One only has to look to the hunger crisis in Haiti to see how the debate over innovation and technology in agriculture has degenerated into a cartoon discourse.
In early May, two shipments -- 135 tons -- of hybrid varieties of corn, cabbage, carrot, eggplant, melon, onion, spinach, tomato and watermelon seeds began arriving in Haiti. It was the first installment of 60,000 seed sacks -- more than $4 million worth -- of high-yielding hybrid corn and vegetable seeds donated after months of careful negotiations with government and international agricultural experts.
To say the donations are desperately needed is an understatement. According to the UN, every year 38,000 Haitian children, one out of three, die of malnutrition, and more than half of the country's inhabitants survive on $1 per day. But to some advocacy groups in the United States and Europe, the charity was a nefarious capitalist plot.
Haitian peasant groups, with their headquarters in Brooklyn, New York and with deep ties to international NGOs, marched through Port-au-Prince, carrying "Down with GMOs and hybrid seeds" banners and threatened to burn the donated seed. It was an odd display. Genetically modified seeds are controversial but none was provided, asked for, or anticipated by the Haitian government. These were hybrid seeds, around since Gregor Mendel's time in the 1800s. There is no question that they increase yields over pollinated seeds, whether fertilizer is applied or not. What could possibly be the downside for Haitians?
Unfortunately, the world's poor are often caught in the middle of a ferocious but under-the-radar war over the future of world agriculture and the fate of the malnourished. According to the World Bank, about three-quarters of the 820 million people who live in extreme poverty depend on farming for a living. How should we as a society respond to a crisis of such malignant proportions?
The Haitian protesters, who were directed out of the Peasant Movement of Papaye headquarters in New York City offer one vision. They promote a "sustainable" solution based on organic techniques. The organization works hand-in-glove with Greenpeace, the Organic Consumers Association, and other interest groups, which stand steadfast against any technology that can jump yields.
As they see it, the donations are a Trojan horse to migrate farmers from organic agriculture -- which has been a disaster in the face of persistent drought -- to "industrial" farming techniques. Haiti's agricultural problems, they claim, are not homegrown but foreign imposed. They are the result of "US trade and aid policies that led to the destruction of Haiti's capacity to feed itself," charged the Institute for Policy Studies early in July in an open letter to Monsanto, which donated the seeds. The St. Louis-based firm, they claim, is Darth Vader, "a charter member of the industrial-agricultural complex," and the seeds represent "a very strong attack on small agriculture, on farmers, on biodiversity."
The protesters and their NGO enablers seem caught in amber, circa 1960. Beginning a half century ago, the world began reaping enormous benefits from the "Green Revolution," which focused on the targeted use of specialized chemicals, fertilizers, sophisticated irrigation, mechanization, and the use of new crop cultivars to dramatically improve yields and the nutritional content of crops. Such innovations such as atrazine, an herbicide effective in controlling yield-robbing weeds yet is gentle enough to be used on green shoots, ushered in the no-plow revolution, which reduced soil erosion and the use of carbon belching plows. The advent of agricultural biotechnology offered the opportunity to extend those gains.
The most socially attuned aid groups, including the widely respected Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has committed more than $1.5 billion to date to agricultural development, have embraced science and technology as the key to boosting productivity. "We are exploring the development of a diverse range of crops that can thrive in different soil types and resistant to drought, disease, and pests," notes the Gates Foundation. "Our partners employ a range of tools and techniques, from traditional breeding to the newest biotechnologies, in the search for solutions that will help small farmers."
The judicious use of agricultural chemicals like atrazine and glyphosate, sophisticated hybrid seeds, and biotech products are essential if we are to use all the tools available to raise yields and combat hunger. While the Western media circulated stories of the Haitian protest, the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture quietly went about the more cogent challenge of addressing its hungry citizenry. It applauded the "generous donation" of the vegetable and maize seeds, which "have been tested in Haiti previously and are well accepted by the farmers." The scare campaign may yet throw a wrench into the aid project, but for now at least, science has prevailed.
Of course this is only the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle. "This global effort to help small farmers is endangered by an ideological wedge that threatens to split the movement [to address world hunger] in two," Bill Gates declared at a speech for the presentation of the World Food Prize, last fall. Innovation critics, he said, are presenting us with a "false choice" between a "technological" approach geared to boosting productivity and a so-called "environmental" one focused on sustainability. "We can have both."
There is no zero sum trade-off between technology, productivity and sustainability. The world's poor do not have the luxury to play the ideological games that dominate Western politics. To consign the malnourished to lives of hunger to satisfy romantic notions of agriculture is the worst kind of imperialism.
Jon Entine, a columnist for Ethical Corporation magazine and CEO of ESG MediaMetrics, a sustainability consultancy, is the author/editor of "Crop Chemophobia: Will Precaution Kill the Green Revolution", to be published this November by AEI Press