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A reasonable alternative to biotechnology

In 2008, billionaire philanthropists Bill Gates and Warren Buffet launched The Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) program to end hunger in African communities where populations are growing faster than their crops. To do this, WEMA uses biotechnology to create drought- and heat-tolerant types of corn.

Biotechnology is the manipulation of genetic plant material to produce a more useful product. It is a controversial method that involves corporations that develop and distribute the biotech grain for a price and takes away independence from small farmers and the surrounding communities that rely on their food.

Gates and Buffet teamed up with Monsanto, an agricultural biotechnology corporation. Monsanto has contributed in a similarly charitable manner by donating the engineered corn seeds. The company’s less than charitable history, however, suggests it will not be long before the company begins to demand payment.

The market for “climate ready” crops, such as corn that survives on smaller amounts of water, is expansive, particularly in Africa where droughts have led to water shortages. This fact has not escaped Gates, who invested $27.6 million buying 500,000 shares of stock in Monsanto, aside from the money spent funding WEMA.

But there are options in the effort to feed hungry nations. Agroecology is the merger of ecology or, the study of living organisms and their environments, with humanistic studies on food, fuel, medicine or population. It incorporates the principles of productivity and sustainability into an ecosystem using  natural and social sciences.

Agroecologists  realize there is no single cure for farmers, rather, specific needs for each ecosystem. They aim to cure agricultural ailments through individualized plans.

At a United Nations meeting in Brussels in June 2010, Olivier De Schutter, the U.N.’s special reporter on the Right to Food, presented a study that suggested agroecology was a smarter, more sustainable method farmers could use to increase harvests. He pointed out that a reform of farming techniques is necessary to protect our environment as well as to increase food production. Biotechnology, can only aid with the latter concern.

The success stories agroecology boasts are plentiful, particularly in South America and Africa where many countries have pro-agroecology policies.

In Tanzania, agroforestry made 350,000 hectares of land (formerly referred to as the “Desert of Tanzania”) farmable. And in a study conducted by Jules Pretty at Essex University, 286 agroecological projects in 57 developing countries found, on average, an increase in crop yields of 79 percent.

Investing in bioengineering does not benefit our environment, citizens of developing countries or small farmers. But it does benefit the corporations that sell genetically modified grain.

The modification of seeds and plants itself works to further privatize what ought to be a human right — food, the products of the earth. Investments made in agroecology are used to look at specific areas and develop plans based around their ecological, sociological and economic needs.

As Schutter states, “With more than a billion people on the planet, and the climate disruptions ahead of us, we must rapidly scale up these sustainable techniques.”

Biotechnology and its fancy designer seeds are not enough.

“Even if it makes the task more complex, we have to find a way of addressing global hunger, climate change and the depletion of natural resources, all at the same time. Anything short of this would be an exercise in futility.”

Perhaps Gates and Buffet should consider investing in a sustainable method to help end hunger.

Sage Hahn is an intern in Winsted’s Office of the Community Lawyer.

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