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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

When Did Subsistence Farming Become A Dirty Word?

Well, two words actually. Anyway, I just read an article in the Smithsonian Magazine's 40th Anniversary Issue. The issue was filled with "40 Things You Need To Know About The Next 40 Years". Number 17 was titled "In the Fight Against Starvation, One Weapon Will Be the Ancient Grain Fonio". The interviewer was Amanda Benson of the Smithsonian. The Interviewee was Rosamond Naylor of the Program on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University. Ms. Naylor is an economist by training.

Both of these people seem to think that solving the problem of hunger in the world has to do with more technology. Solar powered drip irrigation systems. GMO crops. Figuring out high-yield crops and which markets to get them to. Discovering price strategies. What?

These approaches are actually what has driven millions of people in this world today into hunger and starvation. Using more of them is not going to solve anything. In order to address the problem - we need to be really clear what created the problem in the first place.

So. What caused the problems. There are a huge myriad of causes but the over-arching one that I see is the first-world drive for resources. This took the form of empire and colonization in the 18th century. It included land grabs, slavery, plundering natural materials and agricultural products, forced unequal trade practices and the like. As the third world gradually shrugged off the colonial yokes, the financial ones remained in place. These poor countries depended on the richer ones for support in the form of unequal trade agreements, exploitation of their natural resources for pittances and payoffs, massive corruption instigated in order to procure these favorable resource agreements and so-called development loans.

And finally, in the late 20th century - the institution of the IMF/World Bank Development Programs in which more "loans" were given to these already debt-ridden countries in return for 'austerity' programs that included changes to their agricultural sectors. These changes were a disaster for the food security of the populations since the people were forced off their land, food crops were replaced with 'money' crops like tobacco and cotton so that the nation would be able to repay the new debts, and the people were forced into the cities to find other employment. The jobs available were low-paying, and put the people in a position where they were unable to purchase the wheat in the market - wheat from the US market (subsidized by the US government) that was too expensive. And so the people starve.

At various times, we (the first world, mostly the US) have instituted programs that are supposed to help. Witness the so-called Green Revolution. We convinced the third world that growing wheat, or corn, or rice (the big three) was how to grow crops. These three are all very water dependent, fertilizer dependent, and the way we grow them, machinery dependent as well. Notice anything? Lots of money required for seed, water delivery, and machines. Enriching Monsanto, Caterpillar and John Deere, and further impoverishing the third world. In the process, we convinced them that native crops like amaranth and fonio and all the other stuff they used to grow were nothing but weeds that needed to be eradicated. We sprayed them with weed killer, combined their farms into giant mono-culture fields (gee - kinda like communism dontcha think), sold them tractors and stuff, sacks of expensive seeds and fertilizers, and then left.

The tractors are now rusting in the fields, the 'weeds' are back, the people are gone, the fields are now covered with cotton or tobacco, and no one is being fed.

One of the grains that is put forward in the Smithsonian article is Fonio. It is a type of millet and has been around for thousands of years. It thrives in poor soil, is rich in amino acids and makes a good base for bread, porridge, pasta and yes, beer. The problem with it is - wait for it - the seeds are tiny and we have to figure out how to harvest it. Oh yeah - we have to figure out how to harvest it with a giant combine so we can grow it in giant monoculture fields and make a gazillion bucks off it. So what happened to letting individual families grow it in their garden patches or a small plot and harvesting it by hand like they have since ancient times. It is, after all, an ancient grain.

Then there is the Golden Rice. This is the GMO candidate. According to the article - the scientists have put a daffodil gene in the rice so it will have more beta carotene (vitamin A precursor) and it will presumably prevent blindness in kids in the third world - a pernicious problem to be sure. A laudable goal surely. Unfortunately, I had heard about golden rice before - and not in a good way. So I looked it up again. According to The Golden Rice Hoax , not only will golden rice not prevent blindness in kids - it has the potential to actually make it worse:

In order to meet the full needs of 750 micrograms of vitamin A from rice, an adult would have to consume 2 kg 272g of rice per day. This implies that one family member would consume the entire family ration of 10 kg. from the PDS in 4 days to meet vitaminA needs through "Golden rice".

In addition, Dr. Vandana Shiva, the author of the above article, says that if the traditional family gardening practices in India were encouraged, plants like Amaranth would provide enough beta carotene to do the job without the GMO golden rice. He gives a complete list of plants that were usually found in a family garden - now mostly missing because of this reliance on mono-culture money crops. Amaranth is a very interesting plant - it has a grain seed-head, the leaves are edible as a salad, and the roots can also be used. The seeds are a very high-protein content, and as Dr. Shiva says, the leaves contain a very high vitamin A content. Robert Rodale wrote an entire book about this remarkable plant called "Save Three Lives" and the Rodale Institute has set up an entire research center to provide more information about it.

Dr. Shiva concludes:
The reason there is vitamin A deficiency in India in spite of the rich biodiversity base and indigenous knowledge base in India is because the Green Revolution technologies wiped out biodiversity by converting mixed cropping systems to monocultures of wheat and rice and by spreading the use of herbicides which destroy field greens.

The final challenge we face going forward in regards to agriculture is of course global climate change. As the climate warms, agriculture will face multiple challenges, mostly as traditional growing areas become warmer and drier. The Smithsonian article responds by suggesting more irrigation and more GMO crops. Since one of the problems we will be facing will be severe water shortages, irrigation should be last on the list of things to be doing. We need to be looking at growing crops where they can grow without irrigation. Why are we trying to grow crops in deserts when they need rain? Grow them where there is rain! We are already using far too much water for irrigating deserts to grow crops when we should be growing crops where there is rain. Secondly, instead of using GMO crops - which are unstable, and can cause potentially deadly harm to humans, why not use already existing drought-tolerant crops that already exist?

A case in point - indigeneous corn strains - called landrace corn, which exists in small pockets of cultivation in Mexico's mountainous regions are already drought and heat tolerant. They have been bred over hundreds of years to exist in a lot of different climates. These landrace corns are stable, healthy, and genetically diverse - as all good crops should be. Right now they are in serious danger of contamination from Monsanto's GMO corns that were forced into the Mexican markets by NAFTA. We need to protect these landrace corns from contamination and preserve their genetic diversity from any pollution by GMOs of any kind. Then we need to begin propagating them using standard farming methods as used by the Mexican farmers to discover the ones best suited to microclimates in different parts of lots of different countries. And stop feeding all the corn to cattle. It is too important and it needs to be used as people food.

By the way, these landrace corns are raised along with beans, a kind of squash, and a native grass that is the original stock from whence the corn/maize originally came. The grass has medicinal uses, and the beans and squash provide nutrients that make the maize and vegetables a very nutritious diet. So don't just grow corn. Grow all the stuff that comes along with it. That is what subsistence farming is all about.

Subsistence farming is about raising all the food you need to feed your family - plus a little bit more to trade with your neighbors for things you can't make or do for yourselves. We used to be proud of doing this - that is what pioneers did. Why is it a dirty word now?

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