Friday, 24 April 2015

Beliefs, evidence? What should we rely on?

Two examples today of small farmers in developing countries making progress, doing better. One is a story we can all celebrate, women who decided to work together and seek advice on more natural farming practices, increasing yields, lowering pesticide exposure, and making some money.

The other story will have darker connotations for many. It's a dreaded GMO, this one an eggplant with the natural insecticide  bacillus thuringiensis.

There are few things that generate a more lively discussion than GMO's. I've written a lot about it over the years, and am always trying to understand the science, the emotion, the evidence. This article tries to tackle both.

I fully understand and agree with the negative reaction to Patrick Moore's latest adventures..

Moore just makes my head hurt, and I'm trying to better understand Bill Nye's apparent conversion. I think we've drawn the line so rigidly about what a GMO is (don't forget that genetic modification has been going on for hundreds of years through conventional breeding), and yes Monsanto is evil etc etc, but I don't want to see a corporate bad actor prevent people from potential benefits. But I could be wrong. So some things to consider from the "nothing is easy" department.

In India, Profitable Farming With Fewer Chemicals

Fixes looks at solutions to social problems and why they work.
The earth beneath Lakshmi Karre’s sparse cotton crop is hard and dry. Dressed in a flowery orange sari, she squats in the large gap between two plants and tugs at some brittle leaves, turned speckled brown by a fungal disease known as cotton rust.
“When I was young we used to get 100 cotton bolls per plant,” she says. “There was no gap between the plants. Now they give only 9 or 10 bolls.”
In recent years Lakshmi has seen pests and disease increasingly damage her small cotton field in Telangana, a state in southeastern India. To protect her yields she did the only thing she knew how, and bought more and more costly pesticides and fertilizers. But it was no use. “We sprayed chemicals so much to get rid of insects that our crop was destroyed, too,” says Lakshmi“Farming has become a burden.”
Lakshmi is one of millions of smallholder farmers struggling to make a living in India. Andhra Pradesh, the larger state from which Telangana was split off in June 2014, has long been one of the country’s major producers of rice, cotton and lentils, but by the 1990s yields began to stagnate.
The overuse of agrochemicals by some farmers was depleting soil health and promoting pesticide resistance among insects, as well as contributing to high costs, pollution and illness among farmers. In addition, irrigation was poor and credit was often extortionate.
By 2005, 82 percent of the state’s farmers were in debt. Smallholders with less than two hectares of land, most of whom were women, were the worst hit.
Clearly, something needed to be done, but many farmers felt trapped: Their primary sources of farming advice and credit were the commercial dealers who sold them pesticides and fertilizer, and bought their harvest.
It was only when rural women were empowered to take charge that things began to change.
A niche experiment in eco-farming that started with a few hundred smallholders has now spread to include more than 2 million smallholders. Today they cultivate around 15 percent of the arable land in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana without using pesticides.
It’s a scale few similar projects could dream of. So how did they do it?
The story begins in the late 1990s when poor women in rural areas started forming self-help groups to reduce their debts, save money and pull themselves out of poverty. During a particularly bad year in 2004, when farmer suicides peaked, they decided they had to do something about agriculture.
In the same year, news spread of a small village called Punukula, where all 200 farmers had ditched pesticides — and were reporting good yields as well as financial savings. The change was led by a rural development organization under the guidance of a group of agronomists now known as the Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
A government antipoverty agency that was already supporting the women’s groups thought the techniques used in Punukula could be just what they were looking for. “The women demanded two things. “One: make farming profitable. Two: help us take the poison out of our food chain,” says D.V. Raidu, an official at the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty. So the society recruited some of the organizations involved in Punukula to start training self-help group members to farm without pesticides.
Since then, these techniques have spread far and wide through funding from the World Bank and the Indian government — to the tune of $9.5 million in 2013. At a small farm plot in the Medak district I met more than a dozen members of a women’s self-help group, chest deep in a bushy green crop of a legume called pigeon pea, searching for bugs. Armed with what looked like sandwich bags, they were grabbing anything that moved — big green caterpillars, small hairy brown bugs and long-winged beetles. “Today we’re identifying which are the pests and which are the farmer-friendly insects,” says Sashikala Yerolla, a pregnant 29-year-old dressed in a red and gold sari. “Then we will count up how many we have of each.” If the pests have the upper hand, she explains to the group, they will need to make a natural insecticide to spray on the crop.
