Farmers would do better to understand the land than grow GM crops

GM: often assumed to be better. Guo Yu

Suppose your relationship is falling apart and you want to save it. To find the best counsellor, you might search online or ask your friends. It’s no different in agriculture. The rational response to any food or farming dilemma is to test and compare different options to see which is most effective as a solution.

Except when it comes to genetic modification (GM). I have yet to hear of a research trial where a newly developed GM crop has been compared with other approaches to address the problem it claims to solve. If the goal was to identify the most effective solution, this would be very odd – but if the real goal is to find a use for the technology, it makes perfect sense.

Here’s an example from my work in the subtropics (I better not name the country). In the 2000s, one region experienced several consecutive years of severe drought. The worst affected area saw over 3,000 wells dry up, and over 2,000 of its cattle lost. Many farmers were unable to sow their staple maize crop. The easy culprit was climate change, since temperatures had risen half a degree in recent years. What was less frequently pointed out was the poor condition of the soils: 60% suffered from erosion, 40% had low water retention, and 45% had low fertility – all the result of several decades of industrial agriculture.

The mainstream agricultural sector proposed constructing a large water pipeline from the wetter part of the country to the drier parts. Yet the government didn’t have the funds. A GM drought-tolerant maize was also suggested, but thankfully wasn’t yet available.

I started working with a local research team to develop a low-cost pilot in two communities with a very different approach. It sought to help farmers understand the water cycle and manage water sustainably; and also to experiment with simple techniques to improve soil fertility. These included planting cover crops, which are crops put there primarily to protect the bare soil from high temperatures and from water escaping through plants and Earth (evapotranspiration); as well as adding organic fertilisers; rainwater harvesting and testing numerous crop varieties to see which worked best. Farmers and households were particularly supported to share their own local knowledge and experiences.

Seeds of a new approach. MrMohock

Reaping benefits

After just one year, we saw various intended and unintended results. There was much more crop diversity, and yields and production had increased across the board. Manure had become a valuable resource, which farmers were collecting systematically from livestock. There was more water available for these animals, and the soil’s capacity for water retention had improved too. The farmers were widely using biological fertilisers, and had generally become better at working together and experimenting.

Above all, the first vegetable market had opened – previously there had never been any surplus to sell – along with an informal seed market. Family incomes had gone up and there were more nutritious foods for everyone. For an investment of just £15,000, the project seemed to tick all the development boxes.

Most telling were the responses from community members who were asked what had changed:

A year ago drought was a worry to us, but now we don’t rate this as important as other concerns.

The main change? Now we can afford for all the children in our village to wear shoes.

Suppose instead that a GM drought-tolerant maize had been available at the time. Farmers would have had to buy patented seed every year. At best, the crop would have needed slightly less water and the yield might have been maintained or even increased a little. No other crops could have been grown since the soil would have remained degraded, and irrigation would have still been required. (This kind of GM maize has since been developed, at a cost of millions of pounds.)

I’m not the only one with these sorts of findings. Previous studies have shown that this kind of agroecological approach produces better results than GM in terms of environmental impact, human health and societal benefits; while it has been convincingly argued that using GM varieties does nothing for biodiversity in agriculture.

The industrialised mindset

The conventional corporate model legally obliges chief executives – on behalf of shareholders – to prioritise profits over ethics and sustainability, whatever their personal inclination. It is a manifestation of an underlying mindset. This can be seen in Cuba, where until recently there was no private corporate sector, and where the government made several varieties of GM maize available to some parts of the country in 2006. Cuba inherited its agricultural approach from the former Soviet Union, which unwittingly shared a mindset with Western countries that has been dominant for over 300 years.

Blame Descartes. Brendan Howard

Borrowing from the French philosopher Descartes, this world view breaks down complex processes into smaller parts to be analysed in isolation, and sees nature as a resource to be exploited and conquered. It wasn’t and isn’t always so – as indigenous communities continue to demonstrate with their reverence for nature and their sense of inter-connectedness. The organic and regenerative farming movements attempt to take a similar approach, as did the “drought-proofing” project that I outlined above.

GM is simply a manifestation of the same misguided industrial mindset, a mindset that tries to control nature rather than work with it. From a psychological perspective, the need to control is driven by fear, as I found from years of interviewing farmers about why they felt they needed to continue with industrial agriculture rather than switch to organic.

Allowing private companies to peddle their wares in the name of development or to “feed the world” is arguably immoral when there are alternatives that can bring much wider benefits. If GM were banned, though, similar problematic technologies would continue to present themselves. It is the mindset from which they emerge that needs reprogrammed. Its not as if there aren’t better ways of achieving the same result.