The Anti-Monoculture Mania

The critics of modern life never cease to amaze us. Everyday there is a new
crisis of modernity that threatens our continued existence. Nowhere is this
more evident than in agriculture. We’re told that the use of pesticides is generating
soaring cancer rates, yet there is nothing in the statistics which confirms
this alarmist rhetoric. It is claimed that the Green Revolution led to a decline
in vegetable production. Never mind that in most areas where there were significant
advances in the production of modern grain varieties, there were also the largest
increases in non-grain consumption; and that the world’s population is eating
a more diverse diet than ever before. And also, never mind that without the
yield increases in Green Revolution grains, there simply would not be any land
left for other crops (or for wildlife and habitat conservation), as farmers
would plant every bit of land available with the crops that produced the highest
yield of calories per unit of land.

Critics resort to unbounded imagination when the facts of the Green Revolution
don’t support their case: they now claim that increased production is achieved
at the expense of the nutritional value of the crop we consumed in the past.
One activist, Alex Wijeratna of ActionAid, generalizes the nutritional
attack against the Green Revolution by claiming that: “Two billion people now
have diets less diverse than 30 years ago. The Green Revolution stripped out
the micro nutrients and encouraged monocropping” (Wrong 2000). Where he gets
his evidence for this assertion is not mentioned, which is appropriate since
there isn’t any. The number of people deemed to be in hunger (i.e. as having
less than adequate nutrition) as measured by every reputable international agency
has been falling steadily over the last decades, even as the world population
is increasing. Despite this, somehow there has been an otherwise undetected
two billion increase in the number suffering from malnutrition – that is to
say, not detected by those who lack an anti-technology agenda that they wish
to promote. How then do we explain the fact that in the areas in which the Green
Revolution technologies have most effectively taken hold, there have been spectacular
decreases in infant mortality, and increases in life expectancies and disability
adjusted lifeyears (DALYs), resulting from a variety of factors including improved

Anyone who has traveled in Asia over the last decades cannot have failed to
notice the increases in height not only across generations but often within
them. When one observes as I have, a consistent pattern where younger children
are taller than their older siblings, it indicates that there was a significant
improvement in the family diet between the birth of the two children which led
to the increased height of the younger child. (A note of clarification: taller
does not necessarily mean healthier within a group, particularly when conditions
of nutrition and illness are comparable. Taller is very definitely an indicator
of nutrition and overall health when it is a measure of the change in the average
height of a group through time.) Nowhere has this been more evident than in
China. The particularly dramatic increase in height in the population of China
over the decade and a half following the Deng Xiaoping-led reforms is documented
in an article titled – “Richer and Taller: Stature and Living Standards in China,
1979-1995″ (Morgan 2000). The introduction of the “responsibility” system in
agriculture in China in the late 1970s led to China’s becoming the world’s leading
wheat producer by the early 1980s. It quickly yielded this position as farmers
found it more profitable to turn to vegetable and other production to satisfy
the increased demands of an economically better-off population and of international
trade. China could do this because it could meet its wheat needs by importing
from areas of monoculture production.

The dangers of monoculture?

The “dangers” of monoculture prompted a Newsweek cover story (June 9,
2003). Once again we are told that there is a crisis in agriculture because
crop monocultures are failing to prevent pests and disease. The irony of this
claim is that just when much of the world has seen the elimination of the devastating
famines from crop losses that were once the scourge of humankind, the shrill
cry against the agricultural system that has made this possible grows ever louder.
That only Africa, which was tragically passed over by the Green Revolution,
has experienced near total crop losses is truly the exception that proves the
rule of the benefits that modern agronomy brings to crop stability. Polycultures
in African agriculture have not prevented the periodic outbreak of famine. Needless
to say, the products of monocultures are what provide the famine relief.

Apparently the lead reporter on the Newsweek story, Matt Margolis, does
not find it strange that critics continually hark back to the southern corn-leaf
blight in the U.S. in 1970, since they cannot come up with any comparable loss
in the last half century in corn or wheat or rice, the staples which provide
about two-thirds of the world’s food production. The $1 billion in losses, amounting
to about 15 to 25% of the crop, was substantial, but these loses should be considered
against the fact that corn yields had more than doubled over the previous two
decades, and that the crop year following the blight was one of record yields.
When not citing the corn blight, the critics go back more than 150 years to
the Irish potato famine.

