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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?

Biotechnology, the solution?

Biotechnology is often heralded as the tool to correct the problems and shortcomings of the Green Revolution. Talk of new pest, drought, frost and stress resistant plants, especially relevant for small farmers, dominates virtually every conference on the matter. If one assesses that a main problem of the Green Revolution was its emphasis on crops rather than on farmers and their sophisticated farming systems, one should ask whether the new biotechnologies will help to redirect this focus. This new set of technologies opens up huge possibilities to penetrate much deeper into the molecular structure of the plant and its genetic components. While this offers a tremendous potential for crop improvement itself, it does not necessarily promise a type of research that takes the farmer as a starting point while reversing the current top-down approach to agricultural development. In the midst of the soil and water crisis, biotechnology's solution to salinization points to salt tolerant plants, while desertification is handled with research on drought resistant crops. Such solutions are very appealing but what of the factors that cause the problems in the first place? Indeed, as scientists search more intensively in their laboratories to find even more miracle remedies, the current top-down approach might be reinforced rather than reversed. Even at the plant level, as we have seen with the Rockefeller survey cited above, the shortcomings of the Green Revolution are only in part technological. Much more numerous are the problems that have never been seriously addressed. Will the big-revolution try to find solutions for farming problems which were never seriously looked at before?

Finally, there is a problem with interference. While the International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs) were the lonely protagonists of the Green Revolution, the biotechnology revolution is eyed by a plethora of actors as highly promising territory. As we shall see in following chapters, this is especially the case for transnational corporations in the industrialized North. Apart from competition for the technology, there will be a competition for the market. This is likely to trigger off a whole series of negative implications for developing countries, which in many cases might prove to offset most of the possible benefits. In a much used and highly illustrative table (Table 2.2) originally drawn up by researchers at Cornell University in the USA, the Green and big-revolutions are compared. It shows the tremendous scale on which the big-revolution operates, compared to the Green Revolution. Perhaps more importantly, it points to the 'side-effects' of a technology being developed almost exclusively by and for the industrialized nations. These problematic, indirect effects might prove to be the main ones for developing countries if research priorities and international structures are not drastically reformulated.

Table 2.2 Comparing the Green Revolution and biorevolution

Notes and references

1. Quoted in R. Modina, A. Ridao, IRRI Rice: The Miracle That Never Was, ACES Foundation, Quezon City, 1987.

2. World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987.

3. The World Bank's preliminary estimate for 1989 is $51.6 billion. In World Debt Tables 1989-1990, Vol. 1, Table 2, World Bank, Washington, December 1989, p.9.

4. Susan George, A Fate Worsethan Debt, Penguin Books, London 1988,p.73.

5. All data on erosion in this paragraph from WCED, 1987, op. cit., p.125.

6. Total rice and wheat area in Third World calculated at 228 million hectares in 1983. In J. R. Anderson et al. Science and Food the CGIAR and its Partners, World Bank, Washington, 1988, pp.19-20.

7. WCED, Food 2000, A Report to the World Commission on Environment and Development, Zed Books, London, 1987, p.62.

8. Ibid.

9. Estimates from B. Vohra, quoted by R. N. Roy,'Trees: Appropriate tools for water and soil management' in B. Glaeser (ed.), The Green Revolution Reyisited, Allen & Unwin, London, 1987, p.115.

10. Lloyd Timberlake, Africa in Crisis, Earthscan, London, 1985, p.79.

11. J. R. Anderson et al., 1988, op. cit.

12. Asian Development Bank. 'Asian Agriculture Survey 1976', Manila, 1977. Quoted in R. Modina, A. Ridao, 1987, op. cit., pp.15-16.

13. Pierre Spitz, 'The Green Revolution Re-examined in India', in B. Glaeser (ed.), 1987, op. cit., pp.56-76.

14. Ademar Romeiro, 'Alternative Developments in Brazil', in B. Glaeser (ed.), 1987, op. cit., pp.79-l10.

15. Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive, Kali for Women, Delhi, 1988 end Zed Books, London, 1989.

16. J. R. Anderson et al., 1988, op. cit.,p.28.

17. See for example Andrew Pearse, Seeds of Plenty, Seeds of Want, UNRISD, Geneva, 1980. UNRISD drew up several other studies on the impact of the Green Revolution.

18. Cunnington Putzel, Gaining Ground: Agrarian Reform in the Philippines, War on Want, London, 1989, p.30.

19, R. Modina, A. Ridao, 1987, op. cit., pp.35-42.

20. Vandana Shiva, 1989, op. cit., p.124.

21. Pierre Spitz, 1987, op. cit., p. 66.

22. Vandana Shiva, 1989, op. cit., p. l 24.

23. Rene Salazar, personal communication, April 1989, Uppsala, Sweden.

24. R. Modina, A. Ridao, 1987, op. cit., p.54.

25. J. R. Anderson et al., 1988, op. cit., p.29.

26. See R. W. Herdt, 'Equity Considerations in Setting Priorities of Third World Rice Biotechnology Research', in Development, special issue on biotechnology, Society of International Development (SID), 1987, No.4, Rome, 1987, pp.19-26.