Page 4 - Presbyterian Connection
P. 4

“We still have a lot of hungry people in the world”
4 SPRING 2022
Continued from page 1
Our environment is still under siege, and we’ve seen continued consoli- dation of corporate control over the world’s genetic resources.
Critics are also correct in saying that the way we are applying these powerful new tools is contributing to the decline of biodiversity, which is widely acknowledged as a dead-end when it comes to sustainable farm- ing. The promise of better nutrition, such as Vitamin A-enriched rice (Golden Rice), is one way to address dietary deficiencies in developing na- tions. However, a far better approach would be to increase people’s ac- cess to a diet that includes leafy green vegetables. How well would you fare on a diet of vitamin-enriched oatmeal?
Herbicide-tolerant crops, some of which are genetically modified, al- low farmers to spray a non-selective herbicide such as glyphosate on their growing crop and kill everything but the crop. These lived up to the early promises, at least initially. Farmers were able to use fewer herbicides and products that had lower relative toxicity. They were also able to re- duce the amount of soil-disturbance by doing less tillage.
But overuse caused the weeds to develop resistance to glyphosate. Now farmers use stacked combina- tions of products to keep on top of the weeds. Or, they are reverting to tillage, which is detrimental to soil health.
However, while these tools haven’t necessarily increased yields, they have had a yield stabilizing effect, which reduces the risk for farmers. Yield boosts have simultaneously oc- curred through crop breeding tech-
niques such as hybridization, which amplifies desired traits by crossing two parental lines to produce so- called hybrid vigour in the first gen- eration cross. That vigour is usually not transferable to the second gen- eration.
These technologies also make farming easier, which is one of the main reasons they are so popular with farmers.
Biotech crops offer alternatives to pesticides, which is potentially even more beneficial to small-scale farm- ers than it is for farmers in industrial- ized countries.
This hit home for me in 2015 when I was working on secondment to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank on a project writing about the role of ag- riculture in development. I observed a farmer’s wife in Zambia applying a powerful pesticide using a backpack sprayer and wearing no protective gear to cover her arms, legs and face. The risk-benefit breakdown in that family was clear. For the husband, being able to afford pesticides on a cash crop such as cowpeas, was a visible sign to his neighbours of stat- ure and wealth. For his wife, who, like in many families in Zambia, did most of the fieldwork, spraying meant the difference between one day or sev- eral days of hard manual labour in the hot sun. Access to seeds that are genetically resistant to the pest attacking that field would potentially spare her health and could be more environmentally friendly, as well.
Newer technology such as CRIS- PR-Cas9 is often referred to as “gene editing,” because it enables plant breeders to easily alter DNA sequences within the plant to modify how the genes function. It’s consid-
The production challenges confronting farmers in non-industrialized economies, who produce a significant proportion of the world’s food, isn’t rocket science—it’s far more complicated than that. Modern technologies can play a role in boosting yields and nutritional content, but they aren’t the solution. PHOTO CREDIT: LAURA RANCE, 2015
    Zambian farmers Irene and Wilfred Hamakumba prepare to spray their cash crop of cowpeas. Access to seeds that are bred to withstand common pests without pesticides could benefit small-scale commercial farm operators. PHOTO CREDIT: LAURA RANCE, 2015
ered less invasive than inserting new genes from somewhere else. As a result, regulatory agencies appear to be moving toward a less rigorous ap- proach to approvals.
It’s all part of an emerging con- vergence of technology focused on “engineering biology” made possible by the success of genome mapping over the past decade.
Whereas “bioengineering” is about engineering a single process in a plant, “engineering biology” is a suite of applications that apply tools such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation to biological applications.
Steven Webb, formerly the chief executive officer of the Saskatoon- based Global Institute for Food Se- curity, told me in a 2021 interview that the new ABCs of innovation— automation, biology and computa- tion—don’t change the questions researchers are asking. However, they significantly accelerate the pace at which they get answers. “That’s the future of how work is going to be done in science,” he said.
But developing new crops faster won’t solve the problem of global food insecurity, either.
Small-scale farmers who are fo- cused first on growing enough to feed their families are afraid to risk a crop failure by trying new seed, especially seed that has to be purchased every year. For farmers in industrialized countries, the risk associated with trying new things is economic. In the
developing world, it’s the difference between eating or not.
Buying on credit is also risky. What do they do if it doesn’t rain, or po- litical unrest makes it impossible for them to harvest? They have debt but nothing to pay it with.
Farmers need soils healthy enough to support higher yields before they can embrace new technology. Ferti- lizers are of little benefit if the soils are so depleted that they can’t make use of the rains they receive, which is the story in much of Africa. Soil health is a function of reducing till- age and following the principles of regenerative agriculture to restore the soil’s natural fertility and resiliency— not biotechnology.
If small-scale farmers manage to increase production, they need im- proved access to storage so their crops don’t rot or get consumed by rodents. They require marketing systems and better roads and trans- portation to market. That’s not about biotechnology, either.
Simply helping farmers to produce more without any heed to market and infrastructure development can have the opposite effect on food security if local markets become oversupplied and prices drop.
Solving poverty, which is the root cause of hunger, is not about tools or technology. It is about social justice, peace and political stability, educa- tion and building basic infrastructure. And it is about supporting healthy soils.
Thomas Nkhunda, a farmer in Malawi, is telling his story to a visiting delegation. Soil-conserving practices had improved the fertility and moisture-holding capac- ity of his fields, which allowed him to be- gin to use higher-yielding varieties and commercial fertilizer. The increased yields help pay for his children’s school fees and even allowed him to have a savings ac- count at the bank. PHOTO CREDIT: LAURA RANCE, 2015
Tools alone won’t take us where we need to go. But under the right circumstances, they might help us get there. It takes more than a ham- mer to build a house.
Laura’s work was recognized by the UN-FAO and International Fed- eration of Agricultural Journalists for excellence in global food security re- porting in 2016, because of this sto- ry. Learn more at winnipegfreepress. com/special/long-reads/Africas- hunger-games-299349391.html

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