martes, 26 de enero de 2016

“Los seres humanos observamos el mundo natural como reflejo de la organización social dominante a la realidad de nuestras vidas.”
R. Levins y R. Lewontin

Richard Levins, Richard C. Lewontin. 1985. The Dialectical Biologist. Harvard University Press.

sábado, 23 de enero de 2016

"The dialectical view insists that persistence and equilibrium are not the natural state of things but require explanation, which must be sought in the actions of the opposing forces . . . The opposing forces are seen as contradictory in the sense that each taken separately would have opposite effects, and their joint action may be different from the result of either acting alone . . . The relations among the stabilising and destabilising processes become themselves the objects of interests, and the original object is seen as a system, a network of positive and negative feedbacks."

Richard Levins, Richard C. Lewontin. 1985. The Dialectical Biologist. Harvard University Press.

jueves, 21 de enero de 2016

Why Seed Company Mergers Matter in a Warming World

By Doug Gurian-Sherman 

Seed company mergers have been all over the news lately. First, there was Monsanto’s rebuffed attempts to buy Syngenta, followed by a proposed merger between DuPont and Dow. Then, a Chinese company expressed interest in buying Syngenta, which lead to Syngenta’s renewed interest by Monsanto. As this chart by Michigan State University’s Phillip Howard shows, all this recent merger activity is the culmination of about two decades of the world’s largest seed companies swallowing up smaller companies by the score.

And while most of these developments have been reported as business stories, they also have huge implications for agriculture and our food supply.

Yes, these mergers would have big economic ramifications. For example, as I’ve noted, the growing economic power of seed companies, and the gene and crop patents they own, often keep farmers from being able to save seeds. This allows the companies to jack up prices, which results in a higher percentage of farmer profits going to seed purchases than before and lowers profit margins per acre for farmers. This trend puts upward pressure on farm size, which often contributes to simplified farming practices that lead to environmental harm.

But lost in the legitimate concerns about economics, have been the implications of mega seed companies when it comes to the impact of climate change on farming.

The Threat of Climate Change and the Need for Crop Diversity

Climate change is a well-recognized threat to crop production, and research has shown that it is probably already reducing the productivity of some major crops. Increased temperatures and droughts cut productivity, as do extreme precipitation events and floods, causing possible increased pest invasions, and harm to important crop helpers like pollinators.

How we grow and breed our crops can either make them more climate resilient or more vulnerable. And one key element of resilience against climate change is crop genetic diversity. Sadly, when large industrial agriculture companies exert their influence, diversity is generally reduced. That means fewer types of crops and less genetic diversity within each crop.

And a seed company landscape made up of fewer, larger companies will likely make this problem worse.

These mergers would also probably lead to a reduction in research. As Brett Bergemann, Monsanto’s Chief Operating Officer, has said, “The crop chemicals industry is bound to consolidate because target companies are spending too much on research and development for new products.” Meanwhile, commercial farming has become increasingly dependent on private sector research to develop potentially useful traits.

Recent research supports the increased climate resilience of diverse cropping systems that rely on agroecology, like using long crop rotations, cover crops, manures and mulches, intercropping, perennial plants, and so forth. Yields averaged seven and 22 percent higher for corn and soybeans, respectively, grown in more diverse crop rotations under hot and dry conditions. Greater drought tolerance has also been observed with increased varieties of a single crop in Ethiopia.

Large seed companies aren’t the only factors driving U.S. farms to become less diverse; the demands made by food retailers and processors and our nation’s farm policies also play a large role. But they’re a big piece of the puzzle.

These seed companies put most of their breeding efforts into a small number of major crops like corn, soybeans, and cotton, which increases their economic competitiveness compared to other crops. Recent research published in PLOS One found that cropping systems are becoming simpler especially in places like the U.S. Midwest, where these major crops are particularly dominant. The researchers attributed this trend to be in part due to the concentrated seed industry.

Many of the crops that have been replaced around the world by corn and soybeans are more climate-resilient. For example, sorghum, millet, pigeon peas, and cassava are generally more heat and drought tolerant. As the big seed companies grow, and push their varieties on international markets, they may further displace local crops.

And the big seed companies also foster poor generic diversity within the crops that they favor. For example, National Academy of Sciences member and internationally respected geneticist and corn breeder Major Goodman noted at a summit about crop breeding in 2014 that the big companies rely heavily on just a few basic types of corn, to which they add a few additional traits. Meanwhile, the much more genetically diverse native varieties of maize—and its wild relative and progenitor, teosinte (which can supply even more adaptive traits to corn)—are being lost from their regions of origin in Mexico and Guatemala.

It is much more expensive to produce many diverse locally adapted varieties, and more time-consuming. So big seed companies generally narrow their focus to reduce costs. The more the seed and breeding industries and communities become concentrated in a few mega-companies, the more these harmful trends will be exacerbated. But we’re reducing our adaptability just at the moment when we will need it the most.

Small Farmers Hold the Key

By contrast, small farms, and especially indigenous farmers who are under pressure from companies and governments around the world, are the keepers of the types of genetic diversity that we will all need to continue to adapt to a changing climate. They have developed, nurtured, conserved, and traded these diverse local crop varieties for millennia. In fact, they should be celebrated and supported for doing the original crowdsourcing, or “seed-sourcing.”

