Channah Prakash on the power of the anti-GM lobby
Welcome to Feed, a food system podcast presented by TABLE. I’m Matthew Kessler
And I’m Samara Brock. Today we speak with Dr Channa Prakash, who is the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Tuskegee University in Alabama in the United the States and also a professor of crop genetics, biotechnology, and genomics.
The real reason why Vandana Shiva and Greenpeace are opposed to golden rice is not because they're worried that it is going to be a failure, but they are worried because it's going to be a success.
Channa Prakash received his masters and bachelors in the field of agriculture and genetics in India, his PhD in Australia in forestry and genetics, and has now been serving on the Tuskegee University faculty since 1989.
This is the first time we’re saying this, but Channa has a very active Twitter account (@agbioworld) where he describes himself as: a professor and biotech guru who is curious about science, farming, food security, innovation, plants, history. Come for the dog/cat videos, but stay for science.
Channa has dedicated his life to his research and advocacy on the genetic improvement of food crops that are important to developing countries and enhancing societal awareness of food biotechnology issues across the world. He serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the journal GM crops, runs the AgBioWorld foundation, which aims to provide science-based information on agricultural biotechnology issues, and has been personally commended by Norman Borlaugh, one of the founders of the Green Revolution.
As we continue our series exploring power in the food system, we speak with Channa about who decides what ends up on our table, we ask him about his personal story as it connects to the Green Revolution, and we unpack how he sees ideology as getting in the way of science. We also talk with him about his view of Golden Rice and different efforts to promote Organic farming across South Asia in order to better understand how he approaches contested food systems debates.
But before that, we learn how from very early on in Channa’s life, he was interested in agriculture.
My grandfather, on my father's side, was an agricultural officer who started an agribusiness company after he retired. And so I used to spend my summers with him in the rural area of India, where he was doing his business which involved meeting dozens and dozens of farmers going to a lot of little dirt roads and going to the villages. And, and so I presume that is what got me interested in agriculture. And then, of course, it's also that I couldn't get into any other in India, everybody wants their children to go to become a doctor or engineer. And my, my grades were too poor to get into either of those, and agriculture was it.
And then what turned me on into plant breeding and genetics was a really a lecture by Norman Borlaug, he came around across India in the mid 70s, when I was an undergraduate student, and he was fairly well known, not necessarily a household known name. He was well recognized within the scientific circles. And I remember growing up in the 60s when there was an impending famine in India, because where two years of successful crops were failures. Because of drought, and in United States and massive amounts of food aid at that time.
This was a part of a Global food aid program that was signed into law by the United States President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954 as a way for the US to send agricultural surplus to countries experiencing food shortages. This policy has been both praised and criticized over the last 60 years. Those who are critical cite that exporting surplus foods undercuts the market price and makes it difficult for domestic producers to compete. Channa, his family and millions of others have also directly benefited from this aid. Channa has since worked on US AID projects and was recently commended in a speech at Tuskegee earlier this year by Samantha Power – who currently runs the agency under the Biden administration.
You know, yesterday I was with the administrator of US Agency for International Development, Samantha Power. And I told administrator Power, growing up in India, I clearly remember the US AID symbol, it's these two hands. It's from American people. And it was a different type of wheat. We were not used to that. And yet, it was better than starving. So all of us ate that. And then subsequently, the Green Revolution happened. And Norman Borlaug was a kind of a celebrity hero for a lot of us who are studying agriculture. And listening to his lecture turned me on and decided the time, wow, this is so cool. You know, I want to be like him - change the world. And so the only way to do that is to get into genetics. And that's, that's my story.
So as you know, this series of our podcasts this season is about power. And we wanted to start out asking you some questions about how power works in food systems. There's a lot of ways to define power, how would you define it?
Oh, I don’t know. You tell me! I'm not an authority on power, but I can see, I can sense when I see one. And so I would say the role certain institutions and certain actors can play have a exaggerated and undue influence on the on the particular sector and the course of events. And they have a greater bearing on how the policy is crafted and how the market is steered, and how the consumers are perceived. And I would think all of these are our place here in the area of food and agriculture sector, if that's what you're asking.
And in GM debates, in particular, who have been the players that you've seen who have had the most power in those conversations, shaping policy or public opinion?
