human consumption mainly in the form of food additives like cornstarch. But in Africa, corn is a staple. Early this year, smallholder farmers in Kenya will trial new drought- and pest-tolerant maize seeds. These have been bred through traditional means since it is illegal to grow GMO crops in Kenya. To the women poking the seeds into the dry soil the corn seed will look pretty ordinary. But these seeds represent an extraordinary investment of science and capital harnessed from public (the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, CIMMYT), private (Monsanto), philanthropic (Gates and Buffet foundations) and government (USAID) players. It’s known as the Water Efficient Maize for Africa project (WEMA), and is headed by the African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF). On a parallel track CIMMYT is also leading a private-public partnership to develop GM varieties of maize for Africa. “We think we can get additional benefits using the intellectual property for the genes provided by multinationals,” says director general Thomas Lumpkin. 

Legumes such as chickpea are a crucial source of protein for many of the world’s poor. In India, Rajeev Varshney at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has scoured the genomes of 90 varieties of chickpea from all over the world. Using “marker assisted breeding” that tracks the signature of water-efficiency genes, he has been able to accelerate the breeding of new drought tolerant chickpea varieties.

‘What these critics of modern agriculture don’t realise is that they
are working on an outdated model.’

Around the world the book Silent Spring galvanised public awareness of the dangers of pesticides. America took heed. Between 1980 to 2007, farmers decreased their pesticide use by 0.6% per year. But with the successes of the Green Revolution, Asian rice farmers overindulged in pesticides.

The result was indeed Faustian. It resulted in a series of uncontrollable outbreaks of the plant hoppers that settle on succulent young rice plants to suck out their sap. The problem was that rice farmers were spraying as soon as their rice plants went in. The leafhoppers hadn’t even arrived yet but the pesticides killed off their enemies, the ladybugs and wasps. So when the leafhoppers did arrive they had it easy. Furthermore, continued spraying caused the leafhoppers to develop resistance to the sprays. In 2007, IRRI turned to Australian-based “ecological engineer” Geoff Gurr to help solve the problem in a project across China, Vietnam and Thailand. Gurr and colleagues experimented with finding an ecological solution. One successful example is to grow sesame plants on the earth banks framing the rice paddy. Tiny one-millimetre wasps, also called fairy flies, are drawn to suck the sesame flower’s nectar; then they lay their eggs into the eggs of the leafhoppers on nearby rice plants. End result: the leafhoppers are controlled with little or no pesticide and the farmer gets the value of selling their sesame seeds. Gurr, based at Charles Sturt University, is now analysing data collected in the four years since 2009, but the results so far are exciting. In 17 trials, fields often had such low pest numbers that no spraying was required. The average was just one spray a season and the rice yield was just as high as those farmers who sprayed four times a season. 

Australian ecological engineer Geoff Gurr (right) and Chinese colleagues Lu Zhong Xian (far left) and Chen Guihua. Sesame plants grown beside rice paddies control leaf hoppers.Credit: Geoff Gurr

Scientists also tackled the problem of pesticide overuse by copying another kind of biological control. The bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) lives in the gut of caterpillars. But some bacterial strains produce toxic proteins that paralyse their caterpillar host’s digestive tract leading to its starvation – a phenomenon that Japanese scientists first observed in sickly silkworms in 1901. Different strains of Bt produce proteins that target different species of insect. Organic farmers grow up vats of Bt to spray on their crops. Genetic engineers directly transferred the gene for the toxic protein into crops to give them built-in resistance. In 1996, corn became the first commercial crop to carry Bt, protecting it from the European corn borer. Since then Bt has been transferred into cotton, soybeans and other crops. A study of Indian cotton farming in 2011 showed that pesticide use in India had dropped by at least half, and that 2.4 million cases of pesticide poisoning had been avoided. A similar finding was reported from China in 2012. Published in Nature, it showed a halving of the use of pesticides while the level of beneficial insects such as ladybirds and lacewings had doubled. 