But all is not lost. As researchers Maywa Montenegro and Dianne Rocheleau pointed out in their recent papers, the loss of small and peasant farms has slowed in recent years in some areas, sometimes through active resistance. In fact, many of these farmers continue to plant diverse crops and varieties.

However, we cannot be complacent about the vitality of the stewards of our genetic inheritance. Big seed companies and the high-profit crop varieties that they favor, will continue to displace or absorb small and peasant farms into a system that sees them primarily as potential customers.

We need to actively support small farms and their communities through public policies, and public participatory breeding without patents, such as the work of the Open Source Seed Initiative, while opposing further seed company mergers and patents that prevent seed saving. Our future ability to produce the food we need in the face of climate change depends upon it.

in memoriam

martes, 5 de enero de 2016

Was the Green Revolution a Humanitarian Undertaking? (Jonathan Harwood)

Jonathan Harwood

The Green Revolution (GR) is sometimes portrayed as a set of humanitarian programmes, organised by philanthropic foundations, which applied northern expertise to the problem of hunger and poverty in the global South. Several historians of the GR have qualified this view, noting that although the GR’s consequences may have been humanitarian – in that it succeeded in boosting food production and reducing the need for grain imports – the actual motivation behind the programmes, as John Perkins demonstrated, was a geopolitical one. Namely, during the 1950s and ‘60s hungry Asian peasants were thought to be susceptible to the charms of communism. In this piece, however, I will argue that this geopolitical interpretation does not go far enough in challenging the view that the reduction of hunger – whatever the motive – was a central concern of the GR’s planners and funders. Recent work on the GR in India by Corinna R. Unger and by Kapil Subramanian suggests that historians (including me) have not paid enough attention to the fact that GR programmes were not even designed to maximise food production.

As various development historians have shown, in the 1950s it was common among modernisation theorists to regard peasant agriculture as ‘static’ and’traditional’, thus resistant to economic change. Development programmes, therefore, needed to do more than merely introduce new technology and institutions; they would have to bring about a shift in mentality. To that end, as Nick Cullather has shown, development experts were particularly keen on innovations which would not just improve agricultural production but would yield spectacular results quickly. The resulting shock – among farmers and government officials alike – was thought necessary to undermine longstanding values and assumptions. And the point of triggering this psychological ‘reawakening’ was to induce among peasants the desire to do more than just feed their families better but to gain cash-income through increasing efficiency and producing primarily for the market. Unger reports one Rockefeller Foundation official enthusing in 1969 that India’s peasants were ‘breaking out of centuries-old patterns of subsistence agriculture and entering the new world of commercial food production….’. Given this aim, the targetting strategy of the GR’s planners made sense. They set up programmes to distribute improved seed, fertiliser and pesticide only in ‘promising’ regions where water was plentiful, growing conditions were good, and farmers were keen on new technology. This, they reckoned, would maximise the likelihood of producing the most dramatic yield-gains.

A major drawback of this strategy, however, was that while it boosted production in the selected areas, it did not maximise overall food-production (and was accordingly controversial among Indian experts). For example, as Subramanian shows, the Indian irrigation bureaucracy’s longstanding strategy was to maximise the area served by public systems since this was thought to be not only socially equitable but would also maximise production. But in the 1960s David Hopper, the Ford Foundation’s agricultural economist in New Delhi, while conceding that the bureaucracy’s strategy was indeed the optimum way to maximise production, instead advocated concentrating irrigation on ‘progressive’ areas because this would maximise profit for the favoured few.

The situation with fertiliser was similar. Indian agricultural economists had calculated that the overall effect upon production would be greater if fertiliser were distributed widely in small amounts (because Indian tall wheat varieties were more responsive to low doses of fertiliser than were the high-yielding dwarf varieties promoted by the GR). The GR’s proponents, however, insisted that available supplies of fertiliser should be concentrated on the favoured areas so that very high doses of fertiliser could be used there, and yields would be maximised. Finally, we need to ask why GR breeding-programmes focused on some crops rather than others. Although rice (along with white millet) was much more widely grown (and consumed, especially in rural areas) than wheat in 1960s India and had been accordingly favoured by agricultural policy there during the 1950s, from the mid-1960s GR programmes devoted more resources to wheat- than to rice-improvement. (A comparable crop-bias had earlier characterised the Rockefeller Foundation’s Mexican Agricultural Program.) Boosting aggregate food production was evidently less important to the GR’s champions – despite the existence of widespread rural hunger – than producing spectacular yield-increases on a relatively small number of farms.

Many years ago Gavin Williams made a similar case for the World Bank’s development aid to small farmers during the 1970s; its main aim was not to enable them to grow more food but to encourage production for the market. Moreover the tension between these two aims is much older. As Harro Maat and other historians of colonial agriculture have shown in recent years, although colonial authorities usually promoted the growing of cash crops for the international market, peasant farmers often resisted, growing subsistence food crops for themselves and sometimes for sale on local markets. Have things changed since then? According to Rajeev Patel, the team carrying out a Gates Foundation-funded project for the African Enterprise Challenge Fund reported that a central problem they faced was that most farmers there ‘viewed agriculture as a way of life and not a business’. For the foundations, it appears, the profitability of small farms remains more important than the amount of food they produce.

Jonathan Harwood is emeritus professor at the University of Manchester and visiting professor in the Centre for History of Science, Technology & Medicine at Kings College London. His most recent book is Europe’s Green Revolution and Others Since (Routledge 2012) and his current work focuses upon the role of expertise in twentieth century agricultural revolutions.