Why Big Business and Philanthropists Hate Cheap, Sustainable, Low-Tech Solutions

22 Feb

In contrast to all the bullshit we are subjected to about how genetically modified organisms (GMO) will feed the world, there’s an excellent article in the Guardian about some people in an Indian village in Bihar State who radically improved their rice yield by adopting some cheap non-GM practices. They didn’t use herbicide or any other artificial inputs, yet the yield was more than triple what they expected and it beat the previous record for number of kilos, and anything ever achieved by the various factions trying to claim that their high cost input, environmentally destructive and economically impoverishing techniques are the best.

It may seem hard to believe that some old-fashioned manure and some low-tech techniques can beat the extremely wasteful and expensive hi-tech and GM agriculture sectors, which burn through a lot of public money as well as private, and has yet to make a single viable organism that can even feed people sustainably, let alone do so more efficiently than conventional breeding techniques.

Following the success with rice, someone else in a nearby village broke the record for potato yield using the same techniques, known as System of Rice (or Root) Intensification (SRI). Apparently it can be used by anyone, for a whole range of crops, and it doesn’t cost much. So I don’t see Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF or any of the other big cheeses getting involved, nor any of the big philanthropists trumpeting the power of low-tech! So far it has been promoted by an indigenous Indian NGO.

While the original Green Revolution depended heavily on expensive fertilizers and other inputs, and did a lot of unacknowledged damaged as well as a lot of well-hyped good, the future Green Revolution envisaged by the Gates funded ‘Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa’ (AGRA) is no more than a front for the carving up of the market by a few powerful multinationals. SRI actually cuts the costs of conventional agriculture, which is what needs to happen if poor people are to become better off. The reality of AGRA is that it is not about how much better off poor people can be, or how damage to the environment can be reduced (far from it!), but how much more can be extracted from the poorest in Africa, Asia and Latin America by those who control the proprietary GM technologies.

Of course, there is disagreement about how beneficial SRI really is, especially from those who see the future of agriculture as involving less labor, larger farms and far greater use of expensive technology. The problem with this is the reality: the majority of farmers are poor, with small portions of land and little access to capital. The majority of poor people are fed by the products of small farms. If more and more land falls into the hands of the unscrupulous land grabbers who are rushing around the world to stake their claim on everything they can bribe an official to get access to, who will feed the dispossessed? What plans do AGRA and the various philanthrocapitals lining up to get their pound of peasant flesh have to feed people once they have been denied access to the means of food production?

It’s sad to read that people wonder out loud why money can not be raised for a technique that is so promising and so cheap. But it is because it promises to be sustainable and cheap that no private source of capital, and that includes philanthropic capital, is interested. Those with capital are not interested in sustainability for those who are supposed to be buying the products, they want the opposite. They want people to become more dependent on their offerings and to increase the amount they purchase every year. This is what has been happening to the deluded (but often greedy) big farmers who have already bought into GMOs.

Many of the ‘neglected tropical diseases’ that rich institutions and philanthropists like to drone on about addressing can already be wiped out using very cheap medicines, providing clean water and sanitation, improving living conditions and addressing some of the most serious determinants of bad health. But what will they turn their attention to once their goals have been achieved? Sustainability is in the bank account of the beholder and what is sustainable for Indian farmers is certainly not sustainable for the usual suspects in the development world. They will be steering clear of cheap, sustainable, low-tech solutions.

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