Tuesday, January 8, 2013

More blindness from the Economist

Here is a decent blurb from the Economist about the slowdown in crop yield increases over the past ten or twenty years.  They rightly call attention to the need for more research on staple food crops as opposed to feed crops like corn and soy.  But being the Economist, they just couldn't resist a dogmatic, ill-informed jab at the end in favor of big business.  They end the article with, "It is no coincidence that the most significant crop research is now being done by large companies such as Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta, and has concentrated upon corn and soya­ - the crops which are doing better. Demonising these firms is not a very good way to go about feeding people".  

This is of course flawed logic, because the biggest yield increases in the past occurred thanks to publicly-funded research, and it is precisely today, in the era of increasing private-company dominance in crop research, that we are seeing slower progress, especially in things like rice and wheat.  Furthermore, it is debateable whether large companies are in fact doing the "most significant crop research".  They certainly do flashy, big-ticket research, especially in new genetic engineering techniques.  But the yield impact of research from Monsanto and Syngenta is usually not very impressive, because that's often not what they're interested in as companies.  

In fact, in my experience it seems entirely possible that the big companies are slowing down progress on yield advances.  How could this be?  Well, the major public universities in the US (and to a lesser extent, the big international public agricultural research centers in the rest of the world) are increasingly wont to turn to big private companies like Syngenta or Monsanto or Dupont (Pioneer) for funding.  What kind of public research do these companies help to fund?  Why, things that advance the knowledge base for them to create private (usually non-yield-increasing) products like herbicide-resistant seed or plants that better utilize synthetic inputs.  So by offering a bit of funding to complete the public researcher's needs, a company like Monsanto steers the public research agenda away from things in the broad public interest (like crop varieties that need fewer inputs to produce greater yield) and towards things in the narrow corporate interest.  If this trend, which I have seen anecdotally up close at a few universities, is a generalized fact, then big companies would in fact be holding back progress on crop yields, as opposed to being the beacons for a more abundant future.

At any rate, this is clearly a complex issue, and I don't mean to argue that private companies have had or should have no role in increasing crop productivity.  But it is offensive for the Economist to make an ignorant, flippant statement just because it goes along with the magazine's unthinking pro-corporate religion.

All that said, reading the food article also led me to this short interview with Siddharth Kara, an excellent writer who investigates modern-day slavery around the world.

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