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Conservation and Society
An interdisciplinary journal exploring linkages between society, environment and development
Conservation and Society
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Year : 2004  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 471-475

Book Review 5

Professor of Government , Director/Convener, Rural Livelihoods and Biological Resources, Cornell University, 313 White Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA

Correspondence Address:
Ronald J Herring
Professor of Government , Director/Convener, Rural Livelihoods and Biological Resources, Cornell University, 313 White Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853
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Date of Web Publication18-Jul-2009

How to cite this article:
Herring RJ. Book Review 5. Conservat Soc 2004;2:471-5

How to cite this URL:
Herring RJ. Book Review 5. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2004 [cited 2019 Jul 17];2:471-5. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2004/2/2/471/55829

Per Pinstrup-Andersen and Ebbe Shioler, Seeds of Contention: World Hunger and the Global Controversy over GM Crops. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. 176pp., $14.95. ISBN: 0801868286.

Seeds of Contention won the World Food Prize for 2001. This recognition is indicative of what may now be considered a standard narrative of transgenic crops and development.

The standard narrative departs both from the apocalyptic vision of the many NGOs adamantly opposed even to the testing of transgenic crops and from the transparently instrumental propaganda of multinational firms selling seeds. Transgenics are neither miracle seeds nor suicide seeds. The standard narrative deploys the metaphor of a tool kit: transgenics will not solve the problem of 'world hunger', but represent a new tool, among others, just as many of the traditional tools are proving either inadequate to the task or come with too many cumulative externalities.particularly environmental.to be sustained.

At the core of the global controversy is not only science, but representation. Both sides have a developmental story to tell, consonant with their positions. Beginning their preface, the authors claim to represent no one, but feel that, too many well-to-do individuals and groups from Europe and North America have taken an unacceptably paternalistic position, claiming to represent the interests of the developing countries and to know what is best for the poor within these countries . (p. xi). Echoing Richard Nixon, the authors suggest that there is an .almost silent majority. of people in low-income countries who are not being heard (p. xi).

Of the many arguments for and against transgenics, environmental integrity has been the most contentious, and of most interest to readers of this journal. Unfortunately, much is unknown: primarily the risks involved in horizontal gene flow in agro-ecological systems. No one denies these risks, but no one knows the magnitude or certainty. Clearly, the answers have to be disaggregated by crop and region. There are objectively better reasons for Europeans, for example, to be concerned about gene flow than North Americans, as more wild relatives of some transgenics inhabit Old World bio-systems.

Proponents of transgenic crops have an environmental story to tell as well. The authors note that increases in aggregate agricultural production have historically come from two sources.conversions of landscapes and application of chemicals to fields. Both have serious ecological consequences. Conversions fragment and destroy habitats and disrupt ecosystem services. The authors note that .without the scientific breakthroughs associated with the Green Revolution, the increase in India.s wheat production alone between 1966 and 1993 would have necessitated plowing another 40 million hectares of land. (p. 20). Of course the 'Green' Revolution was not green at all in an environmental sense, but rather involved significant deterioration in natural systems. Water, the lifeblood of nature, is diverted, poisoned, wasted.

How much environmental damage is socially acceptable depends in part on assumptions about alternatives. A dark Malthusian cloud hangs over current discussions of food policy, though it has become unfashionable among intellectuals to evoke this most dismal strand of the dismal science. The authors argue that .once again Malthus.s clash between population growth and food production looms threateningly on the horizon.. Chapter three discusses the situation in Africa to make this point more concretely. But things are worse than even Malthus suspected; newly discovered threats to environmental integrity and natural resource conservation have put new constraints on agriculture. .Faced with the complexity of the problem, Malthus would surely have despaired. The one thing we cannot afford is to become passive members of his doomsayers. club. (p. 31).