I think it's a very much a geographical and a political issue. So I can just give you few examples where pro technology forces have prevailed, perhaps in the United States, or Argentina and Brazil, perhaps in Australia, but the counter forces against the technology have prevailed in places like Europe, Peru, maybe even in South Korea, Middle East, in Japan. And so it's not just one sided. And there is power play and countervailing forces on either side.
Yeah, that's interesting. It makes it a complex field, I'm sure to be engaged in. We've been talking to a number of guests who sort of have pinpointed corporate concentration and corporate power as something they see as being there's too much power in corporations in shaping food systems right now. And one of the arguments that many people use against GMs or genetically modified organisms, or genetic engineering, is that it will further operate to concentrate corporate power, because it's large corporations who can afford to develop and disperse those technologies. What would you say to that criticism?
Well, you can say that there is some validity to that argument, but we really need to look at in the broader context, the power concentrates, just like water finds its level, it is not unique to the area of genetically modified foods. If you look at the sector of organic foods, and you can look at all those 1000 brands, it's about held by three or four big multinational companies with very nice, fancy Mother Nature. And those kinds of touchy feely names, right. But they are really held by all these big multinational corporations. And it's the same with the agricultural inputs company. So it's not different from any other area, mobile phones, computers, airlines, and you'll see that concentration is a natural force, that profit seeking companies in an open economic system tend to consolidate as a way to maximize profits for their shareholders. But what I think we need to be wary of is to see how effectively we have laws and institutions that put the checks and balance to that. So that concentration of power would not go extremely against the interests of the society or the consumers. And we have a long history of antitrust laws and things to get monopoly in here in the United States and in many places around the world. So we need to balance that as to how far you let these companies grow, at the same time, what are the ways of checks and balances that we have in place.
That's interesting. One question, which might be a big question, but I'm going to pose it to you anyway. Who has the power to determine what plants and animals end up being grown and consumed? So you say that you're just a scientist, but I think scientists and research certainly plays a role in that. But there's also farmers, governments, activists.
It's an important question as to what we get to eat and who gets to decide. Historically, as human beings, when we moved on from the Paleolithic era hunters and gatherers, and started inventing agriculture, we literally experimented with 1000s and 1000s of different types of plants, and few hundreds of animals that around us, and finally just settled on just a handful of them, just because they were convenient to grow, and they are convenient to store and not all of them are based on nutritional factors and, and what is good for us. And so we are stuck with literally five or six major crops that provide 90% of our calories. And then within that, again, what is grown and what variety of that is grown, traditionally has been before the advent of modern agriculture, I would say up until 100 years ago. We used to have hundreds and hundreds of varieties being grown. Back in India, where I grew up, I can still remember hundreds of rice varieties that were grown in the place where I grew up. And even today, you can see, if you go to Mexico, a lot of landraces are still being grown. But as the societies move more foreign to more modern and modern agriculture, you tend to find fewer and fewer varieties being grown, primarily because of business reasons. These are the varieties that are produced by seed companies, and they are tailored to be very productive. They're tailored to be responsive to the chemical inputs. So overall, they just give you more money for the farmer. So who decides to do what I think eventually, end of the day, it's the farmer who decided that and most farmers are entrepreneurs and business people. And it is driven by the cost benefit analysis.
Yeah, I mean, we'll move into our next question, I might come back and ask you questions about farmers’ power, because it's an interesting thing. Many farmers feel that they don't have power within systems. Earlier you mentioned the Green Revolution, as something that you sort of grew up seeing unfold. And as you're well aware, there's debates on many sides about whether overall is it was a success or failure. On one hand, people say that it fed millions of people. And on the other, some people argue that it overall led to greater inequity, decreased biodiversity, and also had a lot of external environmental impacts. What's your feeling on the Green Revolution and why?
So one could see that as a glass being half full, or half empty, and I clearly look at it as a half full, because of facts and reason. Not because of some of the twisted facts I hear from critics who don't like green revolution. First of all, if it is not for green revolution, I wouldn't be here talking to you, hundreds of millions of people like myself would have perished. And green revolution, when you look at the trajectory of wheat, and then followed by corn and rice, and then milk and egg, everything in the past has increased tremendously in a very predictable manner. And that has meant that even in the kind of horrors that we used to see, in the 60s, 4 million people died 15 years before I was born, 4 million people died for simply for lack of food in India, in the great Bengal famine. These things were very recurring. And even in the mid 70s, we saw some massive starvation go on in Ethiopia. But today, such extreme hunger and starvation only prevails in countries like North Korea for a variety of political reasons.
