August 29, 2011

Is agricultural technology the answer to Malthus?

Just a quick update today, based on some interesting articles I've come across related to agricultural technology and climate change. To start, maybe you'd like to refresh your memory with some of my previous posts on this topic? For a few years now, I've been following news articles about agriculture and climate change, and I'm noticing a pretty obvious theme. Biotechnology(!) Climate models(!) Nanotechnology(!) and other promising new technologies in the pipeline are heralded as the next big thing in adapting agriculture to climate change. Listen, I don't want to sound like a ranting environmentalist here, but I believe there's value in taking a slightly more critical approach to these technological fixes. As I've said before, technology and technological innovation plays a hugely important role in global agriculture. Yet social contexts of innovation are equally important.

Rodrigo Cortes-Lobos, a graduate student at Georgia Institute of Technology, explores this is at CSPO's Soapbox. He proposes a participatory, adaptive management approach to developing agricultural technologies for smallholder farmers:
No matter the location, small farmers require new technology development, but under frameworks that foresee potential risks or disadvantage that the new technology can produce, with enough time to amend those negative consequences before the cost to the users is too high.
Related, here's an interesting article on the importance of farmer communication networks in adopting innovations: in this case, a radio program about new agricultural technologies.

Finally, two articles on food prices, climate change, and Malthusian predictions. This NYTimes article is from a few weeks ago, on Jeremy Grantham and his reframing of climate change as a resource depletion issue. His argument seems to be that if we can frame it this way, it will attract rich investors who respond to market signals. Grantham reflects classic neo-Malthusian views about population growth, soil degradation, and now climate change. He is hoping for a second Green Revolution, driven by commodity markets. The second article is by Michael J. Roberts, an agricultural economist and writer of this blog. Roberts has a great analysis of food price volatility, market signals, and climate change. But his proposed policy solutions are as follows:
First, we could restore some of the funding to crop sciences. Research dollars could be directed toward the basic research that private companies are less inclined to undertake. Some might also be aimed at developing crop varieties more tolerant of warmer temperatures. 
Second, we could persuade countries to reform their processes for approving new genetically modified crops. Ingo Potrykus’s genetically engineered golden rice, developed in 1999, promises to substantially reduce the millions of deaths worldwide each year that stem from vitamin A deficiency. But due to regulatory hurdles, this life-saving variety of rice will not reach the market until at least next year.
Sure, it might be great if we could have global regulatory standards for GMOs. But the likelihood of this happening? GMOs are one of the most value-laden, contentious topics in agriculture. Patent rights are a huge problem. And when are we going to get over Golden Rice? The chances of it ever significantly catching on seem to be getting slimmer. As for funding more basic research, it's one of the easiest to make because it sounds so apolitical. But research, from the outset, can be inherently political. Scientists and donors are driven by humanitarian pursuits, but how do we know they are the right ones? Who gets to decide what are appropriate research goals? Is it possible to ignore the reality that private research is driving the global agricultural agenda? Why are we so obsessed with sustaining staple crop production in regions that are struggling to keep up with market prices as is? What about developing livelihoods rather than substituting technological inputs? 

I'm wondering whether this blog post comes off as ranting? My goal is not to be anti-science or technology at all; but I think anytime we bring up accepted tropes such as Malthusianism, the Tragedy of the Commons, and other narratives that really don't have any empirical backing (again, "miracle rice"), it's worth delving a little deeper into these embedded assumptions about human behavior.

[UPDATE]
Here's some interesting opposing viewpoints to Malthus. Population: more than a number. Agroecology as the next green revolution. An academic article on agricultural research and technological lock-in. World Bank paper on seeds, biodiversity, and patents.

I promise that the pika blog post is coming soon! In the meantime, do a google image search for pikas.

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