Monoculture and “nature”

There remain those who consider monoculture to be unnatural, as if anything
involving agriculture could be totally unnatural or anything involving humans
could be totally natural (whatever that may mean). Ironically, it can be argued
that humans developed agriculture in what could well be considered an era of
“monocultures.” In the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene, “climatic
changes in seasonal regimes decreased diversity, increased zonation of plant
communities, and caused a shift in net antiherbivory defense strategies” (Guthrie
1984, 260). The ecological richness of late Pleistocene in many of the areas
where humans were first to develop agriculture, gave way to “relative ecological
homogeneity during the succeeding Holocene” (Guilday 1984, 251).

The warming climate meant that areas in many latitudes began once again to
experience spring thaws and run-off, which frequently caused erosion. These
areas were often colonized by single strands of hardy weeds with nutrient rich
seeds whose botanical weediness required aerated soils which the erosion created.
The fact that there were monodominant stands of these grasses meant that humans
could form small clusters of relatively permanent habitation as they regularly
harvested nature’s monoculture seed crop. In many respects, this close association
with the plant precursors to wheat meant that humans were domesticating the
crop even before agriculture, as the periodic harvesting of the seeds gave an
evolutionary advantage to those seeds that adhered most closely to the stalk.
It allowed for the development of a variety of technologies for harvesting and
utilizing the crop. And it gave so many points of observation of the plant cycle
that by the time agriculture became necessary, humans already possessed its
basic instruments and knowledge.

Nobody is going to start the laborious process of cropping a plant if it is
freely available in the environment, so it is likely that humans had the ability
to engage in agriculture before they took the trouble to engage in it. The intensive
harvesting of the monodominant crop led to population increase, and eventually
some of the population had to move into other areas. They took their “domesticated”
seeds, their technology and their knowledge with them. The early agricultural
staples originated as monodominant strands in harsh or marginal conditions.
Storing energy underground in tubers or producing energy rich seeds for wide
dispersal are competitive survival mechanisms for plants in marginal growing
conditions, and became a source of food for humans. One would hesitate to go
so far as to argue that agriculture would not have occurred had it not been
for nature’s monoculture, but it would seem that it was clearly a major contributing

Moving “domesticated crops” out of their harsh original environments into ones
with richer, wetter soils allowed them to thrive. In time, civilization emerged,
but agriculture needed considerable investment in labor, and it required the
crops to be protected because they had been moved into environments replete
with competitors. The necessity for crop protection emerged with agriculture
not because of any practice of monoculture but because crops were now being
grown in areas outside where they originated. And contrary to “organic” agriculture
mythology, crops have had to be protected ever since agriculture got started,
frequently with very highly toxic “all-natural” compounds such as various forms
of arsenic.

Ecological stability and lack of diversity

Plant breeding, synthetic fertilizers and irrigation are a part of the complex
of agronomy that has allowed humans to bring agriculture back into harsh agroclimatic
spheres which were dominated by a very narrow array of vegetation. The agriculture
of the high plains of western North America typifies the monoculture that critics
deem to be in “crisis.” But rather than replacing diverse agricultural or diverse
natural systems, modern agriculture on the High or Great Plains has probably
added to the diversity.

It would be hard to imagine an area less diverse than the Great Plains during
the Holocene. If one had taken a journey of several thousand miles, from the
Great Plains in the heart of what is now West Texas north into modern Canada,
for half that distance one could have walked every step of the way (except to
cross rivers and creeks), on just two different species of Great Plains short
grass, and then the rest of the way into the Prairie Province of Canada on two
other varieties of short grass (Bailey 1976 and Küchler 1966). Even today,
“productive grasslands are usually lower in plant diversity than less fertile
ones” (Moore 2003, see also Grime 2001). This was a condition that lasted for
more than ten thousand years, until the arrival of the settlers with European
agriculture. It replaced a very rich and diverse ecosystem that crashed with
the climatic change of the late Pleistocene. Diverse ecosystems are no more
or less a protection against population crashes brought about by major climatic
changes than are mono or duodominant systems.

