Among the World-Feeders

Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source: Thornapple CSA

I spent a couple of days last week amongst folks who are diligently at work developing new crops. They are after new varieties that do well in the dry conditions farmers may experience during climate change, and they’re working on varieties that resist disease, too. And then there are the longstanding enemies: weeds and insect pests. Striga is a major target, especially in Africa. Also known as witchweed, striga lies in wait in the soil. Where other weeds compete with your crop for sun and soil nutrients, striga attaches itself to the roots, hijacking your crop’s own system for capturing energy from the earth. I learned that some scientists are having some success with herbicide tolerant crops. You spray some glyphosate on your field and it kills the striga, but not your crop. But I’m not here to plump for herbicide tolerant crops this week. Some of these things might work for farmers, and I say go for it. Yet even on our own family farm in South Georgia where our lessee has been growing Roundup-Ready® cotton, we’ve already seen the emergence of pigweed that’s naturally tolerant of glyphosate.

Hence and forthwith “Go for it,’” say I, but cautiously. So much for the obligatory tangent this week, and a road we went down for a few blogs back in 2012. What I really sat down to think about this morning was an ethics issue. It’s the way that these guys (the ones who are working on all these new crops) think. They are pushing to get these new technologies out, and they definitely stand to make a buck off of them if they are taken up by farmers. But they say that they are motivated by a desired to help poor farmers. And frankly, I believe them. They are born world-feeders, and they are on a mission.

Why am I troubled by the world-feeding missionaries? They are, after all, armed with impressive statistics on global crop yields and their statistics are made even more impressive when you throw in the predictions of climate-models. They all show that humankind is in for some deep stuff if we can’t make some leaps in total food production, never mind putting off the losses in total food production that goes along with rising sea levels, frequent droughts and tsunamis. We can’t seriously doubt that poor people in developing countries will bear the brunt of these events when they eventually transpire. And note that it’s when not if.

Could my troubles stem from worries about what it takes to finally bring these world-feeding technologies on line? I mean, take this herbicide strategy for controlling striga as a case in point. Making that work means having the seeds, which maybe we’ll give away in a newfound spirit of largess. But it also means having the herbicide, which somebody has to make. If somebody is going to make it, they’ll need to get paid, so having the herbicide requires sombody’s largess year after year. Either that or farmers that are rich enough to buy it themselves. We see plenty of sufficiently rich farmers here in the United States, but not so much in the African countries where striga is a serious pest. So making that particular technology work requires a form of largess that itself may not be sustainable given what we know about human nature, or it requires making the farmers rich enough so that they are no longer among the most vulnerable who need our help.

And why would I be troubled about that? Isn’t that “the American way”? Could it be that even here in America there are three to five people who stay poor (even if they do not remain as farmers) for every farmer who gets rich enough to buy his or her own herbicide. Some of them migrate to cities, where some of them find jobs, to be sure, so where’s the harm in that? Could it be that for everyone who finds a job there is one who doesn’t, and another who dies penniless leaving six children to fend for themselves in the slums of Harare or Kalundu View? Could it be that world-feeding humanitarianism seems to wind up being followed by an Operation Murambatsvina? Could it be that realizing these statistical goals of food production seems to require the removal, humiliation and oppression of so many people who just happen to be in the way?

If it wasn’t for that, I assure you that I would be a totally un-troubled world-feeder myself. It’s not like I have a better plan. Feeding the world is what ethics would certainly require. … But for some troubling collateral damages.

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Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

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