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Can Agricultural Biotechnology Help the Poor?

The Answer is Yes, But with Qualifications

rice harvest on hillsides in China SOURCE: AP Biotechnology can help the poor, but whether it will depends on people of good will taking the time to understand and consider the arguments in some detail.

Agricultural Biotechnology

In order to feed a growing, hungry world amidst a warming climate, we have to produce more food. Solutions to the problem of how to increase crop yields include both ecology-based farming and biotechnology approaches. But how do we define biotechnology? And can it support progressive approaches to improving prospects for the poor farmers of the world? This series on the issue gathers perspectives from experts who take a hard look at the science, the economics, and the complexities of agricultural development.

Other articles in this series:

Igniting Agricultural Innovation
By L. Val Giddings and Bruce M. Chassy

Genetic Engineering Comes Up Short
By Doug Gurian-Sherman

What should progressives think about the prospects for using biotechnology to improve the lot and prospects of poor farmers in the developing world? There are at least two paths one might follow in developing an answer to this question. The most heavily trodden weighs the benefits and risks of both known and imagined products of crop biotechnology for developing country farmers.

The benefits consist mainly in improving the productivity of cropping systems used in the developing world. The risks address biodiversity, health, and poor farmers’ economic vulnerability to the viscitudes of climate and world markets. The question of what biotechnology actually is, however, becomes the more contentious issue for those following this path.

The proven successes among transgenic crops are pest-resistant crops that produce their own Bt pesticides and crops resistant to chemical herbicides. The latter are of little use to resource-poor farmers, though they have been widely adopted by commercial soybean farmers in Latin America. The pest-resistant crops protect against only a limited range of caterpillars, but Bt cotton has been taken up by many cotton farmers in India, where it has also been deeply controversial.

I submit that dropping back and considering some more general tenets in the philosophies of development and of agricultural science is a more useful way to understand what is at issue.

Imagined crops include the nutritionally enhanced “Golden Rice,” still in development ten years after the initial hoopla, and so-called “terminator crops” that produce infertile seed, limiting farmers’ ability to save and sow seeds in successive years. Though the terminator technology is proven in principle, biotechnology companies deny having actually released any varieties containing this genetic construct. Anti-biotechnology activists assert that the terminator is in use.

Other disputants note that biotechnology is broader than genetically modified organisms, or “GMOs,” and assert that the most useful applications involve the use of genomics and genetic markers in selective breeding programs, or noncontroversial methods of cell culture or clonal propagation that can be described as laboratory enhanced extensions of the “cuttings” method used by home gardeners. Opponents have not yet taken this bait, except to see these alternatives as a Trojan Horse for GMOs. Thus goes the give and take along this rather well-trodden path.

I submit that dropping back and considering some more general tenets in the philosophies of development and of agricultural science is a more useful way to understand what is at issue. This is the less-traveled path, but perhaps the more useful in this debate. Here, too, however, there are broadly “pro” and “con” perspectives.

Although the lines of thinking here are complex, the “pro-biotech” perspective can be summarized in terms of three main themes. First, developing agriculture is the most effective and least objectionable route to achieving the goals of sustainable development. Second, improving the biological productivity of developing country farmers is critical to agricultural development. Finally, genetic enhancements (by whatever means) have been and remain critical to improvements in biological productivity. Each theme is both complex and potentially controversial in its own right, so succinct characterizations (such as I am giving here) are clearly simplified.

In the 1950s and 1960s the noted agricultural economist Theodore W. Schulz undertook theoretical and empirical studies of economic development in the least developed nations, concluding that the then-dominant strategy of promoting manufacturing and urban infrastructure was mistaken. It was far better, Schulz argued, to start where people already were, which was in rural areas, and to build upon expertise they already had, which was in farming. Relatively small gains in farm income would create room for household savings, even among the poor. This minimal capital could, with investment in skills and education, provide the basis for a bottom-up strategy that would pave the way for gradual expansion of developing economies from the inside out.

Though Schulz won the 1979 Nobel Prize in Economics for this work, it caught on slowly. Today, adaptations of Schulz’s ideas are viewed as responsible for the success of Pacific Rim nations such as Taiwan or South Korea, where investments in agriculture indeed paved the way for a more broadly based national development. What is more, in its focus on improving the capabilities of poor people this approach to development anticipated much of the re-thinking on international development strategy that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s.

Even today it is estimated that 50 percent to 70 percent of the world poverty exists in rural areas where the strategy of improving farm incomes could both lift many from extreme poverty as well as stimulate a more broadly distributed and enduring trend of economic growth. Yet the means for improving farm incomes in the developing world is itself a complicated matter.

