2-Plants: Feeding the world without GM crops
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TITLE: Feeding the world without GM crops
SOURCE: AgBioIndia bulletin, Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security, India
DATE: Jan 03, 2003
------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------
03 January 2003
Subject: Feeding the world without GM crops
A US delegation, led by Senator Christopher Bond, met the Indian
Agriculture Minister, Mr Ajit Singh, in New Delhi on Dec 31, 2002, to
discuss mutual cooperation in biotechnology and allied crops. Cooperation
in the field of transgenic crops and products, viral research and genomics
and human resource development were also discussed.
Mr Ajit Singh, who is gung-ho over biotechnology, as he 'prepares' to
consolidate his faltering political base amongst the rich farmers (kulaks,
as they care called in India) after the sugarcane debacle, suggested
university-to-university cooperation programme in the area of agriculture
research and education. It was felt that experts of the two sides could
meet to develop a long-term action plan for collaboration. Agriculture
minister's proposal is a clear violation of the Prime Minister Atal Behari
Vajpayee's directive opposing any university-to-university scientific
research programmes. This directive was issued a few years back when Mr
Singh was not in the ruling-coalition government. Incidentally, Mr Singh
has also come under a heavy attack from the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, the angy
anti-globalisation cadre of the ruling BJP, for his anti-farmer activities.
A day earlier, the US delegation also addressed the Confederation of Indian
Industry (CII). And rightly so. Biotechnology is the major component of an
industrial food and agricultural agenda. The US industry therefore looks
forward to joint collaboration with the perpetually cash-starved Indian
industry, which is always moving around with a begging bowl!
The thrust of the US delegation's argument in support of biotechnology was
the usual rhetoric of 'feeding the world'.
Feeding or fooling world?
We begin a series of articles and reports, which should drop the biotech
brigade and their false promises of "feeding the world" into the dustbins
of history. These reports will appear periodically.
1. Ancient Amazonian farming methods increases yield by 880 per cent -- BBC
2. Organic system doubles rice yield
1. Ancient Amazonian farming methods increases yield by 880 per cent -- BBC
Horizon programme: The Secret of El Dorado Thursday, 19 Dec 2002, BBC2
summary available at
and full transcript also available.
The programme showed how in the time before the Conquistadors invaded,
large and sophisticated Amazonian civilisations fed themselves sustainably
(until they were wiped out by Western diseases brought by Conquistadors) by
a system of organic farming which transformed the naturally thin, poor
rainforest soil into rich, black, self-renewing fertile stuff that produced
massive yields in a small amount of land.
In a modern trial of the ancient Amazonian farming methods, using
experimental plots, yields were increased by 880% over plots using the
modern intensive farming methods.
- NOT slash and burn, which is what the corporate-driven agriculture is
making South American farmers do at the moment. This only leads to rain
washing out the few nutrients remaining in the soil, making the land
sterile within 3 growing seasons and forcing the farmers to move on
-NOT the addition of mineral fertiliser alone, another bright idea of
corporate ag, which in experimental plots showed hardly any improvement in
yield over slash and burn with no fertiliser
-NOT genetic engineering, which has singularly failed to boost yield or to
produce the much-vaunted crops for marginal soils [the program, oddly for a
series which has previously hyped the "benefits" of GM in feeding the
world, didn't mention GM; but anyone aware of GM hype could not fail to
note the absurdity of the superstitious faith placed in this useless
technology, in the light of what man and nature can do when they work in
The key to producing massive yields in poor rainforest soil is
- scorching off the ground regularly with small fires and incorporating
vegetable charcoal into the soil; incorporating fallen leaves/vegetation;
and (in the modern experiment) adding mineral fertiliser
- allowing billions of soil microbes to do the rest.
People who know a little about organic farming will note that there is
little that is new about this. Incorporating lots of organic matter into
the soil and encouraging a living soil by avoiding toxic chemicals has
always been a mainstay of organic farming. And organic farming supporters
will either be amused or appalled at the apparent amazement of the
scientists involved in this project at their "discovery" that the soil is
"living". However, I haven't heard specifically of the vegetable charcoal
method before -- though I remain open to correction by any farming experts
The bottom line (can the biotech brigade genetically engineer a crop that
can better this?): "In experimental plots, adding a combination of charcoal
and [mineral] fertiliser into the rainforest soil boosted yields by 880 per
cent compared with fertiliser alone."
