Planning is Good: Noah’s Ark(s), 2.0

Noah was the last of the Old Testament patriarchs who listened to divine instructions for saving humans and animals from a giant flood. Most cultures around the world have a similar story. I think the oldest known one is that found in the Epic of Gilgamesh. There appears to have been an ancient civilization in the Persian gulf that flooded around 8000 years ago, so it’s possible that particular flood story is referring to it. Other major sources of flooding were the melting of the glaciers in different parts of the world at different times. The basic myth is that a man builds a big boat in response to warnings of flood. When it begins, his family and animals take refuge and wait out the storm, emerging afterwards to repopulate the world.

It was the highly detailed saving of the animals that I always found fascinating. Recognizing the need for animals in a post-apocalyptic world, their scale of foresight was impressive. Today, that foresight is found again in molecular databases around the world. One such database is in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago. It opened in 2008, and stores seeds for free. Due to the fact that it is just south of the North Pole, the climate is stable, as is the political situation. This makes storage there very attractive. Funding comes from Bill Gates, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, and the Norwegian government, although there is talk of other governments lending a hand too.

While cloning animals for murky purposes has been going on for awhile, reviving old plants for ecological reasons is starting to take root (pun intended).  The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive distributes copies of ancient tree DNA to genebanks, and promotes replanting them for reforestation.  The more genebanks you have, the likelier a particular specimen will survive. Want to start your own biobank? Here is a study that examines good practices for gene collectors.

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Review: Paarlberg’s Starved for Science

Published in 2008, Robert Paarlberg’s Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept out of Africa is a critique of the international reluctance to using scientific agriculture and GMO’s in food aid. The United States and Europe have sustained abundant crop yields since the widespread inception of scientific agriculture in the 1950’s. With the advent of the organic-sustainable agriculture movement in the 60’s and 70’s came criticism about these techniques.Adverse effects of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and soil erosion were expounded upon. As a result of this expansion, concentrated among nonfarming urbanites, agricultural policies are often framed around promoting sustainable farming practices in developing countries. Paarlberg argues that this does not adequately address the problem of hunger and poverty. Since African countries receive the majority of international funding for agricultural research from Europe, it is European policies which are most closely followed there. The use of the precautionary principle, Paarlberg claims, has been harmful for Africans, specifically in designing drought resistant crops for the sub-Saharan rural poor.

The rural poor are underrepresented in their own countries. This is often due to political instability, which makes it dangerous for politicians to visit overland the rural populations they represent. Leaders often interpret the state of poverty from what they see in urban slums, which are expanding rapidly in many countries. This, the author believes, is due to the worsening conditions of rural areas. It is this urban bias which is exploited by donor countries and contributes to a political agricultural apathy in Africa. Negative effects of the Green Revolution are one reason Europeans advise against using scientific agriculture. Particularly in Latin America, access to these technologies was restricted to landowners, which increased agricultural income inequalities and further concentrated wealth in the hands of the political elite and non-indigenous peoples. In Asia, these technologies worked to decrease hunger and raise incomes overall, due to the differing access people had to land. Paarlberg believes it is possible to use the technologies of the Green Revolution without seeing their devastating effects in African countries if the proper infrastructure is in place. Western activists and NGO’s stand on the shoulders of the scientific agriculture they condemn, Paarlberg claims. No longer suffering from scarcity, they are able to critique the sometimes destructive agricultural practices currently in place. While this is not without value, he argues that African countries are greatly in need of the scientific approach, chemical fertilizers, proper irrigation and moderate use of GMO’s in particular. Paarlberg also notes that organic farming in Africa is neo-colonialist. Organic farms are centered around commercial shipping ports, the food grown destined for export to Europe. It is the tastes of the affluent which drive the expansion of the organic movement. Paarlberg does not really outline his plan for the responsible use of GMO’s and scientific agriculture, or explain how the political situation in Africa is sufficiently different from Latin America that gross inequalities would be avoided. To my understanding, corruption in African governments is so pervasive that it’s difficult to imagine any other outcome.

He does not believe that either governments or corporations are the solution to the agricultural problem. The former are too partisan and often corrupt in their judgments, while the latter lack commercial incentives for designing weather-resistant crops for the poor. Paarlberg suggests that an international panel is ideal, but does not expound further on what this means. The author also comments that in order to raise incomes, agricultural productivity must not increase faster than the demand for labor. Yet this is exactly what happened in western countries; the technology was designed to save labor. Farming machines in particular greatly increased worker efficiency. Paarlberg does not use footnotes, so if you wish to fact-check, you have to do a lot of detective work. I found this sloppy. As someone with ecological-agriculture leanings, this was sometimes hard to read. I found myself bristling at the idea that organic farms are less productive than agribusiness enterprise. At the AcresUSA conference in December, a Canadian farmer had said the same in criticism of IFOAM’s belief that organic systems were capable of feeding the world. “Organic farmers really aren’t all that productive,” he’d said. It stung. I’d always thought that biodiversity and soil health were missing from the analysis of productivity, and the reason commercial farms were considered more productive was because they weren’t considering these resources. But commercial farms are more productive in terms of crop yield. That’s the whole point. Proponents of sustainable agricultural systems argue that we must consider long term soil health and integrated systems in lieu of immediate productivity if we wish to protect our food supply and the health of the planet. They’re right, but they’re also well fed.

If you believe that the hunger problem is caused primarily by low food productivity, then your efforts will be aimed at increasing it. Paarlberg does not discuss the contribution corruption and distribution inequalities play in hunger and famines; a more thorough reference to Amartya Sen’s ideas would have been helpful in creating a more thorough analysis. In conclusion, the sustainable agriculture and development movements may have competing, mutually exclusive goals. However, African countries may not be starved for science as much as they are for agricultural attention in general. But if we really care about reducing African hunger and poverty, we must seriously consider the responsible use of scientific agriculture.

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