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It's a truly admirable vision, but again, Peter Rosset questions whether this high-tech approach will produce the desired results. He notes that since the Green Revolution there is indeed more food per person in the world, yet despite that, hunger has continued to grow. There are now almost 800 million people who don't get enough to eat. According to Rosset, the major cause for hunger is not inadequate technology but economic inequity, something that has been increasing in recent years. In the Western world, he says, we have become obsessed with the idea of technological fixes. Scientists, in particular, "tend to ascribe a central role to technology in increased food production," but social scientists have a different analysis, which sees technology as just one factor in a larger matrix, and hence as just one potential approach to a solution. As Rosset sees it, if we really want to wipe out hunger, then first and foremost we need to tackle the roots of economic injustice.
Rosset insists that we have the capacity to feed 10 billion people without biotechnology. "In many cases, African and Latin American farmers are producing way below what they could produce with current technology," he says. The key is that they do not have an economic incentive to produce more. Rosset has traveled extensively in the Third World, and time and again, he says, he has seen how small farmers get squeezed out of agricultural systems. In Honduras, for example, Rosset says, there are lots of farmers with 10-acre farms who are only planting three or four acres for their own family's use. With food prices falling worldwide, it isn't economically viable to plant the rest, so they go away to cities several months a year to seek work. Increasingly -- as in the U.S., so in the developing world -- only large farms are profitable. "These farmers really don't need any more technology," Rosset says. "What they need is to stop the â economic biases against them." That means local biases, such as difficulty obtaining small loans, but it also means the global bias toward downward-spiraling food prices. In a global sense, the price of cheap food is steep indeed.
But is it necessarily a black or white choice? Might it be possible for biotechnology to play a role in the developing world without disenfranchising small farmers? UC Davis plant scientist Alan Bennett believes this can be the case. "Much of this technology is a replacement," he says, "especially for the chemically intensive farming." Looking to the future, we have to find alternatives not just to chemical herbicides and pesticides, but also to the heavy use of fertilizers. Biotech can play a role here by creating crops that will grow more efficiently in poor and arid conditions, Bennett says; it can also help with disease and pathogen control. As an example, Bennett cites fellow UC Davis scientist Pam Ronald's work on pathogen-resistant rice. Ronald has taken a pathogen-resistance gene from a wild (nonedible) strain of rice and transferred it into edible strains. The gene is now being given freely to rice institutes around the world for incorporation into local varieties. There is nothing about this technology that necessarily favors large-scale farming, Bennett says. "There are a lot of technologies off the shelf now that small farmers could use."
One of the obstacles here is that even if developing nations are given free access to relevant genes, in order to engineer these genes into local crop varieties they still have to use the various "enabling technologies" on which genetic engineering relies. Most enabling technologies are owned and patented by large companies like Monsanto. Bennett suggests that since "One of the key things biotech companies tout is that this will help to feed the hungry," then "the onus is on them to put their money where their mouth is" and make the technology available. Not willing to wait for them to take that initiative, however, Bennett has organized a group of American scientists to begin developing an alternative slate of enabling technologies for the public domain.
As in America, then, the central issue is not whether we use genetic engineering per se, but what we see as the future of agriculture itself. All the problems faced by our own farmers are also being faced by farmers of the developing world, where the repercussions are even more enormous -- due to the sheer scale of the problem. Several billion of the world's people still live on the land. What will happen to their livelihoods -- and to their very lives -- if they are made redundant by large-scale industrialized farms? Where will they find work? Will already-overcrowded Third World cities be able to absorb this immense influx of poor, ill-educated people? The specter of this possibility is huge indeed. Peter Rosset, for one, insists that this cannot be our vision of the future and that the developing world must not be pushed down the path of industrialized agriculture. What his organization is "fighting for," he says, is "the right of different countries to have different models of agriculture." How does he feel about the chances of success? Rosset, who as much as anyone knows the monumental forces at work here, was in Seattle as part of the December protests against the World Trade Organization. Before Seattle, he tells me, he had very mixed feelings, but "After Seattle I'm a lot more optimistic."