There is also an argument that the Bengal famine was a cause of politics and policy failure by Winston Churchill rather than drought. On this issue and future ones in our discussion, we’ll link to articles in our show notes and on the webpage that offer various explanations of complex topics.
And so thanks to agriculture production, backed by science all around the world, we have better food today, so much so that people can talk about it on the social media. In places like the United States, the cost of food is just 10% of our average income. And even in places like India, when I was growing up with the single mother 80% of our family money, the very meager income we'd had used to go for food, very minimal food. And today, when I go back to India or Africa, everywhere, there's a much better situation, We still have about a billion people who go to bed hungry, and we need to be doing more about it.
So the point is, Green Revolution was clearly a success. Because if you ask demographers everywhere there is prosperity, the number of people will come down, go look at Russia, go look at Singapore, go look at Japan. They have plenty of food to eat. And the whole scenario that we were that they were predicting in the 60s, the world the doomsday scenarios did not come true.
Channa also acknowledges that there were problems with the Green Revolution.
And so that is where I think we need to have a meaningful conversation as to what are some of the excesses of green revolution in with any technology and the way it is applied, is what matters and Green Revolution, clearly brought indiscriminate use of agrochemicals inputs in some places. And I see that rampant in India, especially use of pesticides that are not certified and fake pesticides, and our soil, water and air contamination and the whole stress on the resources that contribute to agriculture is a factor that we need to be worried about. And so moving forward, we can debate about Green Revolution all the time, but I think a more productive way forward is to see how we can continue to improve our food production, and feed the seven, eight or 9 billion people that are going to be there in an equitable manner with less footprint on the ecology that supports agriculture - the air, water and the soil. And that is, I firmly believe, is driven by innovation and science, and not ideology.
Let's take it to a particular example here about a way to feed people more equitably, and also, perhaps solve a particular problem around nutrition, which is, well, we're going to turn to the example of the history of golden rice. If you could talk about what problem was it trying to solve - the breeding of Golden Rice, and you're also very welcome to nerd out on the science of the breeding process. We have an audience that craves some of the more scientific details.
Certainly, thank you, I wrote about Golden Rice, way back in 1995, or 96, when it was simply a concept in the lab, my friend Ingo Potrykus in Switzerland, I met him up in a meeting, to talk to me about a new research project that he started. And I just wrote about it when before they had results and thought “wow, I thought this would be awesome.” And I did not know at that time, vitamin A deficiency was such a rampant problem around the world. And even 25 years since then, today, it still remains a big problem and micronutrient deficiency that is responsible for the death of nearly a quarter of a million children around the world today. And another quarter of a million children who go blind, and many other diseases because when you don't have vitamin A, it compromises your immunity and the children suffer from a variety of maladies. And so there has been a tremendous effort put together by many agencies and NGOs and governments to do something about it through educational campaign to eat diversity of food, which is the probably the most important factor.
The area where the vitamin A deficiency prevails is the rice eating areas and you cannot just add a supplement to rice, unlike the wheat flour, we add niacin and to the salt we add iodine. You cannot do that. And so, because of that the vitamin A issue has not progressed very much.
This is why Swiss scientist Ingo Potrykus sought to introduce the vitamin A genes directly into the rice through genetic engineering.
If you look at maize, the maize corn kernel is yellow. And that's because of the pro vitamin A that is there in it. The carrots are orange again, because of beta carotene, pro vitamin A, that our body converts into vitamin A, when we eat that, and that is not toxic. You can eat tons of carrot, like Bugs Bunny does, nothing will happen, okay? And so what Ingo Potrykus did was to simply take three genes from maize, and put that into rice, through genetic engineering through GM technology, and then produce rice that is yellow in color for the first time. The rice, there are a lot of varieties as you, as I told you earlier, many of them are maintained, we have 120,000 varieties of rice maintained at Philippines in the International Rice Research Station, and not one of them has vitamin A. And so you cannot just take one from the collection, cross it into all the varieties that are grown in India or Bangladesh, and bring vitamin A into it, you can't do that. So it can only be done through genetic engineering, and that's what was done. So it was a gene from maize put into rice, and 20 years of testing. And lots and lots of biosafety studies - you feed it to the rats, nothing happens, and then, feed it to the people. Do their vitamin A levels go up? Is there any downside? Are they allergic? Every kind of biosafety question was asked. And so it is a very safe technology, it's no different from throwing a couple of grains of maize into your rice pudding and eat it, you see what I mean?
