Saturday, October 13, 2012

Genetic diversity and food security

Biotech companies, and their journalists, are fond of telling us that genetic engineering is necessary to increase food production, to face a growing global population, and to create resiliency in the face soil degradation, salinity, and an increasingly unpredictable climate. If not the panacea to all our agricultural ills and woes, then genetic engineering is at worst a pragmatic, necessary evil for a world immanently in danger. For several years, I remember a certain major agricultural supply conglomerate had a "global population counter" on their front page, racing ever upwards at a dizzying rate. It required no words; the feeling of watching it was visceral and chilling.

Unlike the technique of using "science" as an authority to sway the public, appeals to food security rely on creating fear, and when the argument hinges on "helping feed the world's hungry", also on pity.

It has often been pointed out that patenting life is antithetical to promoting food security or food sustainability. This is a discussion that spreads beyond the subject of this blog post, i.e., "genetic diversity". We will have to reserve talking about corporate control of seed supplies, exclusive property rights, and the lack of accountability of biotech companies when their seeds contaminate non-GMO fields for another time. Nor will we discuss the odd fact that biotech companies can simultaneously claim that 1) their crop is so different from traditional crops that they can patent it, and yet 2) it is so similar to traditional crops that they do not require special testing, oversight or regulation. While they have found a way to have their cake and eat it too, this does not mean that their technologies will serve to bring us all plentiful and nutritious cake for the upcoming century. A topic for another day...

Instead, I will focus on the relationship between genetic diversity and food security and how this connects with biotech crops. Now today, over 80% of corn, canola, and soy grown in America is genetically engineered. There are several varieties, though all of them have been altered for one of two characteristics. Either they have been altered to produce their own pesticide (from the soil bacterium B. thuringiensis), or they have been altered to be resistant to glyphosate, a herbicide produced by Monsanto. Since the varieties are all patented, farmers are not allowed to save their seeds or breed them with other varieties. Since these companies rely on such aggressive marketing campaigns, they also enjoy a colossal market share. What this means is that the genetic diversity of corn, canola, and soy is incredibly low. Throughout millions of hectares across the continent, from Saskatoon to Cincinnati, we find that virtually every ear of corn and every seed of canola is just one of a few possible genetic configurations. The continent is filled with a sea of uniformity, a monotonous echo-chamber reverberating corporate control. This is not just stultifying to our imaginations and our need for spontaneity, it is also quite dangerous.

Here's why.

To overcome uncertainties, nature has developed a strategy called diversification. This is not unlike "portfolio diversification" that many investors rely on. The basic idea is this: if one species or variety succumbs to some environmental pressure, others are likely to survive. Nature employs many techniques to do this on many different levels. Ask a biologist someday for examples. For centuries, farmers have basically followed this same system. When each farmer saves his or her seeds each year and replants them, he or she gradually develops what is known as a "land race". A land race is a variety that is adapted to the specific ecological constraints of the farmland and the cultural preferences of the farmer. Through this process, most of the world's important crops have developed into tens of thousands of land races. Laos, the small neighbour of Thailand and Vietnam, is thought to have almost 4 thousand varieties of rice alone, and India many times that number.

If there is a drought, certain varieties will be better adapted than others. If there is a flood, likewise. For virtually every normal environmental condition, ranging from humidity levels, to salinity, to coldness and warmth, to the presence of certain pests or the absence of certain nutrients, land races will be found that are resistant to the problem at hand. And more than just "being resistant", land races get better and better over time, because they are created through an elaborate co-evolution between farmers, their crops and their local environments.

So neither nature nor humans (for most of our history) have relied on mass production of replicas as a means for ensuring survival. This new strategy is extremely risky and there isn't really any reason to think it will work. Contrary to the approach of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major Monsanto donor, there are many ways of supporting the development and diversification land races to ensure food security. But building local seed centres and creating seed sharing rituals cannot be patented. Nor can developing "swapping networks" across larger geographical spaces.

The drought of 2012 that left much of America's corn crop destitute was attributed by many to climate change. However, unbeknownst to most of us, much of the corn that was not destroyed from the arid, midsummer heat was instead devastated by worms. These "rootborers" were exactly what the biotech companies were trying to combat in developing corn that was genetically engineered to produce its own pesticide. Resistance was widely predicted by ecologists since these crops were first planted a decade ago. And without land races in the farmer's satchels, they are now at the mercy and dependency of the biotech companies for a solution to the problem.

Is this what we mean by "food security"?

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