Friday, September 25, 2009

Death of an Agricultural Scientist: Questions of farming, ecology and ethics

You may have heard recently of the death of Norman Borlaug.

If yes, great! If not, really read the hyperlink on him above.

Those who use their noggin to have help the world avoid mass hunger I salute. Even if industrial farming must come to a poor nation, and chemicals and pesticides that us lucky folks in more wealthy countries can afford to eschew because we have plenty of calories to spare or because food is not a scarcity for us; food that may have traces of these chemicals is much better than no food at all.

Many might question, as I remember it was talked of in an old political science class I took, the ethics of teaching industrial farming and/or providing food to other nations.

Questions like population control come to mind (such as, if a famine occurred, then nature is simply providing checks and balances that the population is re-balanced to the amount of food available.

Others might say that the environmental impact of industrialized farming is not worth the effects and that it would do more harm than good.

I feel that it is reasonable to use the inexpensive commercial option to produce food quickly in order to avoid famine in a country and teach that country's people skills to maintain their farms, EVENTUALLY moving on to or converting the farms to organic methods.

Of course, people, being people might get used to the idea of commercialized farming and not be willing to change to more sustainable methods. A risk I'd be worried of that could lead a country to end up just like the USA's farming situation.

Perhaps, the "organic" matter (though potentially pesticide/herbicide/other various chemical adulterated) from these start-up commercial farms could be used to add back to the soil of places where nutrients have been depleted or needed to be built up with organic matter in the process (bringing up the question as to when that soil becomes truly again "organic" to our sub-par government standard).

Rather than importing all of our extra food products from wealthier countries, teaching people how to farm a crop successfully and continuing the tradition all the while slowly moving towards sustainability with this knowledge from the start is a good beginning to decreasing world hunger (teach a man to fish and all).

Additionally raising crops that are more tolerant or native of these environments and is only smart, as well using farm animals indigenous/more adapted to the country to provide a livelihood and fertilizer for farms to help them become fully sustainable.

(That reminds me of something like The Heifer Foundation which provides and teaches people how to maintain animals for food and business means eventually enabling those people to become self sufficient. I really like this organization because I figure if I can't have a goat at least I can buy one for someone.)

Borlaug was part of the Sasakawa Africa Association which attempts to use native or ethnic crops such as maize, cassava and etc improved crops while also introducing non-natives that take well to the environment and will produce a good crop to add to the food supply.

It seems that the foundation attempts to utilize/incorporate green methods such as green manure crops to choke out weeds, yet incorporate and fix nitrogen so as to limit the amount of fertilizer needed.

Minimum tillage methods are also being introduced within the program so that old crops can be used as mulch, less labor is needed and water is conserved, all very helpful and important things to maintain in this area of the world.

Stated too, they attempt to limit the use of herbicides to a minimum and prevent the over-use of chemical fertilizers. All of which is good for the environment and appropriate cost control methods.

It is exciting to see that despite its third world status, green/organic modern methods are being utilized to attempt to avoid past modern wealthy country mistakes of over fertilization, tillage soil structure damage and excessive chemical.

Also by avoiding hiring expatriates and keeping a lean staff they ensure that most of the money stays in the country and that much of it as possible is used towards farming supplies.

By teaching their farmers too how to properly store their harvests and treat it to prevent damage from pests and rodents, their farmers can wait until grain prices are reasonable for them to sell at. Thus, showing them the economies of things and avoid pressure of selling all their crop at too low prices where they might sell at a loss or fear of losing their crop to rodents/pests.

While this sort of farming is more industrialized and there is slight concern that some of the "old ways" of farming and processing food might be lost, but the avoidance of famine is an obvious benefit next to that loss.

If marketing is any example however, old methods will not be lost as there are still many products such as coconut, shea and neem oils being grown/gathered and produced in the traditional manner by small companies bringing and keeping that wealth to their particular nation (such as Alaffia, where I get my neem oil) by emphasizing their product pride on hand made, non-refined materials.

The country profiles within the Sasakawa website are detailed and very interesting to read how each country found successes and what was achieved specifically in terms of the agricultural, managerial, funding, educational and etc. levels.

Borlaug utilized specific breeding methods, not genetic modification, to create wheat hybrids which have changed the way we eat and averted famine in a time when mass world starvation was a serious threat people believed.

I am a proponent of heirloom varieties because of their uniqueness and diversity and believe that it is important to remember our past, but I also do realize the benefits of stronger hybrids and the potential for good that certain GMOs can do for countries with insufficient land or environment to sustain their population. (I am somewhat hesitant as Garden Rant has recently mentioned about GMOs). Of course, it may seem like a cycle we will reach again if we continue on our path of an ever-increasing population, unsustainable this and that, with technology which will supposedly swoop in to save the day every time which is not sustainable in itself all the time.

I do believe that it is only reasonable to do what we can within our means and minds to fill a gap for those who need it the most and to help those who need help. Compassionately teach others to help themselves through education and personal involvement.