Science in Society Archive

Science in Society #36 - Winter 2007

The only radical science magazine on Earth

Science in Society 36 cover


From the Editors
When Bad Genetics Can Kill
Science Betrayed
Actonel and the Dog that Did Not Bark in the Night
Biotech Canada SLAPP Scandal
Science and Scientist Abused
USDA Watch
Udder Disregard for Safety. GM Tobacco for Preventing Mastitis in Cows
USDA Proposes Further De-regulation of GMOs
Unregulated Release of GM Poplars and Hybrids
Organic Now
Scientists Find Organic Agriculture Can Feed the World & More
FAO Promotes Organic Agriculture
Letters to the Editor
I-SIS Review
The Return of the Whale Dreamers
Rethinking HIV/AIDS
New Strategy HIV Vaccine Fails. More Infected with HIV
Controversy Over European Framework Programme AIDS Vaccines
I-SIS Lecture
The Importance of Being a Science Activist
Health Watch
Food Colouring Confirmed Bad for Children. Food Standards Agency Refuses to Act
Cold fusion Hots Up
From Cold Fusion to Condensed Matter Nuclear Science
Transmutation, The Alchemist Dream Come True
How Cold Fusion Works
Climate Change
Global Action on Climate Change A Third World Perspective
Biofuels Watch
UN 'Right to Food' Rapporteur Urges 5 Year Moratorium on Biofuels
Jatropha Biodiesel Fever in India
GM Free
Bt Crops Threaten Aquatic Ecosystems
UK Government's Dirty GM Secrets
GM-Free Europe Beginning?

From the Editors

When Bad Genetics Can Kill

James Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for the double-helix structure of DNA, sparked outrage among fellow scientists for saying to a newspaper reporter that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africans” and “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says not really.” That was not the first time Watson abused his position to promote what the Federation of American Scientists condemned as “personal prejudices that are racist, vicious and unsupported by science”.  Previously, for example, he suggested that people with low IQ had genes for stupidity, and he would like to prevent them from being born or give them gene therapy (Why Genomics Won't Deliver, SiS 26).

Within a week of his latest transgression, Watson was suspended, and subsequently resigned, from his post as chancellor of the prestigious Cold Spring Harbour Molecular Biology Laboratory.

Nonetheless, it was precisely such eugenicist, genetic determinist propaganda that Watson has used so effectively in selling the Human Genome Project back in the 1980s. And if anything significant had come out of sequencing the human and other genomes, it was to explode the myth of genetic determinism once and for all (see Living with the Fluid Genome, ISIS publication). Some of us had been arguing all along that genes and environment are inseparable well before the Human Genome Project was conceived. The surprise is how readily the environment could specifically mark and change genes and genomes to influence later generations. ‘The inheritance of acquired characters’ is nowhere as evident as in molecular genetics (see Life After the Central Dogma series, SiS 24).

Another Nobel laureate (Nobel Peace Prize 1970) who should know his genetics better is Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, a reductionist approach to agriculture based on breeding genetically uniform high yielding varieties (HYVs) that has brought short-term increases in crop yields at tremendous environmental and social costs.

Borlaug has persisted in promoting this failed approach, especially in the form of genetically modified (GM) crops, as made clear in a recent Nature editorial, “Feeding a hungry world”.

Far from suffering disgrace, Borlaug is showered with awards, the latest being the US Congressional Gold Medal, America’s highest civilian honour. At the presentation event, M.S. Swaminathan, father of the Green Revolution in India, gave the keynote address.

India meanwhile is caught in a worsening epidemic of farmers’ suicide as the result of the Green Revolution. Its agricultural minister acknowledged in the Indian Parliament that an estimated 100 000 farmers have taken their own lives between 1993 and 2003; and the introduction of GM crops to the country since has escalated the suicides to 16 000 a year (Stem Farmers’ Suicides with Organic Farming, SiS 32). 

Borlaug is doing a great deal more damage to the world than Watson with their bad genetics. The difference is that while Watson is now seen as a liability in attracting grants and investments, Borlaug serves as ideal mouthpiece for the biotech industry’s fake moral crusade of feeding the world.