The riposte to the Malthusians.that there is in the aggregate sufficient food, and therefore distribution is the problem.is true, but facile, the authors argue. Moreover, even this aggregate plenty.which would require radical reform to reach the hungry.looks to be fragile. As agricultural land goes out of production in favour of higher-return uses (from golf courses to urban sprawl), and water resources are stretched to the limit, continuing increases of yield per acre is a logical collective necessity. The rate of increase in yields of major crops has been declining; there must be genetic limits to yields of existing varieties, but it is unclear what these are. Could research at the cutting edge of plant science offer tools to increase the production possibilities frontier for plants that humans have engineered as food over the last 6,000 years?

Possibly, but the authors note a significant problem in the direction and ownership of biotechnology: multinational firms dominate. There has been a decline in the ratio of global public sector to private sector research; fear of multinational firms drives much of the opposition to transgenics (vide the targeting of Monsanto specifically, admittedly an attractive target). But there is in principle no reason that public sector research could not yield comparable results to those of the private sector. The Chinese public sector version of Bt cotton competes well with Monsanto.s version in China, and has been extremely popular with small farmers in China; it is likely to come to India via Nath Seeds. Likewise, public sector and public.private collaborations in India promise to provide comparable technologies. Moreover, it does not seem that property rights are so easy to enforce as opponents of transgenics assert. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the best transgenic cotton variety in Gujarat is not Monsanto's, but a product of the small seed firm Navbharat, using the same transgene as Monsanto, but of disputed parentage. Research and development costs are daunting in this field, but nations such as India and China have public sector institutions that can operate at the frontier of applied research. The multinational nexus, the authors argue, has been important politically, but has no necessary connection with biotechnology.

Public investment in biotechnology is worthwhile, the authors argue, because the status quo is unlikely to be sustainable. There are essentially three paths leading from this dilemma. First, humans could continue to intensify production in an industrial mode now characteristic of vast swaths of the United States. The externalities are severe and increasingly understood. As that path is widely acknowledged to be unsustainable, there is an agro-ecological approach that seeks to increase the percentage of genetic potential of plants realised by better management practises. The authors conclude, after weighing logical pros and cons and looking to some evidence, that .the organic approach, while certainly a worthwhile option in regions with the space, the labor and the consumer purchasing power . . . is not a cure-all. (p. 79). Finally, there are approaches from genetic engineering that seek to bypass some of the most dangerous externalities of the 'Green Revolution' path while avoiding the yield limitations of traditional agriculture. I would argue that there is in principle nothing other than ideology that prevents a synthetic approach utilising genetic engineering and sustainable agro-ecological practices to protect environments from both traditional attacks of axe and plow and modern assaults from synthetic chemicals.

There is much at stake for the environment in selection among paths. Recent debates in India have highlighted the environmental dangers of a groundwater supply saturated with some of the most toxic chemicals ever produced by humans .insecticides in bottled water and soft drinks, for example. It is clear from the longer Chinese experience, and from early results in India, that India.s first approved transgenic.Bt cotton.reduces pesticide load significantly, to the benefit of farmers and the environment.

The first victims of environmental degradation are typically the poor, who depend more on natural resources for livelihoods and have fewer exit options than the rich. Each side in the genetic engineering debate has a poverty story to tell, but they point in different directions.

The consensus on poverty that is emerging in the standard transnational narrative is sketched in chapter five; more recent empirical work buttresses the authors. arguments. Genetic improvements in seeds are typically scale-neutral, meaning there is no lumpy investment necessary (compare tractors or tubewells) and thus poor farmers can improve incomes even if transgenic seeds are more expensive. If not, they will not buy them. Second, the most important contribution of biotechnology to the poor may well be in bio-fortification. Because the poor consume the cheapest calories available, endowing inexpensive foods with better nutritional properties is pro-poor. Media hype surrounding the so-called .golden rice. has muddied the waters, but the potential is clear. The argument that more diverse diets are superior to bio-fortification of staples is true but irrelevant. If the poor could afford better diets, they would probably buy them. Malnutrition continues to ravage health, longevity and fulfilment of human genetic potential, no matter how often well-fed critics suggest that the poor need only eat more mangoes. Marie Antoinette's infamous response to reports that the poor had no bread, 'let them eat cake', is probably apocryphal; the contemporary equivalent saturates the media.

