By: Andrew Simms
From superfoods to GM crops – every week presents a new technological solution to save the world, distracting us from the simpler, sustainable options.
Every week brings news of the latest world-saving technological breakthrough, from electric cars to superfoods and energy miracles. Global agrochemical firm Monsanto just announced a $1bn investment in its new herbicide, dicamba, part of Roundup Ready Xtend, its system for genetically engineered crops such as soya beans and cotton.
But, as we consider which paths to go down to solve the world’s food, energy, climate and health problems, are we spellbound by hi-tech answers over less glamorous, but potentially better, low-tech approaches?
In discussions on global food and energy systems there seems a system-bias toward “shiny” solutions, creating a loaded and revealing default setting for both debates.
Underlying, systemic problems to do with poverty, failed markets or overconsumption are glossed over when these solutions are publicised and resolve into arguments over whether you are for or against a particular technology. In the case of energy it becomes about support for nuclear power, and in global food systems about whether you do or don’t favour the genetic modification of crops.
It is understandable that for public consumption, big complex debates get simplified, echoing former US president George W Bush’s binary doctrine of “Either you are with us or with the terrorists” in reference to the “war on terror”. But there’s more going on than that.
The media seems like a moth to the flames of novel technologies, giving them seemingly disproportionate airtime compared to, say, sustainability options that grow from local, small scale roots that often build on indigenous practices. The former is usually cast as modern, progressive, objective and scientific; the latter is seen to be the opposite – regressive, romantic and an obstacle to progress.
When reported, magic bullets rarely, if ever, get assessed alongside other strategies to achieve similar ends. What is the trade off, for example, in terms of jobs, costs, risk, security, speed of introduction and broader economic benefits of a single nuclear power station against the equivalent in generating capacity of small-scale, community-based renewable schemes?
Instead, each time, the potential human development benefits of the hi-tech solutions get compared to the purely “ideological” concerns of environmentalists, as happened in recent debates about crops modified to carry the nutritional equivalent of fish oil.
Criticism of magic bullet solutions often gets dismissed as ideological, overlooking the fact that magic bullets are typically designed to work with existing large-scale energy, transport and farm infrastructure, allowing the status quo to be maintained.
This was seen with some of the early genetically modified crops. Monsanto caused a furore in the 1990s by considering a controversial crop technique dubbed the “terminator technology” that could have prevented timeless agricultural practices such as seed saving that are key to crop resilience and farmers’ livelihoods. While this technique was not commercialised, a similar outcome was achieved by Monsanto having its customers sign an agreement that states they will not save seed to plant the following year, ensuring the purchase of new seed every season. Several crops such as cotton and soy beans depend on proprietary pesticides and herbicides such as Monsanto’s controversial glyphosate-based Roundup brand.
New technical innovations also benefit from the media coverage of being easily reportable. More complex approaches that look for better ways to do things at the level of the whole ecosystem, such as agroecology, which may answer more problems and represent more durable solutions, find it harder to grab the imagination. GM crops get about 30,000 news hits on Google, agroecology around 3,000.
But to find the best rather than just the shiniest solutions, and ensure these get the right support, we would benefit from moving beyond a simple for or against mentality to properly assessing the range of options that give the fullest answers to a problem or range of problems.
We can ask what is the problem to which GM crops are the only or best solution? There are almost always choices to consider. If weeds are a problem you can modify a crop for herbicide resistance, as Monsanto has done, or you can use a combination of unglamorous but effective ground cover, mulching, soil management, rotation, weeding or even use weed crops in other constructive ways.
Or, while you might engineer a crop for added vitamin or mineral content, you could increase crop diversity, use other techniques like varietal selection and breeding for nutrition, or improve the buying power of communities and develop a wider range of locally available, nutritious food.
Lacking official support or awareness, less shiny approaches don’t get the focus they deserve. The Wall Street Journal reported, for example, that less than 2% of the budget for research, extension and education from US Department of Agriculture goes toward certified organic farming.
The danger of a focus on magic bullets is that, where hunger is concerned, it conveys the message that feeding the world is a technical problem, when decades of analysis show it to be a profoundly political and economic one.
When it comes to transport should we prioritise the electric car or redesign cities for mass transit, cycling and walking? Or in energy, do we keep a big centralised system reliant on nuclear and carbon capture for fossil fuels, or move to a decentralised, distributed, renewables-based model.
We face multiple, profound challenges to create thriving economies, generate mass employment, increase wellbeing and maintain our environmental life support systems.
Technologies we choose have different effects on the economy and society they serve. It is not a case of simply substituting one for another. Variously they create more or fewer jobs, give people more or less control over their lives and livelihoods and are more or less prone to democratic control. They also differ hugely in terms of full cost accounting and the environmental, economic and security risks they generate.
Instead of being constantly spellbound by leaps in technology, we need a bigger debate to assess their strengths and weaknesses to find those that will best support the type of world we want to save and create.
Originally Published: The Guardian