The methods Yerolla teaches are based on the well-established theory ofintegrated pest management, which emphasizes understanding and strengthening the farm ecosystem. But if that line of defense fails, Yerolla teaches the women to make their own cheaper bio-pesticides from local resources, rather than spraying chemical pesticides. On the day I visited, they made a solution from cow urine, cow dung and ground leaves from neem trees, which produce azadirachtin, a substance that interferes with insect reproduction, as well as inhibiting growth and nutrition.
Once they’ve mastered pest control, farmers progress to other agroecological techniques designed to use local resources to improve the health of the farm. These include using compost, dung and nitrogen-fixing plants like the aquatic fern azolla to improve soil fertility, as well as rainwater harvesting and seed saving. Put together, these techniques are known as community managed sustainable agriculture. In addition to ditching pesticides, farmers who reach this stage often cut their fertilizer use, commonly by half.
“In the beginning my neighbors laughed and didn’t believe, but now that we have good yields they are following this practice too.” says one farmer, Lalithamma Ayidala, as she collects cow urine from a special container by her cowshed. “Economically it’s also good, we are making our own pesticides and seeds, we don’t need to use the outside dealers.”;
Andhra Pradesh’s network of more than a million self-help groups has been essential to helping the program grow, according to T. Vijay Kumar, a Ministry of Rural Affairs official who was formerly the head of the antipoverty agency. The self-help groups consist of 10 to 12 women who meet weekly and start by saving money and lending it between members — a model that’s shown promise internationally, and is the subject of a previous Fixes column.
“Without this institutional architecture it won’t work,” says Kumar. This is because farmers need to be persuaded to try a completely new way of farming, something that “happens through the group meetings, and through the credibility that the self-help groups have in the women’s lives,” he says. “They get the courage to try it from the group.”
Once convinced, farmers also need continuing support to learn the new techniques. This is provided through field classes, such as the lesson I saw Yerolla teach on pest monitoring. Rather than relying solely on outsiders to give farming advice, the program employs successful farmers like Yerolla to become community-based trainers. “They practice it themselves, and only then do they teach it”, says Kumar. “This means trust in them is very high.” There are now over 14,000 working across Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
More From Fixes
Read previous contributions to this series.
The self-help groups are also the administrative backbone of the program — appointing staff and providing cheap bank loans for farmers. Men can join as students and trainers, but are still managed by the women’s groups.
According to a Ministry of Agriculture evaluation, farmers report saving around $35-$50 from reduced chemical use, as well as harvesting an average of 220-440 pounds more per acre of various crops, including rice. The total financial benefit to each farmer was estimated at up to $135.
These results fit with international research compiled by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization showing that agroecological techniques can improve productivity, for example by improving soil fertility and structure. They can also reduce pollution (PDF), increase biodiversity and help mitigate climate change by increasing the amount of carbon stored in the soil. (PDF) But without a control group for comparison, we can’t be sure whether the gains reported in Andhra Pradesh are attributable to the program or other factors.
Some remain skeptical of the sustainable agriculture program, and the use of bio-pesticides is controversial among some local agricultural scientists. Critics say that variations in the potency of neem and a lack of standardization of ingredients mean that effectiveness can’t be guaranteed.
Another issue is the extra time and labor required to prepare natural inputs. The antipoverty agency says it has helped villagers establish more than 6,000 nonchemical management shops that sell ready-made natural pesticides and fertilizer. But more are needed, says Venu Madhav, director of Secure, one of the nongovernmental organizations that pioneered pesticide-free farming.
The program has reached “a very significant scale” says Parmesh Shah, lead rural development specialist for South Asia at the World Bank, but one reason it hasn’t become mainstream yet is that farmers — particularly the poorest — need a lot of support to adopt the techniques. “It is an experimentation- and knowledge-intensive program,” he says, “and requires facilitation and hand-holding in the beginning.”
The Indian government is now expanding the sustainable agriculture program to five more states, starting with the establishment of self-help groups.
Back at farmer field school, Yerolla is optimistic about the future of pesticide-free farming in her area. “In the first year we had 100 members, then 180, then 250,” she says. “People are joining and realizing this is a better way of farming.” As dusk approaches, dragonflies buzz overhead and birds chirp in the trees. “The birds which you see are friendly,” she says. “They come and eat the insects on the plants. Animals, people, crops — everything will be healthy.”

