Cover Image
close this bookBiotechnology and the Future of World Agriculture (GRAIN, 1991)
close this folderAgriculture in crisis
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe soil and water crisis
View the documentThe productivity crisis
View the documentThrough the looking glass
View the documentThe hidden harvest
View the documentThe problems not addressed
View the documentBiotechnology, the solution?

The hidden harvest

Of course, when single-crop output is measured to show productivity increases of the new varieties, the loss of the associated crops, which were originally part of the system, is not calculated. This loss can be considerable. In south India intercropped sorghum provided - apart from the sorghum - some 70 kilogrammes of different pulses and 10 kilogrammes of local oilseeds per acre. (22) The disappearance of these intercropping systems, with the introduction of new sorghum varieties bred for monoculture conditions, considerably reduced the availability of protein and fat sources at the local level. Additionally, the new dwarf varieties reduced the amount of straw available, thus upsetting the plant/animal/soil balance of local agricultural production systems.

Also not calculated in the alleged super-narvests of the Green Revolution is the loss of other food sources when farmers turn to monoculture and the associated chemicals. Rene Salazar, working with SEARICE - a Philippine based community organization - explains how increased pesticide use is virtually destroying a widespread resource base whereby fish from the paddy fields provide protein-rich food for rural families. (23) Snails, frogs and birds from the paddy fields also used to provide food for farmer households. All of these are disappearing as irrigation water is contaminated with toxic pesticides and fertilizers. A related problem is the impact of pesticides on the health of buffaloes, in many ways 'the small farmer's tractor'. In the ACES survey cited above, 20% of the farmers complained about the frequency with which pesticide poisoning causes the death of these invaluable animals. (24)

Yet another example of lost production (lost for the farmers, but normally also lost in production statistics) is the disappearance of associated 'weeds' and wild plants in the farmers' fields when herbicides are used to keep the monoculture as mono as possible. Filipino farmers derived substantial quantities of protein-rich food from these 'weeds' and so do Indian women farmers when singling out Bathua plants for consumption during manual weeding. The same women used another weed as raw material for weaving mats and baskets. These mats and baskets, sold at the local market, formed an important additional source of income for the rural women. The monocultural mind considers these plants as unwanted pests and uses herbicides to kill them off. In this way, not only supplementary protein sources are lost to the rural poor, but also the little extra income for women from selling mats and baskets. It is interesting how Western language already indicates our misunderstanding of these plants which grow in association with specific crops. Weeds are labelled as unkraut in German and as malas hierbas in Spanish, both terms having 'bad' as the common denominator.

Not only 'weeds', but also wild plants gathered from the proximity of cultivated areas, traditionally provide farmers with a precious source of vitamin-rich greens and dietary supplements. In Third World countries, collection of edible wild species is common practice in the pre-harvest season and a major resource in times of food shortage. East African farmers depend on various kinds of spinach, on locust beans, baobab leaves and other wild plants carefully maintained to palliate nutrition and supply problems. Wild plants are also critical components of traditional health-care products in many developing countries. Indications of the destructive toll chemical biocides have taken against these herbaceous sources of food and health are also hard to find in the impressive yield-increase statistics.

When, then, the masters of the Green Revolution calculate the enormous increases in wheat and rice production in the Third World and the resulting $50 billion increased value of these crops since 1965 ,25 many relevant figures are completely overlooked. The first question which has to be raised is how many billions of dollars in associated crop production were actually lost when farmers shifted to monoculture to make this increased value possible. A second question relates to the extra costs of such production systems, not only for the farmer in the form of extra chemical inputs but also for society in general in the form of environmental degradation. Finally, a very legitimate question is where the alleged $50 billion ended up. Certainly not in the pockets of the vast majority of Filipino and many other farmers, as we have seen above,