The final chapter is entitled 'Moving Forward: Handle with Care'. This characterisation is a good summary of the book's normative stance. The authors are sensitive to the problems of concentrated control by unaccountable firms, endorse ethical scrutiny of each step in evaluating transgenics, stand for 'free and informed choice' for consumers and farmers, and .extermination of a terminator. (p. 135). This final desideratum circles back to the first comments the authors make about representation and science. The .terminator. (gene use restriction technology) was born on the web site of a Canadian NGO and became the symbolic battering ram for global protests against transgenics. The terminator is a bio-cultural abomination: a plant that cannot produce viable seeds.

The authors oppose terminator technology because so many farmers save seeds for replanting. The great irony in India is that the so-called terminator seeds of Monsanto (falsely said to own the patent and equally falsely accused of bringing the technology to India) turned out to be incredibly fertile. The .suicide seeds. sprouted so vigorously that their progeny have enabled a king of genetic roulette in the cotton belt of India. Transgenic cotton seeds are being bred and cross-bred by farmers, small seed firms and charlatans, resulting both in real and fake Bt cutivars that farmers find attractive alternatives both to Monsanto and to traditional seed choices. Somewhat surprisingly, even F2 generation of the underground seeds, whether saved or purchased, suit the risk preferences of some farmers, since they are much cheaper than the approved Bt varieties, though often not as effective. Fears of Monsanto's 'monopoly power' deploying 'terminator technology' seem quaint in the anarchic agrarian capitalism that has sprouted from transgenic cotton seeds in India. [1]

But hoaxes and political symbolism aside, the terminal irony noted by the authors is that the only certain response to environmental risks of horizontal gene flow is something like the terminator technology.perhaps a practicable technology in the field, though to date there have been no applications for field trials. If the technology works, it would avert the most serious environmental externalities. (The notion that terminator genes themselves would spread is obviously a nonstarter: sterile seeds spread no genes at all). But political opposition to this technology has pulled it back from the frontier.

More generally, as Per Pinstrup-Andersen and Ebbe Schioler recognise, the transgenic question boils down to one of politics, not science. There is no way for science to prove a negative: that some effect will not happen. Though the standard narrative posits a seemingly sensible 'risk' benefit analysis., buttressed by comforting assurances of a 'bio-safety regime', the reality is that risks are unknown and seeds cannot be policed, as evidence from Gujarat to Rio Grande do Sul indicates. There are no probability distributions from which a true risk assessment can be derived and few imaginable means of stopping the flow of seeds farmers want.short of the terminator. Nature finds a way, and the genie is out of the bottle.

How do societies deal with uncertainties of change that promises public goods when there are known risks in the status quo? The first question is fundamental to development studies in general: To whose benefit, at whose risk? The answer depends on how one conceptualises the public, how one couches the alternatives, the normative position one takes on uncertainty and risk, and the projections one makes from an inevitably incomplete science. Seeds of Contention strikes the right timbre on these questions: a bit of sincere techno-optimism leavened by European caution. But in the last instance, what happens to the seeds of contention depends on how democracy works, and at what level, from local to global.[3]

   References Top

1.Herring, Ronald J. (forthcoming), .Miracle Seeds, Suicide Seeds and the Poor: GMOs, NGOs, Farmers and the State., in Mary Fainsod Katzenstein and Raka Ray (eds), From State to Market: Poverty and Changing Social Movement Strategies in India, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.  Back to cited text no. 1      
2.Joshi, Sharad (2001), .Unquiet on the Western Front., Hindu Business Line, 19 December.  Back to cited text no. 2      
3.Sahai, Suman (2002), .Bt Cotton: Confusion Prevails., Economic and Political Weekly, 25 May.  Back to cited text no. 3      


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