Thursday, August 05, 2010

Liberate science to tackle world hunger

Growing enough food to feed the world’s population is already achieved, though poor people often can’t access or afford it and rich countries waste as much as 30%.

The fact that population growth will peak in around 2050 means that it should be possible to produce sufficient food, provided there is a transformation to more sustainable farming and land use. And provided, of course, that there is a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions and global warming is capped and then reversed.

The scientific journal Nature, in a special issue on food and farming, concludes: “Producing enough food for the world's population in 2050 will be easy. But doing it at an acceptable cost to the planet will depend on research into everything from high-tech seeds to low-tech farming practices.” Nature calls for a “second green revolution” and says:

Such a revolution will require a wholesale realignment of priorities in agricultural research. There is an urgent need for new crop varieties that offer higher yields but use less water, fertilizers or other inputs — created, for example, through long-neglected research on modifying roots — and for crops that are more resistant to drought, heat, submersion and pests. Equally crucial is lower-tech research into basics such as crop rotation, mixed farming of animals and plants on smallholder farms, soil management and curbing waste. (Between one-quarter and one-third of the food produced worldwide is lost or spoiled.)

But the call for “a wholesale realignment of priorities in agricultural research” is a big demand. Public investment in agricultural research has collapsed and the only investors are profit-driven corporations like Monsanto and Du Pont. It is certainly not possible to feed the world with the current profit-driven, smash-and-grab approach of global agri-business.

Far from transforming the way land is used, transnationals are buying it up for intensive industrialised use. Even marginal land that will be entirely destroyed by two or three seasons of chemical-driven agriculture is being grabbed. Genetic modification in the hands of corporations continues to produce unforeseen outcomes that leave the profits of the transnationals intact but leave farmers duped – or forced – into planting GM seed – bankrupt.

The Chinese government is investing in research, but in a reckless and uncontrolled way. From “cloud-seeding” to GM seeds, China is carrying out a massive experiment on its land and people. It has emerged that companies that are part-owned by the state agriculture research institutes where the seeds were developed, have sold genetically modified rice seed to Chinese farming corporations. The relevant safety certificates were never issued.

The reality is that capitalism’s only response to this contemporary set of challenges has been a dramatic increase in market speculation in food and land. New investment funds are being established to profit from the global land grab, with Morgan Stanley to the fore.

And a further devastating price spike is on the horizon as thousands of hectares of grain crops in Punjab – Pakistan’s “bread basket” –have been swept away by the floods, whilst the wheat crop in Russia and Ukraine has been devastated by unprecedented drought. The UN has called for calm, as the world market price for wheat surged – by 7% on one day last week – on forecasts that 25m tonnes has been lost from the global harvest.

It is often said that people have lost confidence in science and its ability to make the world a better place. But it is the economic and political system within which science functions that is untrustworthy. Already thousands of scientists are working on responses to global warming, often in institutions that receive little or no funding.

Released from the need to focus on increased profits by their funding masters, science could contribute not only to feeding the world, but also to transforming agriculture into an activity that works in harmony with the evolutionary biology of plants and people.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

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