Boru Douthwaite

Biotechnology is a suit of tools that allows plant breeders to introduce a greater array of novelty into their plant varieties, and select which work, much faster than they could using conventional plant breeding techniques. There is nothing inherently evil or Frankenstein-like about genetically modified plants.

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The role of science in sustainable agriculture

Boru Douthwaite, Impact and Adoption Specialist, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan, Nigeria

The 2000-2001 World Resources Report found that environmental damage, much of it to agricultural land, could have devastating implications for human development and the welfare of all species. The report, prepared by the United Nations, the World Bank and the World Resources Institute, shows that humans have become a major force of nature, largely because of the success of science-based technologies in extracting the earth's resources without proper concern for the environmental consequences. Science, though, has a crucial role to play in helping us avoid the impending catastrophe that is partly of its own making. Perhaps nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the need for science in developing sustainable agricultural systems.

To understand why this is so it is first necessary to see that change in agricultural systems, like all technology change, is an evolutionary process. People, as a result of the pressures they face and the opportunities they see, generate new ideas, things, and ways of organising themselves. If these novelties work well then others adopt them and they spread. Agricultural change is built up of many replications of this novelty generation, selection and diffusion process, just as we've evolved through countless natural selection iterations.

The main role of science in agriculture has been to help us generate novelties that allow us to produce more with less land and less effort. Results have been spectacular. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a grouping of 16 international agricultural research institutes, is best known for starting the Green Revolution of rice and wheat in Asia. In the thirty years from 1971 to 2000 the improved crop varieties produced by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) have helped raise average rice and wheat yields by 2.3 and 1.65 times respectively, helping to feed an Asian population that grew by almost 70% in the same period.

The Green Revolution crop varieties were novelties that farmers rushed to adopt. In 1982 IR36 was planted on 11 million hectares, making it the most widely planted rice variety ever. However, problems emerged when millions of rice farmers all moved from growing a number of their traditional varieties to just one or two genetically homogenous varieties. Some of the resistance that the breeders had given the improved varieties against pests and diseases broke down within 3 to 5 years leading to huge crop losses. In Indonesia, for example, a fifth of farmers lost their entire crop to brown plant hoppers in 1985 and 1986. Farmers in Thailand and the Philippines suffered a similar fate.

In evolutionary terms the cause of the problem was not with the novelties per se, but with the selection and diffusion mechanisms that led to them to be adopted so widely without considering the consequences. Farmers did not know the consequences because they were used to operating on the scale of their own fields, not to thinking about what might happen over millions of hectares. And the research and extension systems that were encouraging them to adopt did not know the consequences either. This has been a salutary lesson to the CGIAR: reductionist science that isolates problems and ignores contexts and scale issues can come horribly unstuck even in relatively simple ecosystems. It does not necessarily produce sustainable solutions.

Learning this lesson has meant a paradigm shift in the CGIAR system in which the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) is at the cutting edge. IITA has been well placed to take a leadership role because it is based in Nigeria, works throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and hence has had to deal with much more complex farming systems than those existing in Asia. What IITA has learned is that science has a role not only in developing novelties but also in understanding selection and diffusion mechanisms, as well as in likely consequences of technology change. IITA has also learned that it is not sufficient to simply gain this knowledge to have an impact; it must also be put to use. This means working together with resource managers and policy makers so that they contribute to the findings, have ownership of them, and are thus more likely to use them.

IITA is doing this in practice using what's called the Benchmark Approach. One of IITA's six Benchmark Areas is in the forest margins of the Congo River Basin. This is an area of 15,500 square kilometres in Cameroon which IITA selected together with IRAD, the national agricultural research system, to contain population gradients, areas with different soils, tree cover, and access to market, and other factors that are known to influence the evolution of agricultural systems. IITA and IRAD carried out a large survey to characterise villages in the Benchmark Area and then made this information freely available to other research organisations, and encouraged them to join research projects. There are now five international agricultural research institutes working in the Benchmark Area as well as the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Bank, the World Wildlife Fund, the Johns Hopkins Institute, and various NGOs and farmer federations. Together, this coalition of international and national organisations is tackling research issues on things such as the links between human health, cutting down the forest and agriculture, the domestication of fruit trees, the integration of fish into farming systems, and the marketing of non-timber forest products. No single organisation could tackle all these issues. Humankind cannot hope to slow down or halt encroachment on what remains of the tropical rainforests without improving and stabilising the forest margins. Science has a role to play and specifically collaborative science of the type that the Benchmark Approach is trying to foster.

Professor Niels Röling of Wageningen University in the Netherlands talks about the paradigm shift that IITA is going through in terms of confronting the ecochallenge(1). Röling's starting point is that humans and their actions have become a major force of nature, as the CGIAR system has learned through pest outbreaks during the Green Revolution. He argues that while we have good scientific and economic knowledge what we lack is widespread reflexive knowledge about the impacts of our collective actions on the environment. Economics cannot help, and is in fact part of the problem because it has built a global market that must grow and consume more and more of the earth's resources every year to function efficiently. To meet the ecochallenge science needs to help contribute to a framework that guides our selection decisions so that we don't all grow one rice variety or cut down the rainforest with devastating consequences for human development and the welfare of all species. What is needed is a blending together of hard, reductionist science with 'soft' social science.

What this means in practice for agriculture is that we begin with the selection and diffusion processes and pressures, that is the drivers of technology change, rather than with the novelties as we've done in the past. 'Hard' science is still needed because in 30 years time there will be one third more people living on our planet and to feed them farmers will need to produce 50% more food with less water and land. However, hard science needs to seen in the context of how and who it will benefit, which is the domain of the 'soft' social sciences.

This view helps put the current debate on biotechnology into perspective. Biotechnology is a suit of tools that allows plant breeders to introduce a greater array of novelty into their plant varieties, and select which work, much faster than they could using conventional plant breeding techniques. There is nothing inherently evil or Frankenstein-like about genetically modified plants. However, if humankind does not concern itself with who controls this novelty generation and who decides which novelties to disseminate to farmers, then there is a real danger that large multinational companies may gain control over the food chain, driven by the economic logic of delivering higher returns to their shareholders, not the environmental health or sustainability of the planet.

20 June 2001


(1) Roling, N. 2000. Gateway to the Garden: Beta/Gamma Science for Dealing with Ecological Rationality. Eighth Annual Hopper Lecture, 24 October 2000, University of Guelph, Canada.