I recently stumbled across an article from October of 2008 in the archives of the New York Times online about the development of drought resistant corn. The article sites that while people drink about a quart or two of water every day, the food in their diets, including meat and plants, requires 2,000 to 3,000 quarts of water to produce. Looking at it that way, when the meat we eat is first nourished by the plants that are grown, it seems that the introduction of such a plant would have an enormous impact. Monsanto, an agribusiness company, is one such company that is developing drought resistant corn (as well as other plants in the future), along with Syngenta. Corn is Monsanto’s biggest project, and estimates that this drought resistant corn will be implemented in 4 years, reaching the western fields of the Corn Belt (to states like Nebraska and Kansas) where rainfall is lower. Monsanto estimates that this will result in a 10% yield increase.
On the other end of the spectrum, research is going on in the University of California and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines to develop rice resistant to flooding, which would make an enormous impact in countries such as India where rice is grown in lowland terrain.
I bring this topic up because it hits a couple of issues. First of all, do we really want more corn? But a more fundamental question that can be applied to any food growth site is, are we fixing the problem, or are we just treating the symptom? Is the problem that plants aren’t getting enough water, or is the problem that water is not being distributed properly in a system sense?
It depends on where you look. Something else to consider is the impact that this new technology would have on small farmers: “The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a group working for improved farm productivity on that continent, has said that for now it would avoid genetic engineering because greater gains for small farmers can be made at lower cost using conventional breeding.”
In reading the organization’s detailed mission statement, it is apparent that their goals are to improve the agriculture in Africa using a holistic approach. They recognize the drought, desertification, and loss of biodiversity, but point to better and sustainable land management, that would provide new economic opportunities for enhanced rural development (#16) rather than implementation of genetically engineered products. They do however, ask the international community for knowledge, as well as increased technical assistance to “strengthen their national innovation capacity, inter alia, through research and development to increase agricultural production and improve competitiveness (#22).” AGRA also plans to develop their biofuels sector, “in ways which are consistent with our own food security and with principles of environmental sustainability and social equity (#26).” AGRA also recognizes the women workforce and proposes their empowerment through secure land tenure.
AGRA also recognizes many of the issues concerning agriculture, for example that rainfall in Africa is erratic, let alone minimal. In my opinion, it is important that they recognize that issue, because in this case the cost of the drought resistant crops would outweigh the minimal benefits.
Through the many of the readings we have gone through, such as the Twelve Myths book, it seems that as a class we have come to a few conclusions—that world hunger is not a material supply issue, but a distribution or system issue. Also, that genetic engineering will increase yield but will not work as a new method of agriculture for small farmers because or on a large scale because of issues such as unintentional cross-pollenization, sterile seeds that must be resupplied seasonally, and of course, the ethics of inserting a piece of genetic code from on organism into the genetic code of another. But water is not like a seed or an organism; it can’t be genetically modified, it can be purified or polluted, it can be bought and consumed, but it isn’t a product in the sense that it can’t really be manufactured or destroyed. It is not an element, but it is elemental.
Could we as an international community make an exception for genetic engineering when it concerns water? The Earth maybe mostly water, but we are running out of fresh water as it is, and large-scale purification practices such as desalinization are expensive and require a lot of energy. We have asked the question before, is food a commodity? Well, is water? We put a price on it in the vending machine, but when it comes down to it, water is water, playing in the weather, nourishing us around the world, and moves around the world, regardless of agribusiness, nation, or creed.
If large scale farms, such as the Corn Belt of the United States switch over to drought resistant crops, will others follow and to what degree will that affect the surrounding environment? Furthermore, if drought resistant crops are found to have a positive effect on the surrounding environment and on the water itself, is it the responsibility of the international community to likewise implement drought resistant crops?