And so it's very similar to that it's a genetic fortification. And yet, the Golden Rice, has only been recently been approved for growing in the Philippines, and other countries where it is needed, like Bangladesh and India, and parts of Africa where they do eat rice, where they have a very high prevailing vitamin A. It’s still not approved, not for any safety reason or anything. It's purely for political reasons. The campaign against biotechnology, in the last 20 years been so vicious, that many people even seemingly smart people have doubts about this. And a lot of politicians just don't want to venture into the area that would bring some controversy. However, scientifically flawed it might be.
There are a few strands of criticism worth addressing here, and we could easily have dedicated a whole episode to this topic. One, as Channa was describing, is that it legitimately takes a long time to develop these technologies. Another is that when you add beta-carotene into the rice plant, it also risks changing the plant’s life cycle and possibly impacting the speed of growth. These varieties need to be adapted to local conditions so the farmers can grow them. This isn’t to suggest it isn’t worthwhile to develop, but it requires time and resources, which possibly could make them more expensive than other varieties for farmers to grow. So I asked Channa to respond to another criticism about why not focus on a different intervention?
So Greenpeace and Vandana Shiva, long term environmental activists have held this long term opposition. And one of the things that they lay it they say vitamin A is available in other culturally appropriate foods, and is a more efficient delivery of vitamin A per microgram, including sweet potato, leafy vegetables, mint or coriander chutney and fruit like mango, also rich in beta carotenes. I was wondering if you could speak to that criticism first?
Certainly. I'm very familiar with those criticisms because they are not new. They've been there right from the beginning. We are not against other forms of intervention. And so, it's not either/or. Because I believe this is such a difficult challenge. And if it's easy, it could have been solved long ago. It's not just about money. It's not about just technology. It's about how we overlay a variety of interventions, and the complex milieu of different cultures, and different diets and perceptions. And it's not easy to introduce a new food and different looking food either. And so I work on sweet potato I now work on orange plus sweet potato – not only on breeding and genetics of that, but also in going to Africa and see how we can help popularize that. And so I am very much aware of all those intervention and how important they are. So I'm not discounting it.
But at the same time, you know, it's like, when you when you're trying to address HIV AIDS problem, you have you have several interventions, and you have several ways your behavioral modification and your diet, exercise, but then protease inhibitors were the ones that really nailed it. And so, I personally believe that Golden Rice might be as a short term solution might help in certain situations where a people may be too poor to eat a very diverse diet, and that rice is all they eat. And so without increasing the cost of rice without increasing or changing its taste or anything, if we can deliver this wider nutrient, why not? And it's really not, you know, costing a great deal of money. It was put together by far less than what Greenpeace has collected to wage a war against this technology. And so talk about power here, the imbalances, and it was developed by a scientist with a a few $100,000 budget from Rockefeller University in a lab in Switzerland. It was tested by public universities, international research stations, and the company's has really nothing to do with it. And whatever patents that they had on this, they waive the rights to it.
The real reason why Vandana Shiva, and likes of her and Greenpeace are opposed to golden rice is not because they're worried that it is going to be a failure, but they are worried because it's going to be a success. So everything - every criticism they have against GMOs, that it’s by multi-nationals, it's going to be only developed for rich farmers, it's not going to be of any benefit to the people and that that is not -all of that was thrown away by development of Golden Rice and it became, a Trojan horse as they call it, but, but what it is, is really a straw man that they could beat upon. I frankly believe that because they were so scared that Golden rice is going to be successful. And all the stereotypical criticisms of them against GMO would be proved wrong with this product. So they just went after this viciously, you know, dug up and burned the crops in Philippines and destroyed the greenhouse where this was being tested, in Switzerland, and all kinds of things in the last 20 years. It's really despicable.
I think the notion of rice being the only food that is available for certain populations, and that a diverse diet isn't available as a really compelling argument.