Excerpts from summary:
In 1542, the Spanish Conquistador, Francisco de Orellana ventured along the
Rio Negro, one of the Amazon Basin's great rivers. Hunting a hidden city of
gold, his expedition found a network of farms, villages and even huge
walled cities. At least that is what he told an eager audience on his
return to Spain.
The prospect of gold drew others to explore the region, but none could find
the people of whom the first Conquistadors had spoken. The missionaries who
followed a century later reported finding just isolated tribes of hunter-
gatherers. Orellana's story seemed to be no more than a fanciful myth.
A proven liar?
When scientists came to weigh up the credibility of Orellana's words, they
reached the same conclusion. As productive as the rainforest may appear,
the soil it stands in is unsuited to farming. It is established belief that
all early civilisations have agriculture at their hearts. Any major
population centre will have connections with a system of intensive
agriculture. If a soil cannot support crops sufficient to feed a large
number of people, then that serves as an effective cap on the population in
that area. Even modern chemicals and techniques have failed to generate
significant food from Amazonian soil in a sustainable way. The thought that
indigenous people could have survived in any number - let alone prospered -
was dismissed by most scientists. Scientific consensus was sure that the
original Amazonians lived in small semi-nomadic bands and that Orellana
must have lied.
Clues from the Bolivian savannah
Bolivia's Llanos de Mojos (Mojos Plains) are 2,000km from Orellana's route
down the main channel of the Amazon. The terrain is savannah grassland with
extreme seasons - floods in the wet; fires in the dry. Crops are hard to
grow and few people live there. But back in the 1960s archaeologist Bill
Denevan noted that the landscape was crossed with unnaturally straight
lines. Large areas were also covered with striped patterns.
Recently, Denevan's work has been followed up by Clark Erickson, a
landscape archaeologist. His attention was drawn to the numerous forest
islands dotted across the savannah like oases. Down on the ground he found
them littered with prehistoric pot sherds, a clear sign of early human
habitation. Some mounds were as much as 18m high and much of the pottery
was on a grand scale as well. Such huge vessels were too big for wandering
nomads. Here were permanent settlements, where hundreds or even thousands
of people had once gathered for huge ceremonies. To Erickson, these were
signs of an advanced society - a civilisation.
Denevan and Erickson have shown that the striped patterns are relics of a
system of raised fields. From the air, the area which appears to have been
turned over to such agriculture is clear. It covers thousands of square
kilometres. In conjunction with the controlled irrigation a canal network
might offer, it could have sustained hundreds of thousands of people.
Erickson believes the Mojos Plains were home to a society which had totally
mastered its environment.
If land now little suited to agriculture could once have supported hordes
of people, is there a chance Orellana's mythical El Dorado has some basis
When anthropologist Michael Heckenberger met the Kuikuru tribe in the
central Amazon he was impressed by the complexity of their social
structure. Why, he wondered, would a tribe of just 300 people adopt such a
hierarchical way of life? (Received opinion held that Amazonian tribes were
small, egalitarian societies.) He found evidence that the Kuikuru had once
lived in an integrated network of villages, each one many times the size of
their modern-day settlements. Heckenberger believes the prehistoric Kuikuru
were not the semi-nomadic wanderers of anthropological theory. Instead,
they lived in large chiefdoms - the advanced society described by Orellana.
The secret of the soil
The search for clues in the Amazon takes place at grass roots level - in
the soil itself. Along Brazil's Tapajos River, archaeologist Bill Woods has
mapped numerous prehistoric sites, some with exquisite, 2,000 year old
pottery. There is a common thread: the earth where people have lived is
much darker than the rainforest soil nearby. Closer investigation showed
that the two soils are the same, the dark loam is just a result of adding
biological matter. The Brazilians call this fertile ground terra preta. It
is renowned for its productivity and even sold by local people.
Archaeologists have surveyed the distribution of terra preta and found it
correlates favourably with the places Orellana reported back in the 16th
century. The land area is immense - twice the size of the UK. It seems the
prehistoric Amazonian peoples transformed the earth beneath their feet. The
terra preta could have sustained permanent intensive agriculture, which in
turn would have fostered the development of advanced societies.
