Carmelo Ruiz: The great world agriculture debate
The Great World Agriculture Debate
Puerto Rican journalist Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero directs the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety. He is also a Research Associate of the Institute for Social Ecology, a fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program, and a senior fellow of the Society of Environmental Journalists. He writes specially for the Fife Diet.
Agriculture is humankind’s most important activity. According to some estimates, some 70% of the water our species uses goes to crops and farm animals, and agriculture takes up more space than any other human activity- just look at Google images of the Earth’s surface. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agriculture employs at least half of the world’s workforce, which makes it evident that no economic sector will ever create as many jobs as farming does. Agriculture therefore must be at the very center of any project for revolutionary social change.
The green revolution failed. After decades of relentless work, world hunger has not been ameliorated. The world does not have less hungry people today, but more. Considering the vast human and financial resources that went into this endeavor, it is no exaggeration to state that the green revolution was one of the biggest failures of the twentieth century. In spite of its painfully obvious failure, the green revolution’s protagonists and spokespeople stubbornly refer to it as a success, that it was one of the most noble and successful humanitarian undertakings of all time. In light of the persistence of this triumphalist discourse, one can also say that the green revolution was also one of the major deceptions of the last century.
The green revolution has been under continuous and unending criticism ever since it started. In the early 1960′s authors Rachel Carson and Murray Bookchin warned about the environmental and human health hazards of pesticides, one of the main elements of the green revolution. In the following decade, American activists Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins founded the non-governmental organization Food First, which has produced educational materials on food, agriculture and hunger, with an explicitly critical view on the green revolution and neoliberal policies. In 1977 Lappe and Collins, with the collaboration of Cary Fowler, wrote “Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity”. This pioneering book made a bold frontal attack on every assumption of the green revolution, from Malthusianism to the need for pesticides in agriculture. In 1981 Food First published “Circle of Poison”, a book about the hazards of pesticides, which led to the founding of the Pesticide Action Network, a global network that today comprises over 600 non-governmental organizations, institutions and individuals in 90 countries.
Throughout the 1980′s and 90′s a new chorus of critical voices spoke up against the green revolution: the advocates and practicioners of what has come to be known as organic, or ecological, farming. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) defines organic agriculture as “a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.” (8)
Among the most important critiques of green revolution agriculture and supporters of organic farming are the pioneering research work done by Fowler and Mooney, the educational work of GRAIN, University of California agroecologist Miguel Altieri, Cuban scientist Fernando Funes, Puerto Rican professor Ivette Perfecto, Indian ecofeminist Vandana Shiva, and a growing number of small farmers’ organizations in both North and South, grouped together as Via Campesina, possibly the most important civil society organization in the world today.
...a new green revolution has been taking place since the 1990′s. There are several important differences between the old and new green revolutions. The first green revolution was founded on hybrid seeds that were the product of conventional breeding, while the new green revolution is based on genetically engineered seeds- which is why this new revolution is often referred to as the gene revolution. The seeds of the first green revolution were freely distributed, while the seeds of the gene revolution are patented.
The first green revolution was not some evil plot to take over world agriculture- its protagonists really intended to put an end to world hunger, and fully believed such a goal could be achieved within their lifetimes. Their agricultural revolution was driven by a conflicted mix of idealism, pragmatism, cold war geopolitics, and a sincere belief in the promise of modernity and secular salvation through scientific progress. But the new green revolution is motivated solely by greed and profit, nothing else. The first green revolution was carried out by the public sector and philanthropic private foundations, while the gene revolution is exclusively the product of a half dozen transnational corporations that dominate the so-called “life sciences”, of which the undisputed leader is Monsanto. To this we must add the arrival of a new actor on the scene, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is channeling enormous sums of money into agricultural research in the global South, especially in Africa.
The new green revolution does not take place in opposition to the previous one. On the contrary, it aims to complement it and extend it, and the institutions of both frequently work together. The most prominent example of this collaboration is the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a joint venture of the Gates and Rockefeller foundations. The institutions of the old green revolution are still around and continue doing their work, but nowadays with less financing and support than in the previous century. They are undergoing a funding crisis, as are all public agricultural research programs worldwide, as neoliberal governments have declared open season on public funding for scientific research and agricultural science. In response, these institutions are forming public-private partnerships with biotechnology corporations. These arrangements are not exempt of controversy. Critics have pointed out that they can lead to the patenting of seed collections and the abandonment of research and development of conventional seed in favor of genetically engineered varieties.