Century of Endeavour

Biotechnology and Sustainability

a Local and Global Perspective

(Article by RJ commissioned by Con O'Rourke for 'Farm and Food', Spring 2001)
(c) Roy Johnston 2000+
(comments to rjtechne@iol.ie)

The writer has been concerned about this problem for most of his lifetime, having inherited a feel for it from his father Joe Johnston (1890-1972) who wrote extensively on aspects of the problem in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s. My own concern has evolved along similar lines, and I am currently re-discovering the relevance of my father's earlier work, which was not as influential as it might have been, had the political environment been more receptive.

The problem needs to be looked at from several perspectives. Firstly, there is the question of agricultural organisation, and the aftermath of the Land League agitations which led to a pattern of isolated small-scale family farms as the accepted norm, and the managed large-scale labour-employing commercial farm as the exception. By analysis of the economics of a series of cases, my father showed that the latter was about twice as productive as the former, per unit of land area and per unit of labour.

He was a lifetime supporter of the Horace Plunkett / George Russell approach to agricultural organisation, and his vision was to promote what he called a 'rural civilisation' based on a combination of village and big-house, with the latter transformed into a centre of co-operative production management, and the former into a focus for local added-value labour-employing industrial development, and consumer co-operative retailing. He identified shreds of this vision here and there, but the overall integration of agricultural, industrial and commercial co-operation under local democratic management has never been achieved in the Irish political environment, which remains totally individualistic. He embodied his vision, adapting that of Richards Orpen, in a paper which he delivered to the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society, during George O'Brien's Presidency, An Economic Basis for an Irish Rural Civilisation which was published in JSSISI Vol xvii, p1, 1947-8.

He was thinking in terms of a central focal farm of the order of 1000 acres, embedded in a network of smaller farms over perhaps 20,000 acres, whose owners had agreed to participate in a large-scale managed system synergetically, making use of central management services. The farm network, and associated industrial and commercial village focus, would support perhaps 1000 families. He developed this concept further in his book, published by Blackwell in 1951, 'Irish Agriculture in Transition'.

Such a system would lend itself to the sustainability principle, in that it would be feasible to make systermatic local use of recycleable by-products, manure from stall-fed cattle being recycled into high-value market-gardening for home consumption and for export, livestock finished products exported as consumer-ready meat, bone-meal and rendered waste going back into the land as fertiliser, local production of fodder and concentrates, rostered calving and rostered management of dairy herds organised for year-round supply of milk processed into value-added products etc.

Agriculture organised in this way on this scale would deal direct with the urban retail trade, marketing high value-added products, and if the urban waste system were to be organised to recycle its organics via a suitable digestion process, the latter could supply most if not all of the required fertiliser inputs, lessening dependence on energy-intensive nitrogenous fertilisers, with some help from clover and legumes.

This vision in fact has never been achieved in full, due to our having become dependent like junkies on the products (eg artificial fertilisers) and services (eg road transport) provided by profligate use of cheap fossil fuel.

The identification of the socio-economic, socio-technical and political factors needed to encourage movement in the direction of such a vision is a problem requiring research attention. In other words, is the Russell-Plunkett model, as subsequently developed in the 1940s by Richards Orpen and Joe Johnston, a valid approach to the sustainability problem in a world situation increasingly dominated by scarcity of fossil resources?

The foregoing is the 'local level' perspective of the problem. Secondly, there is the global trade perspective, and how it impinges on developing countries in the post-imperial fringe. The problem here is over-production of low-quality agricultural products by industrial-scale farming in the developed countries, encouraged by volume-dependent subsidies, and with total dependence on artificial fertilisers and pesticides.

This in itself is bad enough, but the problem is made much more acute by the ignorant use of animal products in feed concentrates, leading to the BSE crisis ('converting ruminants into cannibals'), and the collapse of consumer confidence in European beef. Surplus products are dumped on the world markets, depressing the prices available to aspirant agricultural exporters outside the EU.

European agriculture in it current mode is non-sustainable, and it is to be hoped that the crisis will lead to a move in the direction of sustainable agriculture, perhaps on some version of the Russell-Plunkett model, Europe-wide, servicing an educated consumer market which is prepared to pay more for food it can trust, produced using sustainable organic principles. If this were to be coupled with an opening up of free trade in agricultural products, it would enable developing countries to earn money as sustainable suppliers of agricultural products complementary to what European agriculture can sustainably produce.

The research area here is what technically needs to be done to reform the CAP in this direction, and what needs to be done to get it accepted politically.

Thirdly there is the perspective of the biotechnological industry, which has been thriving on the promotion of herbicides and pesticides in support of chemically-enhanced industrial agriculture, and which has been promoting genetic modification primarily in order to sustain the market for their products.

The research area here is in the nature of a rescue operation for the people and skills concerned.

One could say, cynically, let them devote their skills to the production of nerve-gas and suchlike, in support of the military industrial complex, but this would not be helpful.

On the contrary, the research area is to identify areas where the products of biotechnology and chemistry can in fact be positively supportive of biological agriculture. Instead of killing a parasite chemically (and risking contaminating the food-chain), could a predator of the parasite be attracted by a suitable pheronome? Could a crop be rendered unappetising to a parasite by a GM process which would be friendly to the value of the crop as human food? Can a method of cultivation be devised which will make herbicides unnecessary?

Fourthly and finally there is the question of natural biological diversity of the food-crops, and its role as a strategic hedge against disaster. In proportion as local farmers adopt standardised high-yielding varieties, imported to replace their traditional landrace varieties, the latter fall into decline or even extinction, and are no longer available as breeding-stock. The extreme of this situation is a single world engineered variety, extremely productive but totally dependent on intensive cultivation with high fertiliser and pesticide inputs. A chance mutation then can perhaps generate a new disease or parasite, the result being global famine. This is a high-risk non-sustainable scenario.

The alternative is to encourage the development of local landraces, adapted to local conditions, accepting somewhat lower yields, with substantially lower inputs, the latter being locally produced. The research area here is how to encourage the market to favour the latter scenario, and to discourage the biotechnology companies from promoting the former.


Note on the author: Roy H W Johnston BA(Mod) BSc PhD FInstP has been worked on computer-aided techno-economic and socio-technical evaluations of innovative systems since the 1960s, after an initial period during the 50s of research into the experimental technology of high-energy particle physics, followed by a period in industrial instrumentation. He published a weekly critical science and technology column in the Irish Times in the 1970s. He is currently working on knowledge-base architecture and indexing problems with a software house. He can be contacted at rjtechne@iol.ie.

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999