Archaeologists like Bill Petersen, from the University of Vermont, now
regard Orellana's account as highly plausible... [describes how Amazonian
populations were wiped out by diseases brought by Conquistadores] Yet the
Amazonians' greatest achievement lives on. Soil scientists analysing the
terra preta have found its characteristics astonishing, especially its
ability to maintain nutrient levels over hundreds of years. 20th century
techniques of farming on cleared, torched rainforest - so-called slash and
burn agriculture - have never been sustainable. With the vegetation burned
off, the high rainfall soon leaches all the nutrients out of the soil.
Research has shown that even chemical fertilisers cannot maintain crop
yields into a third consecutive growing season, yet terra preta remains
fertile year after year.
Nature and nurture
Again, Orellana's accounts offer potential insight. He reported that the
indigenous people used fire to clear their fields. Bruno Glaser, from the
University of Bayreuth, has found that terra preta is rich in charcoal,
incompletely burnt wood. He believes it acts to hold the nutrients in the
soil and sustain its fertility from year to year. This is the great secret
of the early Amazonians: how to nurture the soil towards lasting
productivity. In experimental plots, adding a combination of charcoal and
fertiliser into the rainforest soil boosted yields by 880% compared with
Yet terra preta may have a still more remarkable ability. Almost as if
alive, it appears to reproduce. Bill Woods has met local farmers who mine
the soil commercially. They find that, as long as 20cm of terra preta is
left undisturbed, the bed will regenerate over a period of about 20 years.
He suspects that a combination of bacteria and fungi is causing this effect.
Today, scientists are busy searching for the biological cocktail that makes
barren earth productive. If they can succeed in recreating the Amerindians'
terra preta, then a legacy more precious than the gold the Conquistadors
sought could spare the rainforest from destruction and help feed people
across the developing world.
[Thanks to NGIN for this transcript]
2. Organic system doubles rice yield
Philippines (December 20, 2002) - Norman Uphoff, director of Cornell
University's International Institute for Food and Agriculture Development
(CIIFAD), told visiting Filipino journalists in a lecture last month about
a purely organic system of rice planting developed in Madagascar, which
claims to increase rice yield per hectare by as much as 100 per cent -
doubling average rice yields of 3.5 metric tons (MT) per hectare to as much
as 8 MT.
Mr. Uphoff noted that even he himself doubted the system until it underwent
several field tests in different countries, including China, Indonesia and
the Philippines, which showed that the system's success could be
replicated. The system of rice intensification (SRI) grew out of insights
gained by Fr. Henri de Laulanie, S. J., from his three decades of work with
rice growing farmers in Madagascar.
Mr. Uphoff said the objective of SRI is not to maximize yields but rather
to achieve higher productivity from the factors of production devoted to
rice--land, labor, capital and water.
Some of the elements of the system are:
- plants are grown in less water and grow deeper and larger roots
- early transplanting - before 15 days after they emerge in their nursery
- trauma to seedlings and especially to their roots should be minimized
-since rice planted using SRI have large roots, wide spacing of plants will
lead to greater root growth and accompanying tillering
- adding organic matter to the soil also creates beneficial conditions for
plant root growths.
In a paper presented during an assessment of SRI field tests in China last
April, Robert Gasparillo, program coordinator for Broad Initiatives for
Negros Development (BIND), showed the promise of SRI can be replicated in
the Philippines. Mr. Gasparillo said farmers found SRI interesting because
it was able to increase yield to an average of 6.9 MT per hectare from non-
SRI yield of only 3.5 MT. Moreover, SRI requires less amount of water--only
10% of what is required in traditional rice planting methods, allowing the
farmer more flexibility.
Mr. Gasparillo also noted some constraints that may hamper the rapid
adoption of the system in the Philippines such as high labour requirement
for planting single seedlings, golden snail infestation in a newly
transplanted field, can also be a problem and problems where draining of
water could be difficult.
Mr. Uphoff said that since SRI is not advocated as a technology but rather
a set of principles that can help farmers grow better yielding rice, those
who will adopt the system are encouraged to experiment around the basic
principles. "Farmers should be encouraged to test, vary and evaluate the
practices, adapting them to their own field conditions and taking factors
like their labor constraints into account," he said.
[Source : www.organicts.com/bworld.com.ph]
The AgBioIndia bulletins are an effort by the Forum for Biotechnology &
Food Security to bridge the yawning gap in our understanding of the
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