The Green Revolution–Whoops! The Women of Bangladesh Offer an Alternative

The more we try to manage a problem with a technological magic bullet, the less effective we may be in meeting our goals. Take, for instance, the case of high producing variety (HVP) rice in Southeast Asia. The HVP rice provides more calories, but its introduction several decades ago wound up amplifying both vitamin A and protein deficiencies among those who grew it. Not only were the HVP rice strains lower in protein than traditional varieties, but the mono-cropping of HVP rice did away with carotene-laden greens that formerly grew in the rice paddies, along with the fish traditionally raised there.

In a parallel fashion, genetic engineering today may look good on one level, but work against its own purported goals on another.  Take the current “roundup ready” soy sold by Monsanto.  It works in conjunction with the herbicide Round Up to prevention competition in soy fields.  But the “round up ready” gene is spliced into a low-producing variety of soy-a variety rejected some time ago in hybrid breeding programs because of its low yield.

If we want to increase yields, as the “roundup ready” seed promises, why not return to higher yield varieties along with care of the soil– as opposed to low yield varieties plus with Round Up with all its health and environmental hazards?  Of course, then there are no profits for Monsanto?

There is another serious problem with genetically engineered crops:  one that caused British farmers to burn test fields of genetically engineered soy-and the European Union to reject imports of genetically engineered grains.  Through a  mechanism we can neither understand nor control, genes migrate from one plant or field to another. That is, gene reproduction in plants is not entirely contained within single plants.  This is a serious issue with the Monsanto “terminator” genes engineered to create sterility-as a protection for the Monsanto gene patents.  But what if the terminator genes migrate to crops whose seeds we want or need to save?

To return to Southeast Asia and HVP rice, bioengineers are currently working on “golden rice” containing carotene to address the problem of vitamin A deficiency there. But as some local people understand, what they need is something entirely different from a more heavily engineered super-rice.

Thus the women of Bangladesh began the Nayakrishi Andolon, or New Agricultural Movement, practiced by 25,000 households by 1998. This movement fosters biodiversity in the context of the Hindu belief that all life is interconnected through the single spirit that animates it. This movement has come to its striking success, two of its members recently told Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, co-author of The Subsistence Perspective with Maria Mies, by simply doing what brings them joy even as it makes their land beautiful.

These women have led a local movement to replace the beesh, or “poison” of the Green Revolution with a diverse ecosystem which uses no pesticides or chemical fertilizers (phasing these out if necessary); practices mixed cropping; multi-cropping, and agro-forestry; integrates habitat for livestock, poultry, and semi-domestic birds and animals; and practices seed saving and genetic conservation. The farmers in this movement assess the productivity of their fields not by the yield of a single super product, but by the sum of their diverse products. They have not gotten back all 12,000 varieties of rice indigenous to this area, but some individual farmers grow more than 110 varieties. And their methods have been so good for the land that some now grow rice using only surface water rather than drawing up ground water. This movement is an obvious success.

It takes a local community in partnership with nature’s diversity– rather than a single technology developed somewhere else-to reclaim a land. As in this case, global development projects which purport to bring “progress” to a third world community might well take a moment to learn something from the communities they hope to serve.  Maria Mies’ “subsistence perspective” offers some guidelines for doing this.

It is important to note that though the women farmers of Bangladesh have reclaimed their lands in these ways, areas of Bangladesh are currently hard pressed to deal with rising waters in the Bay of Bengal resulting from climate change. As the documentary, “Afloat”,  indicates, what the people of Bangladesh face will be faced by all of us if the global community does not join in ameliorating climate change.