from ’empires of food’ – a small note on high-yield seeds

i received empires of food: feast, famine, and the rise and fall of civilizations by evan fraser and andrew rimas for the holidays and am so far enjoying it quite a bit.

one passage, in particular, seemed worth repeating, as it relates to the long-run effects of short-run “poverty fixes” that are in vogue.

on p 27 and 28, they note:

“modern plant breeding involves crossing very specific ‘parents’ to create high-yielding ‘offspring.’ these fruitful results are called hybrids. but they have a serious limitation… the seeds produced when two high-yielding hybrids pair up are thin, low-yielding duds. there’s no point in saving seeds to plant for the next season, since the happy combination of genes that made the hybrids so valuable can’t be inherited. farmers must, therefore, buy new seeds from the seed companies every year…. aren’t the fatter harvests worth it? perhaps. but while the hybrids have given the world astounding bounty, they’re especially tempting for opportunistic spores and beetles. to grow so inflated, too, they need extra nutrients and water. they can’t survive a drought and their appetite for minerals degrades the soil.

nor do the seeds come cheap – most farmers, especially those in [developing countries], construct precarious towers of debt to pay for each season’s update. farmers who plant a high-yielding seed accept a gamble. they know their harvests will dramatically improve but they also understand they could bet away the farm should bugs or the weather wreck the crop… to off-set the chance of catastrophe, farmers indebt themselves to buy not only miracle seeds but modern fertilizers and pesticides – almost always manufactured by the same companies that sell the seeds… small-scale farmers find themselves on a treadmill, so it’s not surprising many of them want to step off.”

then, on p 89 and 90, they make some additional points that sound mighty familiar if you have read the omnivore’s dilemma or follow mark bittman.

“the [first] lesson is that farms should mimic nature. too many nutrients in the soil cause water pollution, too few mean degradation, so the sustainable farmer balances them by rotating crops, planting diverse flora, and slicing up the land with hedgerows and studding it with trees. such a farmer plants perennials that keep roots in the soil throughout the year and s/he pastures livestock on fallow ground. second, sustainable farms use muscle instead of machines… to follow both of these rules, farmers have to accept the third: sell local… if we obeyed the lessons of history, we’d shuffle our crops, clip the length of our trade routes, store more food, and politely ask people to move away from our metropolises.”

experiments (e.g. (which does take some account of soil degradation) or here) with seeds, fertilizer, credit constraints, timing, and behavioral studies are cool and all – but what exactly are the small farmers buying into by participating while we learn about procrastination and the limits of human rationality as measured by profit maximization? what happens when experiments are only run for a short time and then stopped, but farmers have already bought high-yielding seeds? could we instead be helping with easing into more sustainable cropping patterns?

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One thought on “from ’empires of food’ – a small note on high-yield seeds

  1. AJ in GR says:

    The principles of sustainability are beginning to take hold in the human consciousness. Bigger is not always better. Many American cities are rising from the ashes of post WWII growth on the backs of young entrepreneurs who are starting small businesses. The question is will they eventually turn their backs on sustainability to chase the almighty dollar?

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