7:40 AM Mar 25, 1996


Penang 24 Mar (TWN/Martin Khor) -- With the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organization organizing two major meetings this year -- an international conference on plant genetic resources in Germany in June, and a World Food Summit in Rome in November, Food security and sustainable agriculture are emerging as key issues on the international agenda this year.

Hopefully, the two meetings will highlight the mounting problems of providing food for the world, and of galvanising efforts to conserve fast diminishing diversity of food crops.

One of the urgent areas for review is what technologies should be used in agriculture.

In the past, and up to now, the Green Revolution model has been promoted. But disillusionment has set in on this technique.

The Green Revolution technique requires farmers to use seeds with a high response to big doses of inorganic fertiliser and chemical pesticides. These few seed varieties have displaced a wide range of traditional seeds, thus eroding crop biodiversity.

There is also growing concern with other ecological problems, such as increasing soil infertility, chemical pollution of land and water resources, pesticide poisoning, and pest infestation due to growing pest immunity to pesticides. These can no longer be taken as an ad hoc collection of individual problems, but need to be analyzed as symptoms of a technological system in decline.

The ecological and health hazards cannot any more be considered as the necessary costs to an economically and technically superior system, since the system's most important claimed benefit, high productivity, is itself now in question.

Firstly, in areas where the model has operated for a longer period, there is evidence of declining yields. This is one factor that led the head of the FAO's regional office for Asia and the Pacific, Mr Obaidullah Khan, to conclude that there is a need to move away from the Green Revolution model and instead phase in ecologically and socially sustainable forms of agriculture.

According to Mr Khan, in Asia, the rice farming system using the Green Revolution was in a state of decline and a new technological paradigm was needed to produce more. In an interview in 1993, he had said there was sufficient evidence that the Green Revolution model which relies on intensive use of inputs and results in intensive resource use and high waste is not sustainable due to rising costs and falling yields. There is increasing deficiency of trace elements in the soil because of intensive use of mineral fertilisers, whilst continued high dependence on pesticides is also not technologically sustainable.

Khan had said that recent statistics had shown a yield decline of one to three percent per year on some fields using the Green Revolution technique, a situation which was described as "a recipe for disaster within one generation" by the FAO regional officer for integrated pest control, Peter Kenmore.

Developments on some of the best managed experimental farms have added to the pessimism.

A recent article in International Agricultural Development reports that on test plots at the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), varieties which yielded 10 tons a hectare in 1966 are yielding less each year and now produce less than 7 tons per hectare.

IRRI scientists attributed the declines to environmental degradation, which the irrigated rice land is unable to cope with. The detrimental changes include a reduction in the period when the soil is dry, the substitution of inorganic for organic fertilisers and a greater uniformity in the varieties grown. These factors are all intrinsic components of the system.

Secondly, there is increasing awareness that the supposed high productivity of the Green Revolution is at best a gross exaggeration and at worst a misleading myth.

In her pioneering studies on the Green Revolution, the Indian scientist Dr Vandana Shiva has shown how the hidden costs of the model (in terms of subsidies for inputs and infrastructure, and damage to ecology and health) have not been taken into account; at the same time, the method used to compare the relative yields of the traditional and Green Revolution systems is flawed, exaggerating the Green Revolution output whilst underestimating traditional output.

This analysis is also shared by the FAO's Mr Khan, who in the interview agreed that the apparent benefits of monoculture agriculture (where only a single crop is grown, as in the Green Revolution methods) had been overestimated whilst the productivity of traditionally grown varieties had been understated.

In comparing the two systems, the usual method is to measure only the yields of the single crop (e.g. rice) and also only a single component of the crop (e.g. grain) and neglecting the value of other crops (such as other grain, legumes, fruits etc) and other resources (eg non-grain uses of the crop such as straw for fodder and fertiliser; fish in rice fields) in the same farm area in the traditional system which no longer existed or had reduced output in the monoculture system.

Using proper calculations, the total yield of the traditional system would be more accurately reflected, and its efficiency better appreciated, whilst the claims made for the Green Revolution would have to be reassessed.

Given the increasing acceptance of need to move away from the Green Revolution model, it is obvious that in a review of aid policies, care should be taken to ensure that the same mistakes are not repeated. For instance, given the rising awareness of the Green Revolution's limits and drawbacks in Asia, the same model should not be spread to African countries, ironically citing its success in Asia without citing its myriad problems.

With disillusionment setting in on the Green Revolution, it appears that aid for agricultural research and possibly for projects is now turning to the new biotechnologies in the search for higher yields.

The potential rush of aid givers towards biotechnology corresponds to the enormous resources put into biotechnology research by commercial companies, universities and some private research foundations.

There is need for great caution in this regard, for the claimed benefits of genetic engineering are far from being proven, whilst there is increasing evidence of real and potential risks.

In a recent statement, an international group of scientists have pointed out scientific flaws of the genetic engineering paradigm, showing why it is impossible to predict the consequences of transferring a gene from one type of organism to another in a significant number of cases.

This calls into question the value of genetically-engineered crops. Moreover, genetically-modified organisms (and especially micro-organisms) may migrate, further mutate and multiply, and be transferred to other organisms and species and, in some cases, the stability of affected organisms and ecosystems could be disrupted and threatened.

According to the scientists' statement, the more specific risks in agriculture are that some trasgenic crops could become noxious weeds, and others could become a conduit through which new genes may move to wild plants which themselves could then become weeds. The new weeds could adversely affect farm crops and wild ecosystems.

Similarly, genetically engineered fish, shellfish and insects could become pests under certain conditions. There is also a possibility of new viral strains giving rise to new plant diseases.

Of particular concern is the risk that transgenic crops may pose a threat to wild plants and traditional crop varieties and thus accelerate the process of the rapid loss of agricultural biodiversity, especially in the developing countries which are world centres of crop origin and diversity.

Another report by an independent group of experts, "Biosafety: Scientific Findings and the Need for a Protocol" (July 1995), provides details of recent findings of potential serious threats.

These include the possibility of certain genetically-engineered bacteria unintendedly killing soil organisms, thus reducing nutrient supply to plants and threatening their survival; the rapid transfer of transgenes between oilseed rape (engineered to be herbicide tolerant) to its weedy natural relative; and the survival and spread of genetically engineered organisms from containment.

This report and the scientists' statement reinforce the conclusions of other scientists and of environmental groups that the transfer to developing countries of projects or experiments involving genetic engineering could be hazardous, at least until safety regulations are put in place in these countries.

There is also the well-justified concern that the development of the new biotechnologies will develop food products which would displace the traditional export commodities of the South.

An expert consultation organised in September 1993 by the FAO in Asia, and attended by senior government and NGO officials, called for a moratorium on the introduction of genetically- engineered products in agriculture until adequate capacity is established to assess their environmental, health and socio- economic effects. That meeting also proposed that the FAO help set up a mechanism to "ensure that there not be the transfer of hazardous genetic engineering experiments, research and products to developing countries."

Also, in the Biodiversity Convention, the Conference of Parties meeting last October decided that negotiations would begin to set up a legally-binding international biosafety protocol in recognition of the potential hazards of genetic engineering.

Given the above, technical agencies should not yield to the temptation of channelling much of their resources to developing the new biotechnologies as a new technological panacea for rapidly increasing yields in developing countries. To do so would mean that the lessons from the Green Revolution experience have not been learnt, and developing countries could then face a new set of ecological and safety threats.

(This is the first of a two-part series)