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Date:

May 15, 2000

Subject:

The poverty of a Reith Lecturer's thinking

 

- http://www.agbioworld.org. http://agbionews.listbot.com

The Daily Telegraph

May 16, 2000

Comment: The poverty of a Reith Lecturer's thinking

Acid Test

Matt Ridley

Page 23

VANDANA Shiva's Reith Lecture, reprinted in this newspaper last week, was
a strongly argued attack on the green revolution. In conventional wisdom,
that revolution transformed her native India into a self-sufficient
agricultural economy and abolished famine - even during severe droughts
like the one affecting Gujarat today. In her view, it has instead driven
out self-sufficient, mixed-crop peasants for intensive, chemical
agriculture that destroys people and the environment.
Not having been to India for 18 years, I turned to another Indian to ask
whether this was a true portrait of his native country: Dr C. S. Prakash,
now at the Tuskegee University in Alabama. He wrote that he was "sickened"
by Dr Shiva's lecture and especially her assertion that yields would
actually be higher if traditional methods were used in place of intensive
farming. In the 1960s, Indian peasants used mixed crops, their own seeds
and few chemicals. Yet those were what he calls the "port-to-mouth" days
when only huge imports of American grain saved the India from mass
starvation every year.
Today, India produces 204 million tons of grain a year. To produce that
quantity with 1960s techniques would require three times as much land
under cultivation. If India had stuck to traditional methods, by now it
would be seeing millions of deaths from starvation every year - and it
would have ploughed all wild land.
To those who say we should preserve the traditional way of life in rural
parts of developing countries, Dr Prakash points out that the traditional
way of life was that one child in three died before the age of three. As
Richard North writes in Life on a Modern Planet: "Peasant life is only
admired by those who have never known it, or those who have never known
anything else".
Subsistence agriculture requires back-breaking toil; even then it supports
only the lucky few able to own sufficient land or access to water. The
rest drift away as a rural underclass surviving, if at all, by selling
their labour. Before Britain's agricultural revolution, the population
grew very slowly. Every May, after the winter stores ran out and before
the crops ripened, death stalked the land.
THE green revolution, in India as in Britain, enabled this rural
underclass to survive, to migrate to the cities where other jobs could be
found. Since most people live in urban areas, Dr Shiva's recommendation
that we return to traditional agriculture might suit better-off rural
inhabitants, but it would devastate the poor. According to the Nuffield
report on the green revolution: "Small surplus farmers were better off and
had more incentives to employ the poor."
There have been losers from the green revolution, too, and instances where
modernisers failed to learn from traditional techniques and so caused pest
outbreaks or worse. Dr Shiva produces anecdotes of this kind. There are
unlucky and unhappy people in every industry, advanced or traditional.
Myriad examples still exist of desperately poor farmers who long to grow a
cash crop rather than a subsistence one, just for the security that cash
brings, or who crave the protein that would keep their children alive. The
truth must be sought not in anecdotes, but in aggregates.
And the aggregates are unambiguous. The green revolution - hybrid seeds,
fertilisers and pesticides - saved millions from death, lifted millions
more out of poverty, released millions more to better jobs in other parts
of the economy and saved great tracts of the natural environment from the
plough.
Next time you applaud Marks & Spencer for not stocking genetically
modified cotton, consider the Indian farmer whom you have just helped to
bankrupt. For him, having seen his cotton crop devastated by boll worm,
and knowing that only heavy doses of chemical pesticides can reach inside
the cotton boll, the GM cotton was a life-saver and an environment-saver,
too. Inserted into the cotton was the ability to produce Bt, the "organic"
insecticide used all over the world by organic farmers. Now he would not
have to spray his cotton with Bt or anything else. Then you came along.