Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Salty Padi Fields

Backache and a crick in the neck have prevented me from writing as much as I wanted to.

We missed the first of the Ri (ie Royal Institution) Christmas Lectures on TV. The rest we taped and watched together with our son. He enjoyed it thoroughly.

Aimed especially at children, Sir John Krebs made science surrounding "Food Matters" so very accessible. Why can't all teachers bring lessons alive like that?

Sir John tried to debunk several myths about food. Most of these points are just common sense when we think of it. But the demonstrations and visual aids were effective in putting the messages across.

Then he touched on "Food for the Future" and the controversial GM foods.

Mention "GM" and we conjure up pictures of GM crops contaminating other crops to produce "superweeds" which cannot be controlled. Sir John did not dwell on this.

Instead he discussed the possibility that a food like rice could be genetically modified so that it can be grown in salty water. Now what a brilliant idea that is. Considering the fact that the earth would need to be supporting an ever-growing population, being able to grow rice in salt marshes seems the panacea for at least some of the world's ills.

Or is it?

In my earlier rant about how "conventional farming" has led to an over-dependence on chemicals, etc, my husband pointed out that without such means, a lot of the world would have starved.

I must concede that point. What we see now is that conventional farming cannot resolve all our food needs. It is the same reason for my now thinking / considering "hmm, GM might not be such a bad idea after all". Is it not a repeat of that same age-old problem of not growing enough food?

Being a social anthropologist it is clear to me, however, that a complex problem needs a complex solution. A holistic approach -- joined-up thinking -- is required and GM agriculture is but one tiny facet of any plausible solution.

Why is population growing so fast? Where is population growing the fastest?

Juxtapose this phenomenon with greying populations in most western and "westernized" countries. Why are there so many incentives set in place in Singapore, for example, for people to reproduce?

Therefore to say that the world's population is growing is ignoring the fact that it is growing faster in certain parts of the world. In many nations today, governments are hard pushed to get fertility rates to meet the replacement levels.

Big families are not the reason for poverty. Big families are a symptom of poverty. Poverty often means high infant mortality rates. Farmers need children to work their farms. Even adults die younger. So people have many children as their social insurance. The "western" world has been living so long in welfare states that this reasoning that "children are our pension" is quite alien to most of us.

Eradicate the threat of poverty and family size comes down drastically.

Impoverished farmers need seed to sow. Would the great GM corporations give seed freely to these farmers so that they could grow enough food to feed their families? Yes, and yes, provided governments, charities, non-government organizations, philanthropists, foreign aid donors would buy these seed at a high price.

Of course the purveyors of GM research and agriculture are not doing this for altruistic reasons. Providing food for the starving is a good marketing line. Fiscally, the aim is investment solely to line the pockets of shareholders in years to come.

GM farming by itself is not going to alleviate poverty.

We need the likes of Bill Gates to buy out the patents for these GM seed to make a dent in eradicating starvation.

The use of water, land, social and physical infrastructure to get people to work, and produce from the farm to consumers, eating less meat so that others might have more to eat, etc, all have a bearing on how we could feed the starving. ("It takes seven pounds of grain to give us one pound of steak" is what I read in either Sider or Sine. Sir John demonstrated how we need 12 litres of water to grow one gram of beef while only one litre was required to grow one gram of wheat.)

Some of these aspects can be sorted by people -- working hard and working smart on the farms, eating less meat, paying a fair price for their produce, giving to the poor, etc. Other aspects can only be taken care of by governments -- national security, eradication of corruption, building of roads, etc.

So while it is an attractive idea that GM technology could help us grow rice in salt water, until the owners of such technology are willing to share it freely with the poor, there is not a chance of alleviating poverty, and the resulting overpopulation, which would only lead to starvation. Many years down the road we will be discussing, again, how new types of agriculture are needed to feed the starving.

Back to Organic-Ally.

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