It is generally conceded that developed world farm subsidies and negotiated terms of trade place developing farmers at an unfair economic disadvantage. Many agricultural scientists would add that the basic biological productivity of developing country farming systems places them at a disadvantage, too. On this view, the present-day competitiveness of developing country farmers depends on the relatively low return to labor. When compared as biological systems alone, developed country farmers are able to squeeze far more total production of farm commodities out of their soil, water, seed, and other purchased inputs than are farmers in the developing world.

This theme needs careful qualification on a case-by-case basis. It would not apply, for example, to crops that thrive only in tropical climates. Some economists would argue that biological productivity matters little, in any case. Fluctuations in oil prices could also make energy-intensive developed world farming methods less competitive. Yet these complicating factors notwithstanding, improvements in the underlying biological productivity of farming systems have been critical to all technological revolutions that have sparked significant economic growth, both within and beyond the agricultural sector. A powerful and persuasive argument for this claim can be found in A History of World Agriculture from the Neolithic Age to the Current Crisis, by Marcel Mazoyer and Laurence Roudart, published in 2006.

It should be clear in any case that few agricultural specialists, including economists, would dispute the need for new crop varieties, new farming methods and new tools that increase farmers’ net yields, once losses suffered to pests, in harvest or in transport, have been taken into account. Thus, the third tenet, that genetic improvement is critical to improve yields, becomes critical, as well. This tenet has both direct and indirect support. Rice varieties developed by plant breeders at the International Rice Research Institute in the 1960s and 1970s produced a higher output of grain as a result of improved genetics, making them attractive even to farmers who were not using amendments such as chemical fertilizer.

But fertilizers were not useful on traditional varieties, which would simply grow so tall that they fall over or “lodge” during heavy wind or rain. Shorter or “dwarf” varieties needed to be bred in order to make the addition of fertilizer practical. Even mechanical technologies such as harvesters require crops with uniform heights or that ripen at uniform times—traits rarely found in wild-types or traditional varieties grown by small-scale farmers prior to the agricultural revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries.

As such, virtually all technological improvements in agricultural production methods that have occurred over the last 150 years have relied upon genetic improvements in the crops farmers were growing. As such, there is a widespread belief among the agricultural scientists who populate ministries of agriculture and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations that future breakthroughs in productivity will require the best available tools for genetic improvement. Today, that means biotechnology.

An “anti-biotechnology” view might also track along three broad themes. First, many opponents of biotechnology in the developing world have been strongly influenced by critiques of development theory that were launched in the 1970s and 1980s. They are skeptical of whether so-called development processes truly benefit the poor. This skepticism can be reinforced by the agriculture-specific analysis of the “technology treadmill”—productivity enhancing technologies hurt the poor and lead to concentration in the ownership of land.

Finally, a systems-based view of agricultural science has challenged assumptions of the genetics model in agricultural science. Advocates of the systems view have been critical of the way that mainstream agricultural science has neglected system-level impacts of industrial farming methods at both the farm and ecosystem scale.

I will not provide detailed discussion of the arguments developed by skeptics of development. At the same time that Schultz was doing his work, analysts such as Gunnar Myrdal, Denis Goulet, Paul Streeten, and Samir Amin were showing that so-called development often made victims of the poor. In some respects, at least, Schultz’s agriculture-focused “human capital” approach anticipated these critiques, yet it is clear that Schultz’s affiliation with the University of Chicago meant that he was not viewed sympathetically by those who, in the 1990s, began to attack the free-market orientation of the so-called “Washington Consensus.”

Suffice it to say that liberals and progressives have ample reason to be skeptical of any claim that an economic development program will actually benefit the poor. The intellectual gap between Schultz’s emphasis on agriculture and the progressive critics of neo-classical economics still yawns. David Crocker’s recent book Ethics of Global Development reviews the critics of mainstream development thinking, but he does not discuss Schultz or agriculture.

The technology treadmill is more directly pertinent to agriculture, in any case. Adopters of productivity-enhancing agricultural technology have lower production costs, but because demand for food grows slowly, at best, the market response is usually a drop in the price of agricultural commodities. Farmers are just running harder (producing more) to stay in the same place (have the same income). One can be skeptical about whether productivity increases really benefit farmers at all.

What is more, early adopters reap windfall prices while the market prices still reflect the production costs of older methods, but late adopters go broke. They cannot recover their still-high production costs at the new, adjusted prices they receive for their crops. The windfall of the early adopters gives them ready cash to purchase the land of failing late adopters. Thus, new technologies fuel a process where better-off farmers get bigger, and worse-off farmers must leave the land.