Something that I'm interested in. Earlier you said that farmers had a lot of choice in choosing what crops I think, if you look at a lot of the debate around GM, in crops in particular, where seeds can blow into a farmer's field, and then they can get sued by a company or that a vast majority of GM crops at this time are linked to certain pesticides and insecticides. And it feels to many farmers like they are caught into a system that that they don't have a choice and that they can't save their own seeds. They can't even plant in fields next to genetically modified crops, what is your response to that?
My response to that is because that's a mythical scenario that is not true. There has never been a single farmer who has been sued by any company ever, for their – if some pollen came into that. This is a kind of truly a bullshit story that is created by people who are opposed to this technology, and it's not true. So you know, you should not be making an argument about scenarios, which are not true.
What they have gone after – and there was a movie about that came over recently about this Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser was that he planted 2000 acres of his crop knowingly. And this was a contractual agreement that people have. If you put a software and you don't pay for it, the company is about to come after that. So this is a different type of scenario in a different system in a developed country where they do have contract farming, and it was a violation, the contract that they went after. But there is not been a single farmer anywhere in the world that has been sued by any of these big agricultural companies for flow of the pilot, from say, their GM crop that has gone into an organic crop. There's not been a single incidence of where organic crop has been decertified and whatever they're lost, you know, that's just a myth.
This needs a little unpacking. Channa’s fuller argument can found in the 2018 article entitled “Dissecting claims about Monsanto suing farmers for accidentally planting patented seeds.” The article acknowledges that while Monsanto has settled over 700 cases out of court and sued 100 farmers that used their seeds without licensing agreements – none of which they lost – they’ve never sued a farmer who has unknowingly – key word here - used their seeds. They’ve also sued farmers for saving their own seed, which is illegal under the protection of a patent. Monsanto and the article’s author defends seed patents as being essential for biotech innovation and maintaining their businesses which invests millions of dollars in research daily. The other side argues that Monsanto have quote “used heavy-handed investigations and ruthless prosecutions that have fundamentally changed the way many American farmers farm.” Critics argue that farmers are bound into these contracts and have little choice from other suppliers, given that Monsanto, which has since merged with Bayer, is one of the three companies that controls over 60% of the global seed supply
We’ll include some links in our show notes that dives deeper into these perspective.
You mentioned a couple times about ideology versus science. Do you think that there can be a strict division between ideology and science? How do you see that play out in this debate in your life as a scientist?
Yeah, it's hard, because we are scientists, but we are also human beings, which we are part of our culture, we are part of our forces that shape us, values and ethics. And so, not all of that- some of that has had nothing to do with the science. If you if you have certain preferences for not eating a particular type of food, okay, I think we must be respectful of that there's nothing wrong in that. But at the same time, but as a matter of Science Policy and Public Policy, if you want to impose certain systems of growing as a way to – it’s like the vaccine argument that we are going on for the society. Individuals may have different preferences for variety of reasons. But from the point of view of the society, what is good and what is not good. Are the vaccine mandates good for the overall benefit of the society. So I believe, and this is where the science, I think prevails. Ideology is where irrespective of the science, you reject certain notions, you reject eating certain types of food, you reject growing crops in certain way, just because it has nothing to do with science benefit, or whatever it is just because that's the way it should be. It's almost like a religion, it's almost like dogma, you see.
And that's where my problem comes with all of this regenerative agriculture and organic agriculture, ecology, biological, all of those, because they are simply dogmatic, they are not open to new ideas. They are just randomly collected a few things. Copper sulfate is nothing organic. It was being used in 19th century, okay, we'll use it. Okay. And there are some pesticides being used in organic agriculture, but in a biological basis, so we'll use it, but other science doesn't care. And nature doesn't care. The safety doesn't matter. Some of the most toxic substances known to us, are biological substances. And science is evolving. What I know today maybe wrong tomorrow if new knowledge comes along. I may be called as an advocate for technology, but I'm really not. I'm an advocate for solutions.
What's interesting, as people who are going to be fall more in the - they have different assumptions about technology, also would call themselves an advocate for solutions, and they have their own.
That's something that I really enjoy about this series, is we talk with people who see this very differently.
And I respect that. I think this society has - we can accommodate the diversity of views. In my own family. I have my children who differ with me on this and a whole range of issues. So I think as we get older, we tend to be more accommodating, because we know that not the whole world cannot be seen in the lens of, the prism of my eyes.