As the ecological mosaic shifted “from plaids to stripes,” creating zones of
greatly reduced plant species diversity, the animal life that the habitat supported
was similarly transformed. “As the plant communities became more zoned, there
were fewer optimal ‘plaid’ mixtures of plants for the species requiring nutritional
diversity in their diet” (Guthrie 1984, 282). This opened a niche for the dominance
of “large ruminants such as bison” which can “flourish on a monotonous summer
range of just a few plant species” because of the ability of their “rumen to
synthesize a balanced diet of amino acids, fatty acids and vitamins” (Guthrie
1984, 277). In addition, the bison ranged from the Eastern Woodlands, where
they could be found in small numbers in clearings, to more mountainous areas
west of the Great Plains. As a consequence, they would have come in contact
with a vast array of other animals at the periphery of their habitat, which
conceivably could have transferred a disease contagion to the great herds of
the plains. That this ecosystem lasted ten thousand years would indicate that
diversity is but one of many factors of sustainability in natural and in human
created ecosystems.

While the short grass of the Great Plains was creating an ecological niche
for a ruminant like the Bison, the taller grasses of Eurasia allowed for more
diverse animal life including horses and humans. “Grass seeds which tend to
be destroyed in the rumen composting process are usually isolated high on the
undigestible coarse stems of mature plants. This coarse stem is avoided by most
ruminants because it clogs the rumen with relatively undigestible fiber.” Horses
feed on the grass seeds while the coarse stem passes “quickly through the gastrointestinal
tract in essentially undigested form. At the same time, horses can ingest, masticate,
and digest the seeds which are high in nutrient quality and easily assimilated”
(Guthrie 1984, 285).

In contrast to the gorilla with a large hind gut which can hold and extract
what little nutrient fibrous vegetable matter has, humans, like horses, pass
the fiber quickly, utilizing very little of its nutrient. Thus today a diet
high in fiber (relative to our current diets) facilitates moving food more quickly
through the intestines with a variety of benefits including absorption of fewer
plant toxins. However, such a digestive system, combined with an energy demanding
brain, requires a nutritionally energetically-dense diet of which grass seeds
were to become a major component (DeGregori 2001, 77-81). The poor in the world
today may get the benefits of a high fiber diet, but unfortunately this is more
than offset by being nutritionally deficient. “Hunger” is not necessarily a
function of a quantitative lack of food but of its qualitative deficiencies.
In fact, the poor may well be eating more and passing larger quantities of it
as waste than those on richer diets. According to Feachem, the daily per capita
production of human waste is about 100 to 200 grams of solid waste in developed
countries compared 130 to 520 grams in developing countries (Feachem 1983, 4).

Monoculture: the cause of crop losses?

It is interesting to note that the 1970s corn blight resulted from an attempt
to introduce an element of diversity to the corn plant. In the corn blight case,
“susceptibility to blight is conditioned by the mitochondrial genome” (Parrott).

Maize with one genotype of mitochondria, called T cytoplasm (Texas male sterile),
turned out to be susceptible to the blight fungus. Prior to the introduction
of the T cytoplasm, all the maize had N (normal) cytoplasm. In this case,
switching from one cytoplasm genotype grown throughout the country to two
cytoplasm genotypes is what allowed the disease to develop: increased cytoplasmic
diversity allowed disease to develop (Parrot 2003).

Wayne Parrott adds: “Needless to say, we are back to the one cytoplasm which
has been stable for centuries.” From the first work on wheat in Mexico, it was
clear that the yield increases of the Green Revolution depended both on increases
in plant production and on decreases in crop losses. Since then, some of the
most important and widely planted high-yielding varieties (HYVs) were bred from
a multiplicity of varieties from different countries, creating varieties that
were multiple-disease resistant, and that were also better able to withstand
other forms of stress.

