A friend passed along an interesting article that unfortunately is not available for free sharing entitled “Agriculture’s Last Frontier: African Farmers, US Companies Try to Create Another Breadbasket with Hybrids” by Roger Thurow from the Wall Street Journal. As I’m sure all of you know, agriculture in Africa has been largely hard-hit due to political unrest, wars, and poverty. Thurow chronicles farmers who are using hybrid seeds to increase production, allowing them to make more money which then can be reinvested in their farming techniques and their families.
This will be an interesting unfolding of events. The “Green Revolution” in America which happened after farmers started using hybrid seeds and farm machines in the 30s has allowed us to reach our present state today where only 1 or 2% of Americans farm, due to high productivity (And a general cultural negativity towards farming as a career). The negatives of such an industrialized food production system are the pollution from dense mono-cropping and the increased transportation necessary from long distances from farm to plate. Due to a lack of prosecuting agribusinesses on anti-trust laws, we also now have large companies which control most of our food supply, which is one reason we are at higher risk of contaminants such as e-coli (such as the spinach, lettuce scares). These agribusinesses have a Walmart-like effect where money is made at the expense of the community (see my other posts on agribusinesses here for more explanation).
In Africa, however, the road system is not as good, which will thwart a large-scale adoption of American industrial agriculture which relies heavily on trucking. Corporations are largely wary of setting up operations in unstable countries. Perhaps then we will see what happens when technology such as hybrid seeds and farm machinery meet a locally-based economy without government and large agribusiness interference (though Monsanto is now trying to open up a market in Africa). Hopefully, the African farmers will be able to keep money and control in their own hands, and hopefully, they can learn from US agriculture’s mistakes.
Hybrids vs. Genetic Modification
Also of note is that the African farmers profiled in the article are using hybrid seeds, which are different than GM seeds. Hybrid seeds are the result of plant-generations of selective breeding and crossing of different types of plants (say, a wild type of corn and a domestic one) to encourage certain traits to come out. Hybrid seeds can be more drought-resistant or resistant to pest damage. They are terminal, which means that when the hybrid plants go to seed, the effects of the hybridization will be minimal. This means that new hybrid seeds have to be bought each year, and it lessens the risk of hybrids ‘escaping’, something which GM plants do not control. Genetic modification (GM) is different from hybridization because it is done in a test tube at the DNA level, with immediate results. At this level, a scientist can insert a gene from, say, a fish into plant genes, or they can manipulate genes to not respond to some factor. Both hybrids and GM seeds are patented under US law, but GM seeds are peddled largely through Monsanto. (see my post on GM crops here)
The practical point is that farmers can drastically increase production with hybrid seeds, which further negates the argument that GM is necessary to meet global food needs. GM is unnecessary, and ethically questionable.