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 Unproductive Debates:
The Green Revolution, biotechnology and agricultural diversity
By
Robert Tripp
  
Keywords:  Green Revolution; Genetic improvement (plants). 
Correct citation: Tripp, R. (1997), "Unproductive Debates: The Green Revolution, biotechnology and agricultural diversity." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 32, p. 24. 

Eric Ross (Monitor No.26) and Heinrich von Loesch (Monitor No.29) presented two opposing views about agricultural technology and development. According to Robert Tripp this immensely important discussion is too often conducted using language and imagery that are rigid and oversimplistic. Terms like "Green Revolution", "biotechnology" and "diversity" are used with political purposes that often ignore the complexities and subtleties of agricultural change.
The critics of agricultural technology look at the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s with legitimate concern. It was often directed to better endowed areas that had access to irrigation and other infrastructure. In certain countries it linked agricultural campaigns to repressive political regimes. Perhaps most importantly, it was managed in a top­down fashion. Not surprisingly, the impact of the Green Revolution on the rural poor has been stronger in those countries and areas where resources and power were more equitably distributed initially. Current efforts in conventional agricultural research and biotechnology are subject to the same concerns. However, the critics often dismiss the considerable accomplishments of agricultural technology in raising incomes and improving diets.

In one view, modern crop varieties (MVs), whether the products of biotechnology or conventional plant breeding, are seen as completely distinct from the local varieties (LVs) that are the products of farmer selection and improvement. MVs are seen by their critics as destroyers of diversity, sources of risk, and the partners of industrial conspiracy. In contrast, those on the opposite side see LVs as the remnants of unproductive agriculture and obstacles to progress. Neither view does justice to the considerable human achievement represented by both farmer and scientific variety development.
MVs have replaced many LVs, and this has certainly affected crop diversity. But the change is not easy to characterize. The success of MVs is usually due to their superior yield, but because they are bred for wide adaptation they are not always well suited to particular crop management practices or consumer preferences. In response, farmers often switch between MVs and LVs, or retain a mixture of varieties. The same trade­offs will be evident in transgenic varieties. For instance, what sacrifices in crop quality will farmers be willing to accept to acquire better insect resistance? A more serious problem with the adoption of MVs is the danger that large areas are planted with a single variety. This leaves farmers much more susceptible to the failure of a particular variety. This is certainly a problem with transgenic varieties, as the rush to market the Bacillus thuringiensis gene illustrates. The answer to use the same science to develop varieties that address a more diverse set of demands. The concerns with equity are very relevant. The poor are not in a position to demand diversity. Increasing farmers' income and political voice is the best way of ensuring that science addresses a more diverse audience.
There is widespread agreement about the danger of relying on a few varieties with a narrow genetic base. However, many critics also see MVs as intrinsically more risky than LVs. This view is condescending to farmers' decision­making capacities. MVs are rejected when they do not perform as well as farmers' own varieties. But frequently MVs are recognized by farmers as offering significant advantages in stabilizing their production. A common case is the adoption of an early­maturing variety that allows farmers to cope better with uncertain rainfall patterns. The supposed susceptibility of MVs to pests and diseases is again an oversimplification. Indeed, one of the principal contributions of biotechnology applications to plant breeding is the ability to improve the search for pest and disease resistance.

Critics of agricultural technology, and of biotechnology in particular, see a conspiracy that links genetic improvement to the promotion of chemical inputs. A quick glance at the investment in herbicide­resistant crops is sufficient to lend considerable sympathy to this view. However, part of the recent marriage between seed companies and the chemical industry was motivated by the prospect of crop varieties, such as those with bt genes. There is a parallel belief that MVs necessarily require fertilizer or other inputs, which confuses the difference between input responsiveness (true of most MVs) and input dependency (a less common characteristic). The politics of dependency on external inputs is a legitimate concern, but it should be distinguished from farmers' many efforts to improve their farming environments through activities such as soil fertility enhancement and moisture conservation. Diverse varieties are only one tool that farmers use to ameliorate unfavourable conditions.

The two opposing visions of agricultural development are equally unrealistic. Both visions ignore the diversity, ingenuity, and adaptability of farming communities. Biotechnology deserves neither the simplistic vilification nor the unquestioning faith that characterize reactions to the Green Revolution.  Technology cannot redress gross inequalities in access to resources, but much more can be done to ensure better access to technology.
Robert Tripp

Research Fellow Overseas Development Institute, Londen, United Kingdom.



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