While attempting to build more resistance into maize actually made it more
susceptible to corn blight, many of the wheat and rice varieties of the Green
Revolution have successfully built in multiple resistances for a variety of
forms of stress including disease (Rosegrant and Hazell 2000, 311-312). For
both wheat and rice “components of genetic diversity other than spatial diversity
have improved over time.” This includes:

“temporal diversity (average age and rate of replacement of cultivars); polygenic
diversity (the pyramiding of multiple genes for resistance to provide longer
lasting protection from pathogens); and pedigree complexity (the number landraces,
pureline selections, and mutants that are ancestors of a released variety)”
(Rosegrant and Hazell 2000, 311-312).

The argument that the Green Revolution crops have led to a diminution of genetic
diversity, with a potential for a disease or pest infestation engendering a
global crop loss catastrophe, is taken as axiomatic in many circles as one more
threat that modern science imposes upon us. In fact, there is a sizeable and
growing body of solidly based, scientific, peer-reviewed research that finds
the exact opposite of the conventional wisdom (CIMMYT 1996, Evenson and Gollin
1994 & 1997, Gollin and Smale 1998, Rice et al. 1998, Smale 1997 & 1998,
Smale et al. 1996 & 2002 and Wood and Lenné, 1999). Findings for
wheat for example, “suggest that yield stability, resistance to rusts, pedigree
complexity, and the number of modern cultivars in farmers’ fields have all increased
since the early years of the Green Revolution” (Smale and McBride 1996).

The conclusion that the “trends in genetic diversity of cereal crops are mainly
positive” is warranted by the evidence. Moreover, this diversity does more than
“just protect against large downside risk for yields.” It was “generated primarily
as a byproduct to breeding for yield and quality improvement and provides a
pool of genetic resources for future yield growth.” Consequently, the “threat
of unforeseen, widespread, and catastrophic yield declines striking as the result
of a narrow genetic base must be gauged against this reality” (Rosegrant and
Hazell 2000, 312).

Most critics do not seem to realize that the Green Revolution was not a one-shot
endeavor for wheat and rice, but an ongoing process of research for new varieties
and improved agricultural practices. There is an international network of growers,
extension agents, local, regional, national and international research stations,
often linked by satellite, that has successfully responded to disease outbreaks
which in earlier times could well have resulted in a global crisis. Historically,
the farmer had access to only a limited number of local varieties of seeds.
Today, should there be a disease or other cropping problem, the farmer can be
the beneficiary of a new variety drawn from seed bank accessions that number
into the hundreds of thousands for major crops like rice. With transgenic technology,
the options for the cultivators are becoming vastly greater. Monoculture today
is in fact not only consistent with an incredible diversity of means for crop
protection, it is the sine qua non for them, because it is not possible
to have such resources for all the less widely planted crops.

In a world of 6 billion people, with over 2 billion of them in agriculture,
it is not difficult to cherry-pick instances of major crop disease outbreaks,
but the issue is how representative are these examples, and what should our
response to them be? Too often, narratives such as that in Newsweek are
used to condemn the Green Revolution, which has increased food production by
2.7 times on about the same land under cultivation, accommodating a doubling
of the population over the last 40 years, while creating more stable food production
in areas that have been historically most prone to crop failures and famine.

Monoculture and crop protection

Even protected plants produce some chemical defenses, though fewer than the
same plant unprotected. Those plants that have survived in nature have done
so because of the successful chemical and other defenses they have evolved.
Domesticated plants that have long been removed from the habitat of their origin
and the predators therein, often lose the ability to produce specific chemical
and other defenses, since the defenses would not have any survival value and
would likely be wasteful of energy. This explains why farmers and plant breeders
seek plants from the original habitat for crossbreeding for resistance, when
a new disease or predator invades their domain. Given this process of developing
resistance, followed by new forms of attack, followed by new resistance and
new means of attack, in a seemingly never-ending process, it is understandable
that with human intervention in the form of domestication, there is the same
process of chemical or biological defense against insects and micro-organisms,
followed by the evolution of means of overcoming these defenses in an ongoing
process. Critics of modern agronomy, in recognizing this process, offer a perverse
form of Luddite logic in concluding that no defense should ever have been tried
since the insects or micro-organisms would eventually evolve means of overcoming
them. How we would be better off by never having tried to protect the crop is
never fully explained.

