Is All Biotechnology Bad for Agriculture?

By Elsa Hammons Watland '13, Contributing Writer

The Green Revolution refers to a period of agricultural transformation between the 1940s and 1970s. During this time, high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of wheat and rice were developed through genetic modification. These biotechnologically-developed varieties seemingly ensured food security throughout Asia and Latin America.

However, today crop yields are declining while population is rising. Consequently, there is increasing concern over how to feed the projected global population of 9 billion by 2050.

When I studied abroad in Kenya last fall, I researched the adoption of drought-resistant HYVs of the nutritious cereal crop sorghum in a drought-prone agricultural region. My final paper both praised the Green Revolution’s achievements and lamented its lack of effectiveness in Africa; I argued that the only way to feed the worlds’ growing population and those in drought-prone regions is to use HYVs.

However, I encountered a very different perspective when I returned to Scripps and enrolled in Professor Auerbach’s Political Economy of Food course. The class emphasizes the adverse environmental and social impacts of the Green Revolution, and the negative role biotechnology plays in agriculture.

In class, we watched The Future of Food, a documentary about the incredible political influence multinational, biotechnical agribusinesses like Monsanto, Cargill and Syngenta have. One area of agribusiness influence is through funding university agricultural research. Historically, the U.S. government funded such research, but with recent budget cuts, universities have been forced to seek funding elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, companies like Monsanto have made countless contributions to train plant-

breeding professionals and establish research funds, described articles from Hawaii 24/7 and a news source at North Carolina State University.

By accepting these funds, universities are at the mercy of Monsanto. The Future of Food cites the example of a research project that showed inexplicable deaths when rats were fed genetically modified, Bt-corn. But before more research could be conducted, Monsanto pulled funding. Agribusinesses are seeking to “control knowledge itself,” says author Raj Patel. Yet agri-giants are also creating the rhetoric that biotechnology can “feed the world.” This is just another ploy to direct research to the industry’s advantage, while making the world’s rich feel good about it. And they are succeeding: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, has purchased over $25 million worth of Monsanto shares.

I am angry with myself for being so easily persuaded by agribusiness propaganda. Before conducting and writing my research in Kenya, I had failed to inform myself of the different perspectives over biotechnology. It is now clearer to me than ever that it is my responsibility to weigh opposing opinions to formulate my own, and approach arguments critically even if they initially seem compelling.

But what is much more important to understand is the complexity of agricultural development in countries like Kenya. The issue of using biotechnology cannot simply be reduced to the polarized arguments: it is the only way to feed the world versus it cannot be used to aid agricultural development at all. Tomorrow’s Table, a recently published book by geneticist Pamela C. Ronald and organic farmer Raul Adamchak, argues that combining biotechnology and organic farming is “key to helping feed the world’s growing population in an ecologically balanced manner.”

I was able to witness the complexity of the situation firsthand in Kenya. The farmers I interviewed were not using agribusiness-owned HYVs but the Kenya Seed Company, which distributes genetically modified seeds to the government. Additionally, Ke- nyan agricultural researchers I interviewed sought to aim research toward meeting Kenya’s food needs and maintaining indigenous agricultural traditions, such as saving seeds to conserve biodiversity.

Where I researched, it was clear that farmers were not being exploited by agribusinesses. But since HYV seeds are considered genetically modified foods, they fall under the umbrella of biotechnology and thus carry with them the negative connotations of the agribusiness industry. Indeed, it seems today that supporting GMOs (genetically modified organisms, often food) is synonymous with supporting big agribusiness because of the monopoly the industry has over biotechnology.

And so it seems, like so many other contemporary issues, that the crux of this debate lies within economic power. Agribusinesses have a huge financial stake in controlling agricultural research and knowledge, incentivizing them to take the use of biotechnology too far.

The increasingly globalized and economically driven agribusiness industry has obscured the potentially positive aspects of biotechnology application to agriculture. It would be unwise to completely cast biotechnology aside, as some forms of genetically modified products like HYVs benefit agricultural communities across the globe. So the question we should be asking is not whether biotechnology is good or bad, but rather, how can we use biotechnology to the advantage of sustainable agricultural development?