I was reading a Washington Post article the other day about the effect of stress on pregnancy:
Studies have shown that when women experience stress, anxiety and depression, it affects them as well as the developing baby. According to the March of Dimes, prolonged exposure to high levels of stress can cause health problems, such as high blood pressure or heart disease, and may increase the chances of having a premature baby.
I couldn't help but wonder how the intense fear-mongering about chemicals and pesticides affected some of the women who were pregnant during the Bill 2491 process and its aftermath.
And then I wondered how any person in good conscience could continue to stoke those fears even though all the studies conducted to date — including those by the anti-GMO groups — have shown that pesticide drift from the seed fields is non-existent to negligible, and none of the claims about purported birth defects have been substantiated.
A comment posted yesterday perfectly expresses the wrong-thinking that is so prevalent around agriculture and food production, especially among well-fed westerners:
Best way to feed billions is to inspire billions to grow food- not to depend upon foreign corporations, many of whom profit immensely off of pesticides and herbicides and other kinds of poisons. Best way is to revitalize traditional and cultural methods of seed saving and agriculture that are proven to work well, and other methods not driven by profit. "Feed billions" is a propaganda term straight out of the mouths of these corporations, which value profit first over all else. If everyone in Hawaiʻi planted one breadfruit tree (1.4 million trees), then we would be well on our way to feeding ourselves.
First, it's apparent this person has no understanding at all of how “traditional and cultural methods of of seed saving and agriculture” are actually playing out in developing nations. As one example, consider sub-Saharan Africa, where drought regularly wipes out maize crops, leaving farmers with no food to eat, no seed to save and no crops to sell to pay for things like an education for their children.
In recent years, through the introduction of drought-tolerant hybrids, farmers have been able to grow enough to feed themselves and make a profit, which is helping them escape poverty. It's been possible through a public-private partnership that involves Monsanto, African NGOs and deep-pocket philanthropy by Gates, Warren Buffett and USAID. Africans control the seeds.
There isn't one nation on Earth where people aren't counting on others to grow at least some of their food for them. The idea that each person can become food self-sufficient is unrealistic, especially in Hawaii, with the bulk of the population lives in Honolulu. While breadfruit is great, much of what is currently grown goes to waste because many people have no taste for it.
There's a reason why farmers comprise just 1 percent of the population in the U.S., and that's because the other 99 percent either don't want to farm, or live in cities where they're unable to produce their own food.
The same is true throughout the world, where young people are leaving rural communities for cities. They're leaving because they can't make sufficient profit from what are often tiny farms to support themselves and their families. They're leaving because climate change is affecting the arrival and intensity of the monsoons, provoking prolonged droughts, drying up streams, increasing the salinity of the soil. They're leaving because of war and civil unrest. They're leaving because they're seeking better opportunities.
They're also leaving because it's getting harder and harder to pursue “traditional” agriculture. Rural farmers aren't keeping so much livestock, so they have less manure for fertilizer. It's also difficult to find, and afford, laborers willing to weed and harvest manually.
Additionally, it's inaccurate to assume that “traditional and indigenous” methods of farming are inherently sustainable and environmentally friendly. Consider the work of World Food Prize Laureate Bram Govaerts, who helped frame the Mexican government’s major initiative known as the Sustainable Modernization of Traditional Agriculture:
His component is “Take It to the Farmer," which “focuses on integrating technological innovation into small-scale farming systems for maize and wheat crops, while minimizing detrimental impacts on the environment. Under this extension-style program, farmers on over 94,000 hectares switched to sustainable systems using MasAgro technologies, while farmers on another 600,000 hectares are receiving training and information to improve their techniques and practices.
Using cell phone technology and social media, YouTube videos and educational events, his work has led to impressive achievements in the adoption of his integrated technologies by farmers, policy changes at the governmental level, and institutional alignment for the implementation of conservation agriculture.”
His research and field application in conservation and sustainable agriculture has focused on the benefits of improving long-term soil quality in both irrigated and rain-fed regions through leaving surface residues on the land and reducing tillage activities while diversifying crops. Evidence gathered during his research has shown that when farmers used this method, crop yields increased on average in the rain fed areas by 30 to 40 percent and production costs fell by 10 percent in irrigated systems, resulting in a positive impact on household income.
“Feed billions” is a term of compassion expressed by the countless scientists — both public and private sector — around the world who are sincerely working to improve food systems in many different ways. I've never heard anyone involved in biotech claim that it alone will feed billions. It is invariably presented as one plant-breeding tool in the toolbox.
The real irony is that anti-GMO lobbying has led to such a rigorous approval process for biotech that only the big corporations can afford to play. Activists are actually working to give big corporations more control over food development.
I do agree that it's important to inspire people to farm. But you're not going to inspire many to willingly assume a life of povery and drudgery by insisting they employ only “traditional and indigenous” agricultural methods. As Dr. Govaerts noted:
“The best recognition of Dr. Borlaug’s legacy is to be conscious and shout out loud that farming is the future. It is our moral duty as researchers to bring pride back to the fields by harnessing the existing innovations of farmers and other value chain actors and fostering capacity and application of science and technology.”
It's fine if people want to hold erroneous, simplistic beliefs. The problems arise when they try to turn these misguided views into policies, and work to stifle technological advances in agriculture, and limit farmers' choices and prevent farmers and researchers from gaining access to innovation.
We're facing some serious challenges in the world, especially around agriculture. While I understand that many would love to turn back the clock to a time they imagined was more ideal, that's not going to happen, either through edict or choice.