Contrary to the doomsayers, some of the modern commercial plant varieties which
have had resistance genes bred into them have maintained this resistance for
long periods of time – up to 50 years in some cases – and are still functioning

“In the United States, the T gene in barley has held up against stem rust
for over 50 years; similarly, in wheat the Hope gene has kept stem rust in
check for over 40 years and the LR34 gene has limited leaf rust for more than
20 years” (Sanders 2001).

To Sanders, “multiple-gene resistance and other techniques are preferable when
they are available” but we “use what we have if it works, and we anticipate
breakdowns” (Sanders 2001). Not only is this pragmatic process of breeding-in
plant protection vital for agriculture; there is no alternative to using a variety
of modern crop protection strategies.

Biotechnology, monoculture and crop protection

Modern biotechnology has given us new means of crop protection. As would be
expected, some of the earliest work has been done on the most widely grown crops
such as corn or soybeans which are often grown as monocultures. The most famous
and controversial is the splicing of a gene from the bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis
(Bt) into corn to produce a plant resistant to the corn borer. When two research
reports and a News of the Week article on the development of resistance
to the Bt toxin were posted online in Science (August 2001), anti-biotechnology
groups almost instantly picked on the recognition of Bt resistance and were
online with it in their campaign against genetically modified food before most
subscribers even had the hard copy in hand. The online postings were quickly
followed by news stories strikingly similar to the anti-GM postings. A close
examination of the articles (or even a cursory one) would have indicated that
an understanding of them would not advance the cause of those against the use
of biotechnology in agriculture.

First, the Bt “resistant strains of at least 11 insect species have been documented
in the laboratory” while only “Bt resistant variants of the diamondback moth
have been identified in the field” (Griffitts et al. 2001). Checking the article
footnotes for resistant strains found in the field indicates that they occurred
before 1994, the date of the cited article, which was also before the first
Bt modified varieties were released (Griffitts et al. 2001). In fact, resistance
to live Bt spray by the Diamondback moths emerged in the field as early as 1989
(Palumbi 2001). “Some populations of diamondback moths, a devastating pest of
cabbage and related crops, are no longer bothered by sprays of Bt bacteria used
by organic farmers” (Stokstad 2001). In other words, the use of the live Bacillus
has the same potential of creating resistant strains as does the use of the
toxin engineered into the plant, though obviously more extensive use of the
Bt toxin in any form will likely accelerate the development of this resistance.
But note again, the only resistant strains that were actually found in fields,
were found in those involving “organic” agriculture.

Those in the environmental movement who oppose the patenting of life forms
somehow believe that “organic” farmers have an exclusive absolute property right
to use and prevent others from using not only the live Bacillus but also the
protein toxin that it produces. The three articles in Science reveal
a critical difference between the use of science in agriculture and those who
would favor some other method. Modern agronomy, monoculture or otherwise, provides
a variety of strategies for agriculturalists to employ, in addition to Bt, such
as chemical pesticides and refuges to maintain a population of insects that
do not develop a resistance to the Bt toxin. The articles demonstrate that modern
biotechnology provides the ability to identify and monitor “resistance allele
frequencies in field populations,” so that farmers will have a “direct test
of whether the highdose/refuge strategy is succeeding.” This “may allow enough
time for the strategy to be adjusted to reverse the increase” if the existing
strategy “starts to fail” (Gahan et al. 2001, see also Ferre and Van Rie, 2002).
The articles indicated that insects were evolving defensive mechanisms which
presented a challenge to create new strategies to combat them.

Those who read the online environmentalist postings would never have surmised
that the authors of one of the articles were defining ways of facilitating the
long-term use and expected benefits of Bt engineered crops. This is clear in
the following concluding reference to “the opportunity to make informed modifications
to a strategy that could sustain the use of Bt transgenics and prolong their
environmental benefits of reducing dependency on conventional insecticides”
(Gahan et al. 2001). Once again note that thus far, the greatest success in
bioengineered crops has been in those identified as monoculture, though other
crops have also been engineered and in time many other crops will be improved
by this technology.

