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Monday, March 23

Golden Rice and the downsides of globalization for the USA (UPDATED 3X)

If your first reaction to the title of this post is to think, 'Whatever it is to do with rice, I don't have time for this,' I understand perfectly. Yesterday I knew I was suffering from bad news overload when I sat for a full four minutes and stared at ever-changing pictures of the planet Titan. Anywhere but Earth.

I don't have time for rice problems, either, but I'm squeezing a discussion of Golden Rice onto my overfull plate and yours because it's a window on a problem that is only geting worse with time.

The problem is that issues arising from the USA's involvement with globalization are now so numerous and complex that they've overleaped our ability to keep up, much less resolve them. And in that darkness of inattention many unfortunate projects have zipped around the globe, and which too often are stamped "USA" -- even though the vast majority of Americans never heard of them.

That's what we're dealing with in Golden Rice. In one saffron-colored grain we find a veritable universe of entities and issues ranging from malnutrition, to infant mortality, water and land management, transnational U.S. foundations and corporations, agribusiness, genetic engineering, the alphabet soup of international organizations, World Trade Organization, foreign policy, government corruption, biotechnology, patents issues -- I've run out of breath, but that's by no means the entire list.

If you say, 'There must be people whose job it is to deal with this stuff' -- put on your flak jacket and tiptoe to the cockpit. Hear those shouts and thuds on the other side of the door? Listen to the screams of "Babykiller!" "Luddite!" "Corporate fiend!"

Those are the sounds of Greenpeace activists, scientists, governments, biotechnologists, corporate boards and UNESCO trying to bash each other to dust during their disagreements about Golden Rice.

No, nobody's in charge.

If you try to tiptoe away, saying, 'Then this is none of my business,' your escape will be cut off by Pundita intoning, "Ogallala Aquifer."

To spare you a trip to Wikipedia, the Ogallala Aquifer, also known as the Great Plains Aquifer, is the lifeblood of America's Breadbasket farming region, and thus America's agricultural might and our ability to feed ourselves and export mountains of food.

As to what the aquifer has to do with Golden Rice, thereby lies a tangled tale of monoculture and high-yield grains, and their threat to irreplaceable water supplies here and around the globe. The key point is that the aquifer, which took millions of years to form, is drying up. According to Wikipedia:
The Ogallala Aquifer is essential to a huge portion of central and southwest plain states, but has been at annual overdrafts of 130-160 percent in excess of replacement. This irrigation source for America's bread basket will become entirely unproductive in another 30 years or so.
I think that years before it runs dry, we're going to see conflicts in this country that will make the old wars between the sheep herders and cattle ranchers seem like a company picnic.

In short, not long from now we may have trouble growing enough food to feed ourselves, let alone export food.

There's more than one reason for the aquifer's lowering levels but monoculture -- the growing of a single water-intensive crop on vast tracts of land -- is a big factor. The same is true for many regions in the world, including those which saw the Green Revolution.

Proponents of Golden Rice have framed it as a new or continuing phase of the agricultural Green Revolution, which is misleading. Golden Rice is a genetically modified type of rice.

The Green Revolution was a package of technologies that had been used with great success by the U.S. in the post-World War 2 era, then applied to alleviate famine conditions in other countries.

The technologies included chemical pesticides and fertilizers, irrigation projects, and improved crop varieties developed through the conventional, science-based methods available at the time.

I agree with the spirit of the reply that Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, gave to the revolution's critics:
"They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."
Understood. However comma the Green Revolution was the flagship project of modern globalization and thus, the world and the issues involved were far less complicated than today.

There are serious downsides to the Green Revolution; these emerged in the past quarter century. Top of the list is the water intensive aspect of the revolution's grain crops, which is now being felt in India. From a 2006 BBC report:
[It] is becoming increasingly hard to make a living out of wheat, a problem particularly acute in Haryana and Punjab, two states which alone account for 60% of India's wheat output.

"We don't get anything out of wheat or rice, but we get good prices for mushroom," said Anil, one farmer who has switched from growing wheat.

"When we were growing wheat, the situation was really bad - we didn't get anything. But with the mushroom crop, we get some profit - one acre of mushroom gets the same money as ten acres of wheat."

[...] In Haryana, traditionally India's bread basket, another family of farmers has a similar story.

"The water level has gone down - we don't get enough water to irrigate the fields," said Tejpal Chohan, one of a family of farmers who have changed their crops recently.

"It's becoming a desert here. The paddy crop is not good quality either."
Haryana state was the pride of the Green Revolution and its water-intensive monoculture. Now farmers there are increasingly turning to 'cash crops' that are not so water intensive, and that can be sold in the global marketplace.

However, these are not food staples; they're crops such as coffee, cotton and mushrooms, which can't even be consumed by the farmers for their sustenance or sold locally to alleviate hunger when the prices dive in the global marketplace.

The Green Revolution was a drastic emergency effort to halt famines that took millions of lives. But emergency measures that drift into unrevised traditions can end up causing more damage than the crises they originally addressed.

So for U.S. foundations and corporations to continue to address hunger in the same old way would be akin to deciding that after Apollo 13, all space capsules would be outfitted with the jerryrigged duct-tape affair that served as the ship's emergency air cleaner.

The way is forward, not back. But Golden Rice, despite its fancy modern bioengineering, is a flash from the past. From my reading, it is not a good means for curing Vitamin A deficiency arising from malnutrition, and it's been argued that it's not even a workable means. Yet many millions of dollars have been poured into the project, and great pressure has been put on various governments to implement it.

