Agro-Ecological approaches and drought resistance. Abstract.

Feeding the World
Are GM Crops fit for Purpose? If not, then what?
12th November 2008
Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster, London
www.feedingtheworldconference.org

Agro-Ecological approaches and the case of drought resistance
Dr Julia Wright, Garden Organic, Coventry, UK

Abstract

An industrial approach to agriculture seeks to maximise production through the simplification of farm components, the suppression of natural processes and the use of external technologies. An ecological approach, on the other hand, seeks to optimise production through the enhancement of farm components and ecological processes toward an integrated, eco-systemic whole. Underlying these divergent approaches are particular sets of attitudes and beliefs surrounding agriculture, and the development of GM technology stems from the belief that mankind can break free from and take control over the natural environment and that this is a positive step.

Whereas GM technology attempts to manipulate nature at the level of the gene, agro-ecological approaches manipulate at the level of the ecosystem. The impacts of the former are not immediately invisible, whereas the impacts of the latter are largely visible and have been tested and improved over millennia.  There is no GM techno-fix for which there are not already an agro-ecological solutions, including for weed suppression, resistance to pest and disease, improving nutrition, soil bioremediation, and drought and salt tolerance.

The majority of arguments against the use of GM technology are based on concerns over their negative impacts from environmental and socio-economic perspectives.  However what if, and a big WHAT IF, a GM crop was developed that averted these concerns? In terms of ‘feeding the world’, drought in particular is frequently cited as a problem case in point. What if a GM drought-resistant crop was developed by farmers and held in the public domain, was freely available and open pollinated, was tested over sufficient human lifetimes to ensure that it had no negative impacts (measurable and immeasurable). Would it then be fit for purpose?

Results from a project in Cuba on agro-ecological approaches for drought mitigation demonstrated that these approaches provided multiple benefits which would not be gained from the simple introduction of a simple GM drought-tolerant crop. The most significant benefit was the transformation of an arid micro-environment into a water-rich one that no longer suffered from drought. Ecological literacy was the key factor for success. As Mollison explains (1988) ”Yield is not a fixed sum in any design system. It is the measure of the comprehension, understanding, and ability of the designers and managers of that design.”     

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