West African farmers will have to wait much longer to access the benefits of Bt crops. TJ Higgins has more than a little sympathy for them. A legume biotechnologist at CSIRO Plant Industry in Canberra, he too grew up poor as one of six children on a farm in Ireland. Like the West Africans, his parents’ farm was “organic”. They could afford little in the way of modern technology. But West African farmers are much worse off. Few own livestock and their major source of protein is a bean called cowpea, known as “poor man’s meat”, which the farmers grow on their tiny half-hectare fields. Native to West Africa, cowpea can cope with poor soils and little rainfall. What it can’t cope with is the Maruca pod borer, a moth larvae that can take 80% of the yield. 

Son of a poor Irish farmer, TJ Higgins is developing insect-resistant GM cowpeas for African subsistence farmers.Credit: TJ Higgins

Ten years ago the not-for-profit Network for the Genetic Improvement of Cowpea in Africa (NGICA) asked Higgins to help out. With support from USAID, the Rockefeller Foundation, CSIRO and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, he decided to give the plant a Bt gene to defend itself. He promised NGICA it would take 15 years, but the project exceeded his expectation. In a trial in Burkina Faso last year, the crop yield was raised fivefold. The safety assessment will take another four years. So in theory Africans could have the crop one year ahead of schedule in 2017. “So far, we’ve been received very positively. Most consumers are producers themselves, so they’re keen to get the yield.” But Higgins has no illusions about what lies ahead. “I am assuming there will be campaigns against them. That’s the demoralising thing about this work.” 

Paradoxically, activists are attacking precisely those technologies that are helping to reduce chemical use and lifting poor farmers out of poverty. With all these benefits for smaller farmers, one wonders why they are not the ones protesting against being denied these enabling technologies. As Paarlberg points out, the typical African farmer is an illiterate woman, living at the end of a dirt track, on less than a dollar a day. “These people don’t have a political voice.” But small-scale farmers can take affairs into their own hands. Bt cotton for instance was bootlegged throughout India before the Indian government approved it in 2002. Now, according to unofficial reports, something similar seems to be taking place with Bt brinjal (eggplant) in Bangladesh, Bt rice in China and Bt potato in Kazakhstan. “When governments are indecisive, farmers will move ahead on their own”, says Lumpkin. “That’s not an ideal situation,” he adds. “Governments have to get involved and, based on the science, approve them as safe or not.” 

Pesticide use by IndiaN cotton farmers has dropped by at least half, with 2.4 million fewer cases of pesticide poisoning.

Tony Gregson’s neighbours all pretty much grow the same crops on their large farms in the Wimmera plain of Western Victoria: wheat, barley, canola and fava beans. But he tells me, “We all do it our own way; even my next door neighbour does different rotations.”

It’s a truism of farming. Farmers work based on their knowledge of their land, their training and their intuition. Governments and regulators have the right to ensure farmers use safe and environmentally friendly practices. But beyond that why are organisations such as Greenpeace telling farmers what they should or should not farm? 

Agricultural researchers aren’t. They offer farmers a variety of tools for a variety conditions, in the way IRRI offers Golden Rice as well as ecological engineering. It’s happening all over the world. In 2012, at the Central Institute for Cotton Research in Nagpur, I saw a new variety of GM cotton carrying two so-called “stacked” Bt genes in one test plot, while a nearby plot was testing a variety of cotton using organic methods – for some farmers the premium prices for organic cotton make it worthwhile. 

What I witnessed in India, I have witnessed in agricultural research and development programs everywhere. While dogma, ideology and twisted rhetoric do battle in cyberspace and are brandished by those going into fields destroying crops, they are nowhere to be seen in the laboratories of the people developing the new technologies. Scientists develop the tools and leave it to the farmer to choose what works best. The stories in this special issue are further testament to that. They describe organic approaches like those used by cocoa farmers in Sulawesi, and GM approaches like those being developed by Florida citrus farmers. 

These diverse solutions are what farmers need to run successful businesses that will keep them farming, protect the planet, and ultimately feed us all.

Elizabeth Finkel is editor-in-chief of COSMOS.