From the Editors
When Bad Genetics Can Kill
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
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
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
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).