So I'm going to move us into a few of these very live debates that are presently happening around GM and particularly Sri Lanka and India. And so maybe we could start with Sri Lanka which recently experimented with going 100% Organic as a nation, and very recently, they ran into some issues. What do you think influenced this decision to go 100% organic and what lessons can be learned from it?
I don't know what really spawned the president of Sri Lanka to suddenly one day get up in the morning and say, “Hey, okay, we are going to be not using any chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides for our crops. And we're just going to go organic.” Which is I think, was a very erratic decision to be made in a country that is so dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, for their exports. It's a small, beautiful country and I’ve been there. And, so I think it was a very lopsided decision and later I came to know that some of the factors that may have influenced him, in doing so was a people like Vandana Shiva, and Hans Herren, who got the World Food Prize for doing some really great work on cassava, in Africa, they got together, and collectively they had a series of seminars, webinars, and that may have impacted the policy here, whatever the cause, the, for taking this decision, the consequence was really disastrous.
Because, you know, suddenly, the rice farmers were without any nutrients for the crop. And we all love tea from Sri Lanka
Tea farmers, $3 billion, the primary source of foreign exchange for this small country, was gone. And so this is, overall it was a disastrous decision. And then I think government came to its senses and reversed it. They also tried to import, there was not enough organic fertilizer. They tried to import it from China. And they found that it was contaminated because organic manure needs to be handled very carefully. And because it is, you know, it could have a lot of harmful pathogens if it's not sterilized. And that turned out to be a case. Either way, it was a flawed public policy, that was not done with careful deliberation. And all the scientists and the experts were not listened to. Even those people who very promote organic and support organic farming in Sri Lanka, have said that the way this was done was a recipe for disaster. And that's exactly what happened. So much so that Sri Lankan government last week had to dish out $200 million to the rice farmers and food prices went up by 21%. And overall, I think many other countries should now look at Sri Lanka and see what not to do in that way. It was the silver lining in the cloud. Is this a good lesson to be learned here?
This program was rolled out very quickly. The Sri Lankan president campaigned in 2019 on transitioning to organic over the next 10 years, and within two years of him taking office, he declared a full and quick transition to organic. In addition to the consequences of what Channa talked about, this also caused a self-sufficient rice producing nation to import 450 million USD worth of rice.
It’s interesting to think whether these debates are driven by ideology, politics, science, or some combination of them, so I ask Channa about another example that has had demonstrably better results.
Yeah, it was really, rolled out with such haste. And I just wanted to see another example that people in the agroecology camp turned to often is Andhra Pradesh, the state of India that's transitioning towards a chemical free, low input, quote “natural farming” practices. But this has also been happening over decades. It wasn't an overnight decision. They tried to build a democratic consensus around this agroecological approach. And they experimented with many field trials and tested yields and the impacts on soil to demonstrate its efficacy before scaling it out. How do you think about this plan and this program? Or do you think they're also being overly dogmatic about not using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides?
The Andhra Pradesh case that you're talking about. It's a state in India where they have come across and say that eventually they want to go into what they term as a “zero budget natural farming.” And Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India also spoke at an event a couple of months ago and said that that is one way that he wants India to go. And scientists in India were aghast when you heard Modi say that. We are familiar with what's going on in Andhra Pradesh. And this is one camp where both organic and conventional agricultures are together because this crazy zero budget natural farming concept was come up with an idea of one person in India.
Okay, his name is Subhash Palekar, he is from Maharashtra. And he has been a loan proponent of this and somehow got the traction. And a few politicians thought, “wow this was a great idea, why not?” So it essentially boils down to this. They are against organic farming, they are against organic inputs, okay. And they are against any conventional inputs, any chemical input, and they believe the whole agriculture can be practiced, and the nutrients can be provided with cow manure alone, and all the pest control can be done with cow urine. Okay, so this is like a literally crazy, crazy part of agriculture, that, talk about organic going over night is a disaster. And this is going to be super disaster for the country, because there's no scientific evidence that if you just grow and treat the seeds in the cow urine, they're going to be resistant to all the diseases and pests. And then where are you going to get all the cow manure to feed 1.5 billion people in India. If we are against industrial type animal farming. And so, there may be a specific situation where this zero budget natural farming with no external inputs of whatsoever might work under certain scenarios in a niche environment, and so be it. Just like we have all kinds of agricultural types. But as a policy for a country that occupies 20% of the humanity on a 6% of the arable land, with the multitude of problems, poverty and lack of infrastructure, and everything, and then you want to impose something crazy, cockamamie idea like this, is a recipe for super disaster.
