|GM ag a "sacred cow" in Iowa (6/11/2005)
There's a real irony to these comments given that they were prompted by a talk at Iowa State University given around the same time that ISU sacked Fred Kischenmann as director of its Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture"
"being at the heart of this global transformation, Iowans owe it to ourselves to consider every side as we debate the future of our state and its role in the world."
Basu: A voice against crop manipulation
There are good reasons for the sacredness. Iowa's Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for crossing strains of wheat to invent high-yield, resistant varieties that allowed Third World farmers to increase production. He was dubbed the father of the Green Revolution and credited with helping stem world hunger. Iowans were understandably proud.
But he's not the only reason crop manipulation is sacred here. Biotechnology accounts for 60 percent of corn and 91 percent of soybean planted in Iowa this year. Biotech crops get exported under free-trade agreements and bring in the bucks to the farm industry.
There is, however, another point of view on it, one that seldom gets equal press time, partly because it's hard to reduce to sound bites. But it was presented last Monday at Iowa State University by perhaps its most renowned spokesperson, Vandana Shiva - in the same month as the World Food Prize Borlaug founded.
Shiva, a physicist, author and environmental activist, is from India, which also produced this year's food prize winner. She opposes both free trade and the Green Revolution.
While independent Iowa farmers have spoken out against the reshaping of agriculture by factory farming, Shiva offers a view from the other side of the world.
She blasts the introduction of a "monoculture" to replace the biodiversity of traditional agrarian societies like India's. India's agricultural center, Punjab, used to grow 250 crops before the Green Revolution. Now it's down to the two that were chemically altered - wheat and rice. Even the staple of Punjab's diet - corn - is gone from cultivation.
But that hasn't prevented hunger or promoted peace, argues Shiva. Global trade treaties have forced down crop prices and resulted in some 40,000 farmers' suicides, she says. Globalization is "lowering the price of products by extracting resources faster than their renewability and than paying lower wages."
The new form of cultivation doesn't really bring cheaper food because there are higher costs to livelihoods, the environment, health and nutrition, she claims, adding, "There's a way in which we can trick our minds through a monoculture, and even while we destroy systems, even while we undo productivity, even while we produce less, we can actually pretend we are doing more."
Free trade is anything but free to farmers in the developing world, when American producers get government subsidies and they can't compete. The $4 billion the government pays American cotton producers, for example, has put many African counterparts out of business.
Globalization also demands the privatizing of common resources such as forests and waterways in the name of "modernization." Even the air, which can't technically be privatized, gets effectively taken over when a company pumps pollutants into it. Neither is good for communities.
Shiva, who works with small-scale Indian farmers, has won legal battles against the "intellectual property rights" and "biopiracy" provision of free trade, through which Western companies manipulate crops used for traditional purposes, and then declare them new inventions to be patented.
Iowa has been at the center of exporting a global monoculture, Shiva said, but if enough farmers joined with consumers, it could instead become a center of agricultural diversity - "first at home, then abroad."
Even assuming she's right - and there's a danger of oversimplifying - is it really practical or possible to turn the clock back?
Maybe, maybe not. But being at the heart of this global transformation, Iowans owe it to ourselves to consider every side as we debate the future of our state and its role in the world.