Rice farming

There’s so much hype it’s no wonder we don’t know what to believe. Genetically modified seeds can improve crop yields and feed the world. They’re “just the same” as regular seeds, claim the corporations behind them, even though they’re biologically not. They may cause major health issues including cancer, and the pesticide/herbicide intensive crops destroy the environment, says study after study. These chemicals may even be killing off the world’s bee colonies, without whom to pollinate, we’ll lose as much as one-third of our food supply.

Whatever position you find yourself taking on the GMO issue, there’s no shortage of arguments to support your beliefs. Among the biotech industry and its proponents, one of the most commonly pushed agendas is the belief that the planet needs genetic engineering if for no other reason than to feed the more than 1 billion food insecure people. GMOs are designed to be drought-resistant. Some contain higher vitamin or mineral levels to prevent certain diseases. Now, rice farmers in India are proving another theory: they’re not necessary at all.

A recent story in the Guardian revealed small village farmers, many of whom have no electricity, have been able to grow record-setting rice yields without the use of biotechnology or even chemical pesticides or fertilizers. One farmer shattered the world record, growing more than 22 tons on just one hectare of land. Rice is a key crop around the world—a staple food for more than half the global population. Records for growing wheat and potatoes also followed, without the use of biotechnology or chemicals. And India is now particularly sensitive to GMO crops. Hundreds of thousands of Indian cotton farmers have committed suicide after purchasing GMO cotton seeds that failed to meet crop yield expectations. They found themselves in debt and disgraced. Many of the farmers took their own lives by ingesting the chemicals they were sold to help grow the cotton seeds: they drank Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

A nation where pride is a celebrated virtue, India is embracing the rice-growing victory. But it’s not luck. The Guardian reports it’s a method known as System of Rice (or root) Intensification (SRI). “It has dramatically increased yields with wheat, potatoes, sugar cane, yams, tomatoes, garlic, aubergine and many other crops and is being hailed as one of the most significant developments of the past 50 years for the world’s 500 million small-scale farmers and the two billion people who depend on them.”

The system works by transplanting seedlings at an earlier stage than traditional methods and employ several other techniques such as different spacing measurements, drier soil and careful weeding techniques. “Farmers use less seeds, less water and less chemicals but they get more without having to invest more. This is revolutionary,” Dr Surendra Chaurassa from Bihar’s agriculture ministry told the Guardian. “I did not believe it to start with, but now I think it can potentially change the way everyone farms. I would want every state to promote it. If we get 30-40 percent increase in yields, that is more than enough to recommend it.”

While the biotech industry continues to push its agenda forward—particularly in the developing world—garnering praise from high profile supporters including Bill and Melinda Gates, Bono and the Obama administration, this development is one more pushback from the world’s farmers in helping to level the playing field. Five million Brazilian farmers recently took Monsanto to court over its royalty fees and an Indiana farmer is presenting his case against the GMO giant right now in the U.S. Supreme Court. He will likely lose, but at this point, it’s the conversation that’s proving to be more imperative.

The rice-growing Indian farmers relied on their own abilities instead of corporations to succeed. It’s a lesson for all of us. Food is as much a currency as it is sustenance. When we come to value it more and invest in all aspects of it—from production to preparation—records will be shattered daily, most notably, pride and sheer pleasure.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: Gates