Failures of the Green Revolution widely acknowledged

The failures of the Green Revolution are widely acknowledged. Swaminathan himself referred to a Green Revolution “fatigue”: a drop in yield, as well as a sharp drop in the yield of grain per unit of fertilizer applied.

The Green Revolution packaged specially bredHYVs with fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation. And given optimum inputs, these HYVs did indeed increase yields dramatically, especially in the short term. In the longer term, the soils become depleted and degraded, and yields fall even as more and more fertilizers are used. Similarly, pests become resistant to pesticides, and greater amounts have to be applied. Farmers and the general public become increasingly at risk from the toxic effects of pesticides and fertilizers that contaminate ground water. At the same time, heavy irrigation results in widespread salination of agricultural land, while aquifers are pumped dry.

The high costs of fertilizer and pesticides put small farmers at a disadvantage right from the start, driving them off the land while big farmers grow bigger, thereby deepening the divide between rich and poor.

But even farmers who manage to keep going are soon plunged deeper and deeper into debt by the spiralling costs of more fertilizers and pesticides, coupled with falling income from reduced crop yields, or massive crop failures from droughts, pests and diseases to which the genetically uniform HYVs are especially susceptible. For many of these farmers, the only exit from debt is suicide.

The Green Revolution’s success in raising yields has blatantly failed to reduce poverty or hunger. India’s 26 million tonne grain surplus in 2006 could feed the estimated 320 million of its people who are hungry, but starving villagers are too poor to buy the food produced in their own countryside.

The Green Revolution also led to the loss of crop biodiversity, compromising food security for small farmers and increasing malnutrition for all. Bangladesh lost nearly 7 000 traditional rice varieties and many fish species. In the Philippines, more than 300 traditional varieties disappeared.

Instead of learning from the failures of the Green Revolution, Borlaug, Swaminathan and the biotech industry are offering the world a second ‘doubly green’ revolution in GM crops, and they are taking it to Africa.

Beware the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa

Bill & Melinda Gates and the Rockefeller Foundation announced a joint $150 million Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) on the grounds that the Green Revolution had bypassed Africa. But as the Food First Institute points out, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which brings together the key Green Revolution research institutions, has invested 40 to 45 percent of their £350 million annual budget in Africa; which shows that the Green Revolution must have failed Africa, not bypassed it. The Green Revolution failed Africa for the same reasons it failed Asia and Latin America: it did not address the causes of poverty and hunger. On the contrary it contributed to increasing hunger and poverty in the midst of plenty.

Borlaug claims to have reduced hunger in the world through the Green Revolution, and even many of his critics are willing to give him credit for that. But this too, turns out to be a myth. In the two decades from 1970 to 1990 spanning the Green Revolution, the total food available per person in the world rose by 11 percent while the estimated number of hungry people fell from 942 m to 786 million, a 16 percent drop. However, if China is left aside, the number of hungry people in the rest of the world actually went up by more than 11 percent, from 536 to 597 million.

Rural Africa has been devastated by 25 years of ‘free trade’ policies imposed by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, the US and EU.  The forced privatization of food crop marketing boards - which once guaranteed African farmers minimum prices and held food reserves for emergencies - and rural development banks - which gave farmers credit to produce food - left farmers without financing to grow food and without buyers for their produce. Free trade agreements have made it easier for private traders to import subsidized food from the US and EU than to negotiate with thousands of local farmers. This effective dumping drives local farm prices below the costs of production and puts local farmers out of business.

Introducing GM monoculture crops will further narrow the genetic base of indigenous agriculture, increase farmers’ indebtedness in paying for patented seeds, and bring extra environmental and health risks (see GM Science Exposed., ISIS CD book).

Given appropriate land reform and institutional support in finance and marketing, there is no doubt that farmers in Africa, India and elsewhere can free themselves from the cycle of indebtedness, increasing poverty, hunger, malnutrition and ill-health, especially with zero-input organic farming methods based on indigenous crops and livestocks (see How to Beat Climate Change & Be Food and Energy Rich - Dream Farm 2 also Organic Now series, SiS 36). The really green revolution has started in Ethiopia a few years ago, when the government adopted organic agriculture as a national strategy for food security. Crops yields have doubled and tripled while reversing the damages of the failed Green Revolution (see Greening Ethiopia for Self-sufficiency series, SiS 23).

Article first published 17/02/16

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