Plantation politics: is industrial farming bad for the developing world?

Saturday 17 October, 14.00 until 15.30, Pit Theatre, Barbican Eye on the World

The ‘green revolution’ of the 1960s and 70s helped developing countries avoid much-predicted mass starvation using new hybrid varieties of crops with chemical fertilisers and pesticides. New agricultural techniques – including genetic modification – promise a second green revolution, raising yields, reducing losses from pests and allowing crop production in the least promising of environments. Another agricultural boom has come from palm oil. Oil palm trees, growing in tropical Malaysia and Indonesia in particular, are an astonishingly productive crop, producing nine times more oil per hectare than the next most productive oil crop, rapeseed. As a result, palm oil is appearing in a wide range of products from chocolate to cosmetics, and providing a substantial income for poorer farmers, particularly in underdeveloped Borneo.

Yet these new developments have proved to be controversial. Environmentalists accuse agribusiness of imposing new products on poor farmers, forcing them to buy pesticides alongside overhyped GM crops. Prince Charles and others have accused GM seed producers of driving farmers into debt, leading thousands to commit suicide. GM crops themselves have been criticised for unnecessarily interfering with nature. Palm-oil producers has been widely criticised for burning rainforest in order to clear land for more plantations, threatening biodiversity in general and endangered species, orang-utans in particular. Friends of the Earth bluntly says that ‘palm oil expansion is bad for people and bad for the planet’.

More balanced voices have suggested that GM technology is neither poison nor panacea. Rather, the debate reflects wider attitudes. As author Ramez Naam argues: ‘The GMO debate is often an emphatic and barely-disguised metaphor for our larger debate about whether technology is destroying the world or saving it, whether we should try to control nature or live within it.’ Is agribusiness exploiting developing countries and despoiling the environment? Is the drive for profit coming at the expense of people? Or have developing countries benefited from the investment made by agribusiness and the new techniques and crop varieties that have emerged? Are worried Westerners making things harder for the developing world by turning their backs on products like GM crops and palm oil? Is the image of downtrodden poor farmers and evil capitalists actually patronising to people in developing countries who often welcome these developments?

Listen to the debate
Shahrar Ali
deputy leader, Green Party

Leela Barrock
group head, group communications & corporate affairs, Malaysia-based multinational, Sime Darby Berhad

Marco Visscher
journalist; curator, Tegengeluid

Dr Steve Wiggins
research fellow, Overseas Development Institute, London

Martin Wright
writer, editor and adviser on environmental solutions and sustainable futures

Rob Lyons
science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Economy Forum

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Rob Lyons science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Economy Forum
Recommended readings
Competitive or complementary? Industrial crops and food security in sub-Saharan Africa

Growing industrial crops arouses fears of less food and nutrition security for those engaged in their farming and processing. Such fears may be exaggerated, though several qualifications apply.

Steve Wiggins, Giles Henley and Sharada Keats, Overseas Development Institute, May 2015

Palm oil facts and figures

Palm oil is a balanced oil with a unique chemical composition that offers greater advantages compared to other vegetable oils

Sime Darby, Sime Darby, April 2015

Genetically modified crops are ‘a reckless gamble with our common future’

The Green Party supports a moratorium on the use of GMOs in all agricultural systems including production of human food and animal feed and on importation of GM food or feed.

Dr Rupert Read, Green Party, 12 November 2014

GM: time for a more nuanced debate

Picking sides on genetic modification isn’t as easy as it used to be.

Anthony Kleanthous, Forum for the Future, 9 April 2013

The other oil spill

Palm oil is a popular, cheap commodity, which green activists are doing their best to turn into a commercial liability. Companies are finding them impossible to ignore.

Economist, Economist, 24 June 2010

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