Those who oppose all uses of biotechnology in agriculture, deeming it to be
inherently evil, lack any realistic options to counter the growth of resistance
to live Bt spray. Biotechnology and agronomy, like all scientific inquiry, are
processes of inquiry (the scientific method) and problem solving. They are in
search of best solutions to problems, not ultimate solutions. In some cases,
such as that of live Bt spray and the T gene in Barley, the solution works for
a long time. In others, the time frame is much shorter. The critical difference
between science and the presumed alternatives is that science has a way of moving
forward to find solutions and even to anticipate a need for them (Mokyr 2002,
38). From the way that the opponents of Bt corn have been characterizing its
threat to “organic” farmers, one might surmise that the “organic” farmers could
continue using live Bt spray in perpetuity were it not for the intrusion of
the bioengineered Bt serpent into their Edenic preserve.

Specialization in nature, like other forms of specialization, limits the options
of the organism but gives it an advantage in exploiting the environment to which
it has adapted. A plant or insect subject to attack by a specific insect or
parasite will tend to develop resistance to it. In the “struggle for survival”
in nature, the emergence of a trait that improves the ability to resist predation
or to prey on others, will spread through the species, becoming dominant.

Biotechnology and monoculture: future possibilities

Plant biotechnology is not simply a luxury but increasingly a necessity. Once
again, the crops that are rightly drawing the most attention are those like
rice which are widely cultivated, often in a regimen defined as monoculture.
Though rice yields have tripled over the last 30 years, we are now “fast approaching
a theoretical limit set by the crop’s efficiency in harvesting sunlight and
using its energy to make carbohydrates” (Surridge 2002, 576). According to John
Sheehy, plant ecologist at IRRI, “the only way to increase yields and reduce
the use of nitrogen fertilizers is to increase photosynthetic efficiency” (quoted
in Surridge 2002, 577). Plant evolution has shown us an improved pathway for

On at least 30 separate occasions, different plant lineages have evolved
to use the Sun’s energy more efficiently, making sugars in a two stage process
known as C4 photosynthesis (Surridge 2002, 578).

Surridge adds:

About 10 million years ago, falling concentrations of carbon dioxide in the
atmosphere gave plants using C4 photosynthesis an important selective advantage.
The ancestors of maize were among these plants (Surridge 2002, 578).

Conventional C3 photosynthesis is used by rice, wheat and most other cereals.
Simply stated, the work to transform stable C3 crops to C4 is going ahead with
a major monoculture crop, as this is a crop which feeds billions of people and
whose improvement will feed hundreds of millions more. The need in agricultural
plant breeding is for a variety of different types of research technologies,
including biotechnology as well as the technologies of longer standing which
have brought us to where we are today (Powell 2002 and Terada et al. 2002).
The sequencing of the genome of two varieties of rice will be an important new
tool in creating rice varieties with genes that express the C4 enzyme (Ronald
and Leung 2002, Goff et al. 2002 and Yu et al. 2002). It is also likely to provide
valuable insights for work on wheat, maize and other grains which, along with
rice, provide two-thirds of the world’s calories (Cantrel and Reeves 2002, and
Serageldin 2002). Biotechnology engineering in iron-rich rice is likely to be
an important factor in fighting iron deficiency anemia which affects about 30%
of the world’s population, mostly women, and is the most important nutritional
deficiency (Lucca et al. 2002).

Improving the photosynthetic efficiency of rice has the potential both of increasing
its nutritional value and enhancing its ability to withstand environmental stress.
The harnessing of solar

energy by photosynthesis depends on a safety valve that effectively eliminates
hazardous excess energy and prevents oxidative damage to the plant cells.
Many of the compounds that protect plant cells also protect human cells. Improving
plant resistance to stress may thus have the beneficial side effect of also
improving the nutritional quality of plants in the human diet. The pathways
that synthesize these compounds are becoming amenable to genetic manipulation,
which may yield benefits as widespread as improved plant stress tolerance
and improved human physical and mental health (Demmig-Adams and Adams 2002).

Demmig-Adams and Adams add that things like vitamins,

antioxidants, and phytochemicals are not mutually exclusive. Major groups
of phytochemicals (produced by photosynthetic organisms) include isoprenoids,
phenolic compounds, sulfur compounds, and essential fatty acids. … Enhancing
the photosynthesizers’ own protective systems may also improve the nutritional
quality of foods, because fundamental cellular signaling processes and protective
mechanisms are highly conserved (Demmig-Adams and Adams 2002).

