(Note: this is a guest post from Tibor Csincsa, of Holland Centre, Grey County, Ontario, Canada. Tibor is a long-time beekeeper who has travelled the world teaching beekeeping, giving workshops, and speaking at conferences. I saw a letter to the editor he wrote in the February 22, 2021 issue of Farmtario, an Ontario farm publication. It was in response to an article on Page 10, ‘Agriculture visions collide in Africa,’ in the January 25, 2021 Farmtario issue. Tibor kindly agreed to let me publish a longer version of his letter in Finding Hope Ness.)
Declaring the modern ‘American way’ approach to agriculture science-based and suggesting other traditional methods, especially European, are something less than that, is a shallow statement at best and, at worst, ignorant.
The ‘scientific’ American approach to agriculture has plenty of reason to do some soul searching regarding such things as soil degradation, less than rigorous agro-chemical licensing, and environmental damage. As a long-time beekeeper, I deal with the consequences such problems on a daily basis.
I earned my agricultural degree in Hungary and started my professional life there. During my decades long career, I have traveled to Asia, Africa, and eastern Europe to teach beekeeping, organize workshops, and speak at conferences. As a result, I have first-hand experience with the traditional way of farming in those regions. By pursuing my interest in, and promoting, beekeeping, I have visited very remote places around the globe, and not just the showcases of any country’s plant production and animal husbandry.
It is very misleading to praise the value of modern, science-based, industrial agriculture and such things as GMO and patented seeds (and their supporting mega machineries), while degrading long-standing, traditional farming that does not rely on the products of chemical conglomerates. I’ve observed extensive agricultural regions, which have never seen a single bag of fertilizer or a single spray bottle of pesticide; but, still, the land has not only retained its fertility, but steadily increased (albeit slowly) its productivity over the past thousand years. Is there anything more sustainable or ‘science-based’ than that? In the modern world such farming would easily be classified as organic, yet that is a designation farmers in those areas hardly know about, yet in their way take for granted.
The worth of modern, sustainable, ‘science-based’ methods should not be measured solely on the specific output, and while industrial agriculture is driven by the ever-decreasing profit margin in order to keep up with financial and debt pressure. That leads to the pursuit of short-term gains at the expense of everything else. The American-style, industrial way reinforces ‘the bigger is better’ mentality, which is very often the reality when it comes to the viability of industrial agriculture.
We should not forget the socio-economic role the agriculture sector plays in third world countries when objections are raised to restrictions being placed on the expansion into those so-called untapped markets of the brainchild of modern agri-science methods (GMO, chemical based fertilizers and pesticides, aircraft carrier size machinery, etc.).
In many poor countries farming is the most important employer, providing jobs for a major part of expanding populations. Close-knit, small agricultural communities not only provide food security (mainly local), but also serves as an important social safety net.
So, before introducing intensive agriculture, based on the ‘American way,’ the potential for hundreds of millions of souls becoming unemployed must be considered. In the industrial age labor-intensive industries needed the urban-bound migrating workforce; but in the 21st Century, there is far less, if any, such need, especially for a sudden influx of unskilled labor.
Those many millions of people would not only lose their jobs but would be uprooted and left without any alternatives other than to migrate to the already overpopulous urban centers, or refugee camps. Europe especially faces a real concern: sooner or later that flood of poverty-driven refugees arrives at the shores of the Mediterranean, which can be crossed even by a dinghy, though at terrible risk. The Atlantic is a much more formidable barrier to reaching the Americas.
Just asking those poor regions to adapt and accept the American way of food production while, in return, just offering a higher number of bushels/acre harvest as justification is short-sighted and, from their perspective, plainly irresponsible.
Meanwhile, the world doesn’t need a significant increase in food production. It needs a better distribution system of storage, protection, and preservation, and less wasted food. The persistent farm protest in India is rooted in the government’s inability to handle the overflowing rice production and existing grain-storage facilities and wants some reforms. But there is no food shortage and no need to significantly increase the output per acre, especially at the cost of social disruption.
I don’t advocate ox-drawn plow over tractor-drawn; but dismissing the first, solely based on productivity is shortsighted. Productivity and sustainability are very different measures. The wood plow has survived the test of many centuries, that’s why, still, in the 21st Century, there more ox-drawn plows in the world than tractor-driven ones. The fact the wooden plow (and related way of production) not only can supply the food for the local population, but also provides occupation for young and old is no less worthy or important than modern methods. The traditional technology provides and sustains a social safety net, connects the population to the land, and gives their daily lives meaning.
When I talked to the small farmers in the remote corners of Africa, and asked them about their vision of the future, they always want to provide for their often large families. None want to send their children to the urban slums for meagre slave jobs. Nobody should be faced with having to accept that as their final destination, and solely their personal problem to solve. By then, their tragedy has reached a point beyond any civilized solution to solve.
Nothing should disrupt their way of life and turn upside down their world order for any profit, regardless its size. Yes, we can make the lives of these farmers easier, and their farm production more reliable, while not unleashing the agro-conglomerates on them without any social responsibility.
I’m fully aware of the very useful traits of GMO seeds. But I don’t think we have reached the full potential when it comes to the natural gene pool and traditional breeding methods. Many regions around the globe would benefit from more heat and drought-tolerant seed varieties, and salt tolerance. If people don’t want to switch to GMO, it’s their right, and a right that should be respected. But we still have the responsibility to assist them in other, different ways, especially when we have the ability.
I accept that is not the priority job of the profit-oriented conglomerates; but they should participate because the long-term potential of the overall benefits of a more proactive, socially responsible approach to agriculture is in everyone’s best interest, including from a profit point of view. It’s not only the humanitarian responsibility of the modern world to take a thoughtful, caring approach; it very well may be that our future existence also depends on it.
There are growing and increasingly well-documented concerns about the negatives of the modern, industrial approach to agriculture. My bees as bio-indicators reveal, without any expensive instruments and precious tests, the negative footprint of the ‘American way’ of agriculture. I’m not an environmentalist and I eat GMO food without much concern but, looking at recent, modern history farmers can’t be proud of being champions of environment protection. One only needs to look at the long list of pesticides invented by industry, licensed and approved, and sold to farmers as great steps forward, but later revoked because of public health and environmental safety concerns.
So, it may be irritating for the GMO and agriculture-controlling conglomerates to be shut out from emerging markets and to some extent from Europe. But that doesn’t mean the doors to those markets should be thrown wide open to the American-style, industrial approach.