Feature Stories Fall 2011 Issue

Searching for the Silver Bullet

By Melissa Hughes | Illustrations By Christina King 0

Beyond the Silver Bullet: Agriculture in the Future
The companies behind GE often promise to be the ones to feed the world in 2050. Focusing on the prediction that the population in 2050 will be nine billion people (the United Nations actually expects it to reach that mark in 2043), the companies have successfully made the question of “Who will feed them?” the forefront of agricultural policy. Any speech today on agricultural policy mentions 2050, USDA Secretary Vilsack routinely invokes 2050, and indeed, both the September 2008 and January 2011 issues of National Geographic mention the future of food and this bogeyman of feeding the world

As a result of this mindset, current policies which exemplify the “production paradigm”—increased yield with little regard for ongoing sustainability or impact—are given the benefit of the doubt, and research is done on an ongoing basis to support the policies. Where a farming method demonstrates that it increases yield, it is incentivized without studying wider, ongoing impacts or whether that yield can be achieved through other methods. Rather than doing research first and using the findings to shape policy, certain methods are often advocated for by companies seeking to sell more products— in the case of GE companies, seed and chemicals.

Those who question this “approve now and research later” method are often accused of being elitist (only those with money and time question where or how their food is grown). Everyone else is just happy to have food. While, of course, the problem of famine and widespread malnutrition is devastating, many believe the long-term solution lies in a holistic approach to agriculture.

Advocated in the FAO’s “Save and Grow” report, the holistic approach seeks to create a new paradigm by “produc[ing] more from the same area of land while conserving resources, reducing negative impacts on the environment and enhancing natural capital and the flow of ecosystem services.” This is not the silver bullet approach. This “ecosystem approach” uses “inputs, such as land, water, seed and fertilizer, to complement the natural processes that support plant growth, including pollination, natural predation for pest control, and the action of soil biota that allows plants to access nutrients.”

This approach is a revolution following the Green Revolution—a revolution which they say will meet the dual challenge of feeding the world’s burgeoning population and saving the planet’s natural resources. The report clearly says there is no single blueprint to solve problems; rather, a range of farming practices and technologies will have to be developed or reinvigorated. Many in the anti-GE community believe that relying on the “silver bullet” ideology will only lead to disaster, and it is critical to adopt this more holistic approach.

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