How I Got Converted to G.M.O. Food

NAIROBI, Kenya — Mohammed Rahman doesn’t know it yet, but his small farm in central Bangladesh is globally significant. Mr. Rahman, a smallholder farmer in Krishnapur, about 60 miles northwest of the capital, Dhaka, grows eggplant on his meager acre of waterlogged land.
As we squatted in the muddy field, examining the lush green foliage and shiny purple fruits, he explained how, for the first time this season, he had been able to stop using pesticides. This was thanks to a new pest-resistant variety of eggplant supplied by the government-run Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute.
Despite a recent hailstorm, the weather had been kind, and the new crop flourished. Productivity nearly doubled. Mr. Rahman had already harvested the small plot 10 times, he said, and sold the brinjal (eggplant’s name in the region) labeled “insecticide free” at a small premium in the local market. Now, with increased profits, he looked forward to being able to lift his family further out of poverty. I could see why this was so urgent: Half a dozen shirtless kids gathered around, clamoring for attention. They all looked stunted by malnutrition.
In a rational world, Mr. Rahman would be receiving support from all sides. He is improving the environment and tackling poverty. Yet the visit was rushed, and my escorts from the research institute were nervous about permitting me to speak with him at all.
The new variety had been subjected to incendiary coverage in the local press, and campaign groups based in Dhaka were suing to have the pest-resistant eggplant banned. Activists had visited some of the fields and tried to pressure the farmers to uproot their crops. Our guides from the institute warned that there was a continuing threat of violence — and they were clearly keen to leave.
Why was there such controversy? Because Mr. Rahman’s pest-resistant eggplant was produced using genetic modification. A gene transferred from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (more commonly known by the abbreviation “Bt”), produces a protein that kills the Fruit and Shoot Borer, a species of moth whose larvae feed on the eggplant, without the need for pesticide sprays. (The protein is entirely nontoxic to other insects and indeed humans.)
Conventional eggplant farmers in Bangladesh are forced to spray their crops as many as 140 times during the growing season, and pesticide poisoning is a chronic health problem in rural areas. But because Bt brinjal is a hated G.M.O., or genetically modified organism, it is Public Enemy No.1 to environmental groups everywhere.
The stakes are especially high because Mr. Rahman is one of only 108 farmers in Bangladesh currently permitted to try out the new variety. Moreover, this is among the first genetically modified food crops to be grown by farmers anywhere in the developing world. Virtually every crop, in every other country, has so far been blocked.
In neighboring India, green campaigners managed to secure a nationwide moratorium against the genetically modified eggplant in 2010. In the Philippines, a Greenpeace-led coalition has tied up the variety in litigation for two years. Greenpeace activists took the precaution of wrecking field trials first, by pulling up the plants.
I, too, was once in that activist camp. A lifelong environmentalist, I opposedgenetically modified foods in the past. Fifteen years ago, I even participated in vandalizing field trials in Britain. Then I changed my mind.
After writing two books on the science of climate change, I decided I could no longer continue taking a pro-science position on global warming and an anti-science position on G.M.O.s.
There is an equivalent level of scientific consensus on both issues, I realized, that climate change is real and genetically modified foods are safe. I could not defend the expert consensus on one issue while opposing it on the other.
In Africa, however, countries have fallen like dominoes to anti-G.M. campaigns. I am writing this at a biotechnology conference in Nairobi, where the government slapped a G.M.O. import ban in 2012 after activists brandished pictures of rats with tumors and claimed that G.M. foods caused cancer.
The origin of the scare was a French scientific paper that was later retracted by the journal in which it was originally published because of numerous flaws in methodology. Yet Kenya’s ban remains, creating a food-trade bottleneck that will raise prices, worsening malnutrition and increasing poverty for millions.
In Uganda, the valuable banana crop is being devastated by a new disease called bacterial wilt, while the starchy cassava, a subsistence staple, has been hit by two deadly viruses. Biotech scientists have produced resistant varieties of both crops using genetic modification, but anti-G.M.O. groups have successfully prevented the Ugandan Parliament from passing a biosafety law necessary for their release.
An eminent Ghanaian scientist whom I met recently had received such a high level of harassment from campaigners that he was considering taking a dossier to the police. Activists in his country have also gone to court to stall progress in biotech development.
The environmental movement’s war against genetic engineering has led to a deepening rift with the scientific community. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science showed a greater gap between scientists and the public on G.M.O.s than on any other scientific controversy: While 88 percent of association scientists agreed it was safe to eat genetically modified foods, only 37 percent of the public did — a gap in perceptions of 51 points. (The gap on climate change was 37 points; on childhood vaccinations, 18 points.)
On genetic engineering, environmentalists have been markedly more successful than climate change deniers or anti-vaccination campaigners in undermining public understanding of science. The scientific community is losing this battle. If you need visual confirmation of that, try a Google Images search for the term “G.M.O.” Scary pictures proliferate, from an archetypal evil scientist injecting tomatoes with a syringe — an utterly inaccurate representation of the real process of genetic engineering — to tumor-riddled rats and ghoulish chimeras like fish-apples.
In Europe, leaders in Brussels propose to empower all member states of the European Union to ban genetically modified crops, if they so wish. Hungary has even written anti-G.M.O. ideology into its Constitution. Peru has enacted a 10-year moratorium.
As someone who participated in the early anti-G.M.O. movement, I feel I owe a debt to Mr. Rahman and other farmers in developing countries who could benefit from this technology. At Cornell, I am working to amplify the voices of farmers and scientists in a more informed conversation about what biotechnology can bring to food security and environmental protection.
No one claims that biotech is a silver bullet. The technology of genetic modification can’t make the rains come on time or ensure that farmers in Africa have stronger land rights. But improved seed genetics can make a contribution in all sorts of ways: It can increase disease resistance and drought tolerance, which are especially important as climate change continues to bite; and it can help tackle hidden malnutritional problems like vitamin A deficiency.
We need this technology. We must not let the green movement stand in its way.

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