It’s interesting to hear Channa discuss Andhra Pradesh like this as we have had past guests who have praised it as a model for low input agriculture that could be scaled out to other contexts. As stated in my question, there have been lots of experiments to understand the efficacy of the techniques practiced in zero budget natural farming. Some of the techniques include using cow dung and urine for quote “microbial seed coating” and “enhancing the soil microbiome through an inoculum.” Cover cropping and crop rotation are also practiced and tested through farmer to farmer dissemination. Channa acknowledges this could be practiced in some contexts but emphasizes it should not be looked at as a model to scale out at a national level.
One thing that I wanted to jump in with is you've talked about food prices a lot as sort of an argument against, organic or lower input, agricultural prices, which is something that comes up a lot in discussions about food system transformation. And, you know, people talk about food prices are low, because we're not accounting for the impacts of, you know, on larger environmental and social impacts of, of, quote unquote, cheap food, and that we should actually be looking more at things like guaranteed basic income that would give people more money to buy food, which should be more expensive. So, where would you weigh in on that debate?
Yeah, I mean, again, that's that goes beyond my expertise in terms of the fixed income. Those are really important, you know, some really new radical new ideas that are coming, and some of them do have merit in it, but that can to do with the gross economic inequity that we have in this society here in the United States and all over the world, I come from India, and it's really incredible as to how there's so many billionaires and yet we have hundreds of millions of people who can't even get a one meal to eat. Again, as an agricultural scientist pondering about these things, what is important is we need to keep food affordable. Okay, it's very important, even as small, even a 10% increase in this is in the cost of rice, in a place like Bangladesh, where rice is everything can be a catastrophic increase the inflation can have catastrophic consequences. Okay. It's okay, in the United States, you know most people, you've had what 6% increase in just last year alone, I know, they kind of, you know, probably grumble about it, when they see the price of bread are going up. But it's not a big deal. Right. Even if the food price is double, it can be cushioned and can be absorbed by what I'm talking about is 80% of the people in the United States, the poor here are still going to suffer. All of that is a war on the poor. And food is where it really hurts.
We asked Channa to share his view on what approaches he would advocate for, instead of organic farming, to reduce the use of agricultural chemicals.
We do have solutions for many of the same problems. Genetic engineering, especially the newer technology of gene editing, which does not entrail transfer of foreign genes. It's just like mutation breeding that we all have been doing for 100 years now is tweaking your potato or tomato and rice, whatever we're growing with some enzymes to oftentimes including using golden rice to produce the same trait as we had done with gene modification, which is so much opposed, but in this gene editing, there is really not going to be any foreign gene. And where yet we can bring about these changes, we can make our crops more resilient to climate change, we can make them more nutritional, less toxins, like cyanide in cassava, which are all serious problems. And we have this opportunity, along with a multitude of other technologies like sensors, and many new artificial intelligence machine learning. All of them, if it's used creatively, you would able to improve the food production with less chemical inputs, and make them more nutritional and definitely more resilient to the vagaries of climate change. We don't have to go back with the primitive technologies and primitive ideas to move forward.
We've heard you say in other interviews before that the Europe Farm to Fork strategy is going backwards. It's not science based, it's driven by emotions and ideologies. And we've talked throughout this conversation about some of these ideologies and your concerns about them. I’d like to ask you, what do you think a more science driven policy would look like? And then also, what are your larger future aspirations for the food system?
Right, I think, again going science based, is a trust in finding solutions through science. Integrated pest management is one of the most important ways of finding a solution for the pest and disease problems. And then, using novel technologies is not just genetic modification, but use genomics, which does not involve any genetic engineering, but using the knowledge of the biology of the plant, to help us develop better varieties is something that is now really picked up a lot of speed everywhere. And in some cases, we may need to tweak it a little bit. And again, knowledge of genetics would help in gene editing. But beyond that, and again, a very techno focused on one area in development of plant varieties, but just only, that is one part of the big puzzle of what is agriculture.