So I have pitted myself against Dr Henry Miller, for years one of my favorite regular contributors to John Batchelor's show, and who brought up the topic of Golden Rice on John's show last night.

(The podcast will be available sometime today or tomorrow. See Hour 3 of the show.)

Henry folded the issue into a critique of what he considers to be anti-science obstructionists doing their damndest to block the sale and growing of all genetically modified foods.

This loops back to the complexities of the present era, which cannot be stuffed into sweeping generalizations. Not everyone who is against Golden Rice and genetically modified foods is anti-science; indeed, there have been many scientists who have come forward with criticisms of Golden Rice.

And, in an aside to Norman Borlaug, not all the criticisms have come from the elitists in the West. One of the most reasoned and cutting critiques of Golden Rice comes from an Indian, Dr. Vandana Shiva.

I don't want to see eye-rolling from Dr. Miller at the mention of Dr Shiva's name because two can play that game:

[Falling on her knees and lifting her arms to heaven]

"How long, O Lord, must we continue live in the Fourteenth Century? How much longer, Lord, must we read tea leaves and fiddle with Ouija boards when we have these things called supercomputers, which means we no longer have to apply the same solution to highly diverse problems?"

In truth, the reasons for endemic Vitamin A deficiency (and malnutrition in general) vary from country to country and even region to region within the country. With regard to India, see this report from the International Herald Tribune, which focuses on problems with food distribution for the needy, and the BBC one I quoted above.

The causes of malnutrition in India are myriad, and perhaps best summed by Palagummi Sainath, one of India's leading authorities on rural affairs. From the BBC report:
"India today is in what I would call the greatest agrarian crisis since the eve of the Green Revolution.

"Its effect is manifest in many ways. You have the lowest levels of growth in agricultural production in decades - it is the first time that the population growth rate has outstripped the agricultural production growth rate.

"You also have the lowest levels of employment ever seen in rural India since we started keeping data on the subject.

"You have millions of people migrating to towns and cities in search of jobs that don't exist, because the mills are closed, the factories are shut, and hundreds of thousands of units have wound up.

"You have a tremendous recipe for chaos which is entirely driven by policy. It has very little to do with drought and natural calamity."
You want to throw Golden Rice at those problems?

(Before Americans laugh up their sleeve at Indian agribusiness exporting itself into starvation: have you checked out the price of beef recently? We are paying a small fortune for beef because U.S. cattle ranchers can fetch a higher price for their beef in other countries. And the beef we can buy here -- "organic" beef excepted -- is injected with water to beef up the price per pound even more.)

As for malnutrition in Burma -- oh right; give Golden Rice seeds to the junta for distribution to their country's needy farmers. They'll sell those seeds in a New York minute to the Chinese government, and from there half the seeds will end up in the black markets, where terrorist organizations will take their cut.

I have not looked at the issues in every country that has widespread Vitamin A deficiency but money says that if you go down the list, you'll find a broad range of problems that cannot be solved by a one-size fits all approach. The same holds true for other food deficiencies.

None of this speaks to the questionable science behind Golden Rice, if it can be called science. Looks to me as if it's the dartboard method of technology research. But to be fair, here's the argument from the Golden Rice folks, although they ignore mention of the water-intensive requirements of Golden Rice growing.

The first article gets technical in parts, but they do well enough at explaining in plain English what they consider the worst problems with Golden Rice. However, the arguments stay within a very narrow frame. If you widen the frame it brings home that we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

The era in which Norman Borlaug propagated the Green Revolution had black markets but not black globalization. It was a different world back then.

Bottom line is that today high crime follows the same principles and practices that legal globalized business does. That means that when you distribute anything for free in a poorer country, take 40-80% straight off the top for corrupt officials and assume that most of the giveaway will end up on a black market somewhere in the world.

Then you go to the Ford Foundation, the Golden Rice distributors and UNESCO and ask, 'Just how are going to police all this?' They look at you as if you're from another planet and reply, 'That's not our job.'

Okay, we from another planet want to know: whose job is it?

Cut to the sound of chirping crickets.

And it's not just the questionable science of Golden Rice, and the downsides of growing and distributing it that are the problems. It's that the thinking behind the Golden Rice approach to dealing with malnutrition is lodged in an earlier century. Not the Fourteenth, but I will stay with sarcasm by pegging the era as sometime before Turing was born.

Having framed a discussion of Golden Rice within the context of the USA's part in globalization, having presented it as an example of U.S.-led aid projects flying under the radar of U.S. pubic attention, is there any way we can gain control of these types of situations without opting out of globalization?

We couldn't opt out even if we wanted but yes, there are a combination of ways to gain more control. The bonus is that because we'd be starting from zero, the control while by no means total would seem considerable to us. I'll look at a few of the ways later this week. They are simpler than you might imagine.
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March 24
This entry is crossposted, with a series of evocative illustrations chosen by Procrustes, at RBO. Thank you Procrustes, for all your work to make this post beautiful to look at!
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Dear Pundita:
Food preferences are incredibly conservative. There are any number of cases of people who starved because they didn't like the food that was in the relief rations they'd received. In some cases people don't even recognize food as food--in China chicken feet are a delicacy; here they're a waste product (if that isn't a basis for trade I don't know what is).

It's not enough that a food source be efficient and nutritious. It's got to look and taste like the Old Stuff, too.
Dave Schuler
The Glittering Eye

Dear Dave:
Yes, thanks; that is a problem. But then once they do accept the New Stuff, it's pulling teeth to coax them to return to the Old Stuff when food science discovers that the Old Stuff was better for them.
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