Monday, June 30, 2008

Agricultural Revolution

In Jordan, as everywhere, people have been struggling with the surge in basic food prices over the past year. In fact it has taken this global food crisis to shift the focus of governments all over the world back to the land and farmers. Here in Jordan there is suddenly more talk of agriculture in the newspapers, on blogs and on the radio.

In the front page article of the Jordan Times today (June 30th) HM King Abdullah is said to have ‘underlined the need to pay more attention to the agricultural sector in light of the drought the Kingdom in undergoing which has afflicted damage to farmers’ output.’ I couldn’t agree more. There needs to be a real commitment to creating a modern agricultural infrastructure with more investment in the training of farmers as to water and soil conservation techniques, crop rotation, use of fertilizers etc., and investment in more modern agricultural facilities that will work towards growing cheaper, hardier, pest-free foods in our dry harsh climate. Most farmers continue to grow crops on a small scale, just as they have been doing for years, and they do so for the most part without the know-how of modern farming techniques or the benefits of things like genetically improved seeds or fertilizers.

Organic farming has recently made strides in Jordan but not without controversy since the idea that it is good for the environment, more sustainable or cheaper, or that it avoids pesticides, are not necessarily always true. Neither has it been proven that organic foods are healthier or that they contain more nutrients. While some claim that the demand for organic foods is booming, it is interesting to note that even in England, where organic foods are considered popular, they only account for 1% of food sold. Part of their popularity over GM foods in much of the world has been due to the media and to the many groups that have actively campaigned to scare people away from genetically modified (GM) foods, despite the fact that the Royal Society (UK), the National Academy of Sciences (USA), the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the European Commission and many other organizations have endorsed the health, environmental and food safety of GM crops. In May of this year even the Vatican stunned opponents of genetically modified food by declaring them to hold the answer to world starvation and malnutrition. GM crops have been among the most studied and reviewed food crops in the world (over 25 years of experience and billions of acres) and through well established and internationally accepted standards of risk assessment they have been found to pose no more risk than crops produced by traditional breeding methods. Yet they have greatly increased yields and decreased the use of pesticides and herbicides.

Whatever one feels about the risks of using organic farming or GM crops to solve the food problems of the world, the greater risk for any country would be NOT to use the bio technology and science available to understand and improve crop plants, especially in environments such as Jordan where harsh conditions make farming more difficult. Here we are spending millions on gated communities, high rise buildings, roads, bridges, etc. Unfortunately, nobody I know can eat concrete! I believe we should be investing more in a modern agricultural infrastructure. As mentioned at the beginning of this blog, our farmers need to have improved seeds, improved fertilizers, and information about new growing techniques and such things as water and soil conservation. Compensation to farmers, as mentioned in the Jordan Times article today, is necessary but it is only a stop-gap measure which will do nothing for the security of the farmer or our food supply in terms of improving the yield and profits of crops in the future. What is needed is an agricultural revolution carried out with the help of the government! .........z

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