And I do believe we need to, we will be moving forward in a way that we would keep in mind, the diversity, the biodiversity on the farm. And we can not only maintain, but perhaps even the increase by lowering of the chemical inputs. So I am a kind of techno optimist in many ways because I do recognize the negative impact say fertilizers have had, and we know in the Gulf of Mexico here, how bad it is, and, and also in places like India is just indiscriminate use of by some many times illiterate farmers, but on the other hand, combined with education and demand combined with meaningful policies, but some scientific innovation, too.
There is some really bright research showing, we may be able to fix nitrogen in crops like corn, rice, and wheat. They don’t traditionally fix nitrogen, traditionally, unlike soy bean, or ground nut and some of the other legumes. So I do believe in 10, 15, 20 years time, nitrogen fertilizers are going to be history. We are going to be develop don’t having crops that can take 70% of our aid is nitrogen, you know, which, which just our crops don’t know how to get attention from the air and fix it.
And it's not just the crop, but it also the microbiome. We are we are much better at it today, than even five years ago in screening millions of microorganisms that are dealing and pick up some that are able to help corn - bring nitrogen into that and then rejigger the corn genome in such a way that even a very small amount of fertilizers with potassium and other nutrients that are needed may be necessary so that they may not be fertilizer run offs.
And so I think thinking creatively along these lines, with innovation is the same way out of the current mess that we are in with the climate change. Innovating through green technologies, whether it's batteries or fusion or whatever that's going to come is our only way forward to make the current internal combustion engine obsolete. And that's the way I do believe that we will be moving forward with our food and farming systems.
Something we're trying to explore with table and with this podcast is how, how people come to such different conclusions about food system solutions. So how you can look at the same issue like you talked about runoff in the Gulf of Mexico. And you mentioned someone like Hans Herren, who looks at the food system and like you as a smart, thoughtful person and comes to radically different conclusions about what needs to happen. Why do you think this happens? Why are you and someone else—who's also very thoughtful and respected—why are you coming to such different conclusions?
I don’t know, but what I think what we need to do is you when you talk to anybody, and they say, if mine is the only way that is correct, and others are all idiots and they are wrong, then you got to have a red flag in your mind. But and so when you come up with a system and say, “All others are evil, and they need to be stopped, and I can progress, and this is the only way forward,” and then that's bullshit. Okay. And so, all of them have a little place in the society, and so be it. But when you try to wage a war against my technology, Okay, we're coming up with all kinds of spurious reasons. And then coming up with deceptive practices.
Look at this, you talk about power, you know, the organic is $100 billion industry here. And you talk about power, you have the non GMO, which you say, which is the most deceptive label out there in the American supermarkets today. You have non GMO salts, non GMO lemon juice, you have non GMO on everything. And so the consumers are paying for the stupid label for which the alternative doesn't exist. Okay, so this is just fear marketing. And so, let all the solutions play it out in the marketplace of ideas, in the marketplace of products, and let the superior solution and the superior products win.
But if you try to play it out in a really, nasty manner by twisting, the perception of the public, by fear marketing, oh, you buy my product, this is the only way that is going to save the earth - mother earth. You look at the supplement industry, for instance, there's very little scientific basis for a lot of that. And it's literally runs to billions and billions of dollars and just saw based on capitalizing on public ignorance.
One final question that we wanted to ask you, which is really focused on the vision you've been articulating, and sort of our main theme about power, how does power need to be shifted in order to achieve this mission? You know, talking about false advertising, all the things you've sort of brought in how would things need to shift in order for your food system vision to be realized.
I think power needs to be democratized, the power needs to go to the people and then people need to be able to make decisions based on facts, not fear. They need to have the choices they need to be made. They need to be guided, based on information and reason. And that I think that is the only way out in a way. So when the power gets concentrated if individuals, corporations tend to have a certain monopoly over the delivery of those products and have undue influence on how they can they can, you know, provide this information. And right now, the way I see it is, there is a lot of misguided information that is coming out from the purveyors of many of these products. And everybody who wants to have a share in the marketplace are not playing it truthfully.
Channa Prakash, thank you so much for speaking with us.
This was my pleasure. Thank you.
We didn't ask you easy questions and we really appreciate you.
That wraps up another episode of Feed, a food systems podcast. Thank you all for listening.
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This episode was edited by Matthew Kessler with valuable feedback from the extended TABLE community. Join us in two weeks.