The logic of the technology treadmill is amplified further when new technologies must be purchased as inputs for the farming process. Marxist social theorist Karl Kautsky noticed as early as 1899 that when farmers had to purchase technology, they were effectively sharing the return on agricultural production with the capitalist owners of machinery or chemical companies that supplied these inputs. The treadmill logic ensures that farmers may have little choice about purchasing and adopting these new tools. Failure to adopt the most efficient technology means certain bankruptcy. But the net effect is a loss of farmer autonomy and a deeper and deeper dependence on capital and decision making that resides in the manufacturing sector of the economy.

Combined with a general skepticism of development processes, the technology treadmill has given many advocates of the poor reason to doubt whether new agricultural technologies are the answer for developing country farmers. The final nail in the anti-biotechnology coffin is supplied by critics of the genetics-focused philosophy of agricultural science that has dominated agricultural universities and government research stations for the last century. This critique is also somewhat complex in its details. One line of argument can be found in the work of Sir Albert Howard, a British scientist who worked especially in India. Howard developed and improved a composting method for animal manures, and railed against the effects of synthetic fertilizers on beneficial soil microbes. This work has earned him an epithet as the “father of organic agriculture.”

But Howard also attacked what he regarded as the excessive reductionism that was taking root in mainstream agricultural science during the 1930s and 1940s. In contrast to detailed laboratory work on plant physiology and genetics, Howard argued that agricultural research could not achieve valid results unless it was conducted in the context of a working farm.

Here, he thought, pest problems and declines in soil health that he associated with chemical-intensive methods would be more obvious. Subsequent researchers noticed system-level effects beyond the farm gate. In 1962, environmentalist Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring brought widespread public attention to ecosystem impacts of agricultural pesticides, though Carson’s work would face hostility within agricultural research institutions well into the 1980s.

In fact, much of the science that began to recognize adverse environmental consequences of farming came from outside agricultural research institutions. Advances in organic farming methods were made mostly by farmers themselves, and were shared at organic farming conferences or through the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. With the exception of limited programs of biological pest control, it is only quite recently (and partly as a result of anti-GMO protest) that mainstream agricultural research has begun to utilize ecological research methods and to take the system-level implications of agricultural technology seriously as a research methodology.

Speaking specifically of international agricultural research, such systems-oriented research as existed in the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research centers had been phased out by the end of the 1980s in favor of genetics-based approaches and biotechnology.

The upshot is that skeptics of mainstream development and mainstream agricultural science have powerful reasons to believe that it is time to look at an alternative approach. They may not have a persuasive vision of the alternative, but the jaundiced view they take on the agricultural technologies of the 20th century means that they are unlikely to take claims of promised benefits by the boosters of agricultural biotechnology very seriously.

This skepticism has very little to do with the use of genetic engineering, concerns about “playing God” or “yuk factor” responses to GMOs. It does not even rely particularly strongly on risks that biotechnology poses for biodiversity. It is a mindset whose pivots are found in the way that agricultural science has abetted technology-driven processes that lead to more and more concentration of ownership. The fact that biotechnology has become embroiled in controversies over patents only heightens a concern about concentration and control that exists independently of intellectual property conventions or the idea of “owning life.”

So what should progressives think about the prospects for using biotechnology to improve the lot and prospects of poor farmers in the developing world? I believe that there is space for rethinking the putative tensions between Schultz-style agricultural development and contemporary development ethics. Furthermore, we should not dismiss the way that burgeoning processes of development in India, China, and the Pacific Rim had their roots in agriculture—even if these development processes were plagued by unevenness that sometimes victimized the poor.

At the same time, my cautious prepotency does not mean that we should open the door to agricultural biotechnology companies who see the developing world as a playground for developing biofuels and who moralistically portray “ending hunger” as a cloak for making inroads into local seed and supply markets.

It is, in fact, past time for progressives to discard simplistic thinking on agriculture in general, as if were a domain of quaint rusticity and guileless rubes. No blanket endorsement or condemnation of biotechnology makes any sense at all. Each proposal will have to be evaluated case by case. But doing that will require a discourse that is capable of following an argument of some sophistication and complexity. And that, in turn, will require a bit more literacy in the methods, purposes, and history of agriculture and agricultural science.

Biotechnology can help the poor, but whether it will depends on people of good will taking the time to understand and consider the arguments in some detail.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics At Michigan State University.

Further Reading

Paul B. Thompson, Food Biotechnology in Ethical Perspective, 2nd Ed. (Dordrecht, NL: Springer, 2007).

Paul B. Thompson, “Shall We Dine? Confronting the Strange and Horrifying Story of GMOs in Our Food,” in Food and Philosophy: Eat, Think and Be Merry, Fritz Allhoff and Dave Mason, Eds. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 2007), pp. 208-220.

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