Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sustainable food production and Vandana Shiva

For the second time in less than a year, I had the good fortune to meet with and attend a talk by Dr. Vandana Shiva last night. Our Moravian College delegation first met her at COP15 last December (see http://moraviancollegeatunfccc.blogspot.com/2009/12/images-of-some-of-voices-in-copenhagen.html and http://moraviancollegeatunfccc.blogspot.com/2009/12/lifetime-opportunity-for-mc-students.html).

Dr. Shiva has long been a strong advocate for small farmers, the protection of crop diversity, and the empowerment of women.  She has dedicated her life to protecting biodiversity, especially through saving traditional seeds at a time when agricultural monoculture is the norm.  She also has strong feelings about GMOs, globalization and certain large corporations and these feelings are not positive!  Many of my peers (and I) share her concerns about the power of U.S. corporations, their profit motive, and their attempts to exploit resources, the environment, and people.  Such corporate trends are not going to lead to the “just sustainability” that Julian Ageyman from Tufts calls for (see Dr. Ageyman's blog at http://julianagyeman.com/).
Dr. Shiva (center) with some of my colleagues from Moravian College
I do, however, disagree with Dr. Shiva’s negative portrayal of the Green Revolution.  Indeed, many of the wartime technologies were translated to agriculture after World War II:  the production of fertilizers (instead of explosives); the agricultural use of pesticides (whose development was linked to chemical warfare as well as protecting soldiers from insect-borne diseases); the use of assembly lines to mass produce farm equipment; and even the application of nuclear research to the irradiation of seeds to produce new varieties of crops.  It is really quite a fascinating part of agricultural history--something I teach in the course I teach "The Impact of Technology on Diet and Disease". 

But I don’t believe that this led to a “militarization” of our food supply as Dr. Shiva made reference to last night.  In the 1940’s, famines in India led to the deaths of millions of people.  Dr. Shiva said that there had always been famines bout that they were regional and temporarily short-lived.  But she believes that the global persistent hunger facing the planet now has resulted from the exploits of large agribusinesses (which arose with the Green Revolution and now is the controller of genetically modified food crops, patents on life, etc.)  Acknowledging my bias as a trained plant scientist, I truly belief that many of the innovations of the Green Revolution were developed with good intentions and did make a significant and positive difference for people in developing countries around the world.  We can argue about the motives of large (U.S. corporations) and the pros and cons of GM foods elsewhere.

Ironically, this week, 2010 Borlaug Dialogue (a conference centered on the awarding of the World Food Prize conference) is being held.  This prize was started by the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman E. Borlaug—considered by many as the Father of the Green Revolution.  The theme this year is "Take it to the Farmer": Reaching the World's Smallholders—focusing on the small farmers and their role in world food production.  http://www.worldfoodprize.org/en/borlaug_dialogue/2010_borlaug_dialogue/
I wish I had asked Dr. Shiva about this since, as I have mentioned above, she is highly critical of the Green Revolution, but a strong advocate of the small farmer.

The WorldWatch Institute has an amazing program called Nourishing the Planet and I have been following the project blog for almost a year.  The folks from this project are in Iowa for the World Food Prize conference and posted this commentary today: http://blogs.worldwatch.org/nourishingtheplanet/we’re-all-here-to-reduce-hunger-right/.
Yet another reference to the conflict between large agribusiness and small farmers.

The Nourishing the Planet blog introduced me to the book Tomorrow’s Table which I found to be a wonderful and refreshing exploration of ways to bring two very divergent perspectives (plant molecular genetics/genetic engineering and organic farming) together and consider possible synergies.  I can't recommend this book highly enough.  Perhaps a key to nourishing the planet (reducing hunger, finding a new prosperity and sources of hope, just sustainability or however you want to phrase it) lies in opening more avenues for meaningful (rather than antagonist) dialog between large corporate agriculture, smallholders, community garden leaders, scientists, and others.

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