Sunday, May 19, 2013

starving for science?

Last week i reported about a pretty critical movie on the genetically modified rice named golden rice. Europeans have sometimes a bit hypocritical vision of GMOs, as they use this technology daily almost without knowing it in medicine but refuse the technology in agriculture (also most European consumer ignore that genetically modified soya is imported to Europe and fed to animals that end up in our plates). Some years ago i read the book starving for science, a book that made me think about GMOs in a more differentiated way than  black and white.

If you are interested into the GMO debate, then this book is defintily a good entry point.

Here the book description
"Heading upcountry in Africa to visit small farms is absolutely exhilarating given the dramatic beauty of big skies, red soil, and arid vistas, but eventually the two-lane tarmac narrows to rutted dirt, and the journey must continue on foot. The farmers you eventually meet are mostly women, hardworking but visibly poor. They have no improved seeds, no chemical fertilizers, no irrigation, and with their meager crops they earn less than a dollar a day. Many are malnourished.
Nearly two-thirds of Africans are employed in agriculture, yet on a per-capita basis they produce roughly 20 percent less than they did in 1970. Although modern agricultural science was the key to reducing rural poverty in Asia, modern farm science—including biotechnology—has recently been kept out of Africa.
In Starved for Science Robert Paarlberg explains why poor African farmers are denied access to productive technologies, particularly genetically engineered seeds with improved resistance to insects and drought. He traces this obstacle to the current opposition to farm science in prosperous countries. Having embraced agricultural science to become well-fed themselves, those in wealthy countries are now instructing Africans—on the most dubious grounds—not to do the same.
In a book sure to generate intense debate, Paarlberg details how this cultural turn against agricultural science among affluent societies is now being exported, inappropriately, to Africa. Those who are opposed to the use of agricultural technologies are telling African farmers that, in effect, it would be just as well for them to remain poor.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Is it already time for golden rice? a reflection on the introduction of GMOs

Last January, i had visited the Philippines and the International Rice Research Insitute (IRRI). I had been impressed by the diversity of the research the insitute was doing. I also discovered the rice growing area near Banaue, where I met farmers that were not rich, but which agricultural system seems pretty sustainable and a diet that seems pretty balanced , thanks to the food also provided by the forest.

Also recently, Swiss TV was making a movie about the golden rice, the genetically modified rice, which vitamine A content is naturally increased. This rice has been developed by ETHZ the technical research insitute in Switzerland and is now further developed by Syngenta and now on the point of being commercialized also thanks to IRRI for smallholders (defined as farmer which turn over is bellow 10 000 usd a year). The movie tries to understand what the current status about the golden rice is, and what people in the test countries, namely the Philippines and Bangladesh is.

It is a pretty scary movie. It shows that in a European perspective, too little research has been made about possible consequences of the introduction of GMOs. Also it shows that the local population just does not want this rice. It confirms my intuition that smallholders in the Philippines are not doing so bad. There are in reality only very little case of people that have big damages due to the lack of vitamin A, also because the Filipino government has the financial and logistical capacity to provide vitamin A to the population at risk. So the willingness of getting the golden rice is relatively low because there is no benefit for the consumer, nor is there for the producer. But local population has not been asked about their opinion, as a result, some provinces of the Philippines are forbidding GMOs by law. Unfortunately the film does not interview people in Bangladesh, where there might be more issues linked to the lack of vitamin A and therefore a market for this type of rice.

It  definitely is an interesting movie to reflect about the introduction of GMOs and how to introduce new agricultural technologies that should benefit the poor. The only part, I really don't like in the movie is that it positions IRRI as the bad guy and the small farmer local organization as a hero who is saving for the traditional varieties. In reality, the biggest rice gene bank is hold by IRRI and it includes the a huge amount of traditional varieties from most agri-ecosystems in the world. You can request samples for free, you do not even need to pay postage for it. When it comes about keeping the genes and the variety of rice, IRRI is definitely the biggest player in the world. Also IRRI is not only working on golden rice, but also looking into improving the traditional systems by improving irrigation and fertilizer use and promotes these improvements.

With increasing population and the impacts of climate change, improving the livelihoods of the rural poor and insuring their food security becomes an urgency. It is therefore crutial that research looks into all possible options, from traditional cultures to the genetically modified one. I don't want to express myself on whether it is already time for commercialization of golden rice, both Syngeta and IRRI do not give enough information about it (at least that's what the movie shows). But it is definitively time understand all options that humanity has to lift rural populations out of poverty, including GMOs. Unlike what the movie tires to make you believe, IRRI as well as the CGIAR in general are not pushing for GMOs just for the purpose of introducing GMOs, but trying looking at broader issues of food security and GMOs are just one of the multiple possible solutions, which we should not ignore. As regular readers of this blog know, there is no silver bullet and solutions are context specific. There might be well defined contexts in which GMOs in future could be one of the best tools to improve livelihoods of rural population and food security. And how will we explain to those people that they have to continue starving because some well fed scared European have refused to look into new solutions?