Photosynthesis involves “collection of solar energy and its efficient conversion
into chemical energy,” a process susceptible “to damage by any excess solar
energy.” Because of the “parallel functions of antioxidants in plants and humans,
new mechanistic hypotheses should incorporate information from both plant physiology
and human physiology” (Demmig-Adams and Adams 2002).

Protecting photosynthesis in the face of environmental stress as well as
protecting human health against environmental or pathological stress requires
improved understanding of molecular functions and the intersection between
stress, disease, and physiology for both plants and humans (Demmig-Adams and
Adams 2002).

Informed, intelligent criticism is essential to keep agricultural research
operating to the benefit all of humankind. Opposition based on clever slogans
and misinformation can drown out the voices of those with legitimate concerns,
who might be hesitant to speak out, for fear of being identified with those
whose knowledge and agenda is suspect. Critics of modern agronomy – biotechnology
and monoculture – would gain greater credibility if they were better informed
and could demonstrate substantial experience in helping to feed people.

To critique or not to critique

One would not wish to stifle criticism by demanding that every critic provide
a responsible alternative before voicing concerns. This is particularly true
when the criticism is intended to be constructive, seeking to bring improvement
to an ongoing process. But when the criticism reaches the level of that against
modern agriculture and the critics are actively seeking radical if not complete
transformation of it, then we have the right if not the duty to demand that
they state how they propose that we feed the world’s population. If they speak
about diversifying the crop production, we have a right to ask what crops they
going to take out of production to free up the land for greater diversity of
production, and who will supply the added labor for a more complex system.

This last question is vitally important for those opposed to Vitamin A enhanced
rice who blandly state the need for greater crop diversity. Fine! Very fine
in fact! Who is opposed to the families of poor subsistence rice farmers eating
more mangoes and fruits and vegetables of various kinds, and even some meat
or fish? Do the critics really believe that the poor families need their activist
saviors to tell them that such dietary diversity would be nutritionally beneficial
as well as desirable in every other way? If the critics have ways of bringing
about this changed pattern of cropping, why don’t they simply do it, and stop
wasting their time attacking a system that by their reckoning is a failure?
If there are ways of doing agriculture that require fewer inputs but provide
the same if not greater yields per unit of land, then why are they not out there
showing the farmers how to do it? Farmers the world over may be on the conservative
side, but in the modern era they have been one of the most world’s responsive
groups when it comes to producing a better crop.

It is one thing for critics to state a utopian alternative without ever having
to show how it works. It is another thing to be out in the field where new problems
regularly arise and new solutions have to be found. What counts is raising crops
and feeding people and trying through time to do a better job of both. From
the earliest agricultural systems to the present, protecting the crop has always
been a central issue of agriculture, and never have farmers been more successful
at it than at the present time.

For the defense of modern agricultural ecosystems, Wayne Parrot has the right
“take-home message.”

[B]uilt-in disease resistance is the most reliable and economical method
to achieve stable crop yields, be it under monoculture or polyculture conditions.
These resistances can be bred in from wild relatives or obtained via recombinant
DNA technology (Parrott 2003).

Parrot wisely adds:

Ultimately though, evolution is a dynamic process, so the job of resistance
is never done. We may achieve disease protection which will last anywhere
from a few years to several centuries, but ultimately, I would not consider
anything as permanent (Parrott 2003).


Thomas R. DeGregori is a Professor of Economics at the University of Houston
and the author of the forthcoming book,
Origins of the Organic Agriculture
Debate Iowa State Press: A Blackwell Publishing Company -
– which formed the basis of much of the material in this paper.

*I am indebted to my colleague in Anthropology, Randolph Widmer for his
valuable assistance for the sections on domestications and the conditions that
preceded it.


Bailey, R. G. 1976. ‘EcoRegions of the United States’. Washington, D.C.: U.S.
Department of Agriculture, Forest Service RARE II MAP B.

Cantrell, Ronald P. and Timothy G. Reeves. 2002. ‘The Rice Genome: The Cereal
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