Biotechnology and Sustainable Agriculture*

Martha Crouch

Associate Professor
Department of Biology
Indiana University
Bloomington, IN 47405

[* This is an edited version provided by the author. The full text appeared in Ag Bioethics Forum 4, June 1992, pp. 5-6.]

What is sustainable agriculture? Sustainable means capable of being repeated over and over without diminution. Agri means land. Culture is an active way of living, a set of behaviors that allows a group of people to live in a unique place. Therefore, sustainable agriculture allows people to make a living from the land without diminishing cycles that characterize it: nutrient and water cycles, disturbance and restabilization cycles (e.g., fire and regeneration, gap and enclosure), predator and prey, symbiont and host, life and death relationships. Note that sustainability does allow impact and change. What it means is that the activities of humans become part of the cycles of a place in a way that allows the whole system to continue to function and exist. Integrity is preserved.

Our species began to experiment with agriculture as a way of life about ten thousand years ago, and now most of us obtain the bulk of our food from agriculture. Compared to gathering and hunting, the impact of agriculture on ecosystems has been great. However, there are examples of agricultures that have functioned well for at least hundreds of years. Given the arrogance of industrial culture, we don’t know as much about how other agricultures function as we should. Since industrial modes of growing food have not proven to be sustainable, it seems reasonable to learn as much as possible about how others have done it. Examples include traditional Hawaiian polyculture (Cuddihy and Stone, 1990), Mexican Zapotec maize culture (Flannery and Marcus, 1976), shifting polyculture in the Amazon (Clay, 1988), and Peruvian terrace farming (Sandor and Eash, 1991).

  1. The culture is finely attuned to the cycles of the place. People put great value on intimate knowledge of the place where they live.
  2. The people who use the land for gathering or growing food depend for their lives on wise use of the land. They have a direct and perceivable stake in sustainability.
  3. Agricultural technologies are developed by the people themselves, and thus can be adjusted relatively quickly in response to success or failure.
  4. The community uses many types of food to provide security. This is a common strategy: if one crop fails the community still has many other sources of food on which to rely.
  5. The culture guides individual behavior with rituals, distinctions between sacred and profane, and careful teaching. This is how the community ensures intelligent action by individuals.

A recent description of rice growing in Liberia illustrates some of these points (Thomasson, 1991). Around 400 years ago, Kpelle people moved into Liberia’s rainforests and began to grow newly introduced Asian rice. They developed a sophisticated agricultural technology based on rainforest swidden fields, which, until recent export-oriented plantations and wars intervened, had sustained them without destruction of the rainforest ecosystem. One of the hallmarks is genetic diversity of rice, with more than 100 varieties maintained in each village. Each variety is adapted to very specific local conditions: slope, rainfall, and soil type. No external inputs of fertilizer or pest-control chemicals are used. The diversity ensures some harvest in the face of unpredictable weather, pests, and so on. Breeding, selection and maintenance of the gene pool is a conscious process carried on by the women and carefully taught to the girls. Men produce steel tools capable of working the tough rainforest fields via an alloy process developed by themselves. Kpelle steel production became a source of regional trade income. Both the genotypes and tools are developed by the people who use them for their own communities, and the ability of the Kpelle to survive depends on the success of these activities.

The importance of culture guiding individual behavior is central. In the Zapotec system in Mexico, for example, early rainfall patterns are good predictors of total rainfall in the coming year. “When May - June rainfall indicates a wet year, the Zapotec response is not what a Western agronomist might expect, but it is consistent with their “harmonizing” ethic. Predicting that yields will be higher than average, the Indian actually reduces his maize planting in the...main agricultural zone...” The goal is to produce enough but not too much corn. “Indeed, the traditional Zapotec farmer seeks not to maximize his annual crop but...(to grow) enough to meet the subsistence and ceremonial needs of his family, but no more.” (Flannery and Marcus, 1976). The religion and cosmology of the Zapotec support this practice.

In all of these cases, people have direct incentive to use the land wisely, they have the power to do so, and they have the knowledge to be able to participate in feedback loops.

What underlying rituals and cosmologies guide technological agriculture, and who has the power and knowledge to respond to feedback? In technological societies such as ours, the world revolves around global industrialism. Our view of the world does not imbue the land with sacred qualities; all things are profane (for sale). Healthy economies are measured by their expansion, and progress is a linear rather than cyclical process. Most food production in our societies can be described as agribusiness. In agribusiness, profit is the main product, and food is the means to get profit. Culture has been uprooted as the sense of place has been taken out of the picture: the varieties and techniques are deemed successful to the extent that they can be applied to vast areas, rather than specific locales. Less than 5% of the population is involved directly in growing food, so very few people have the opportunity to see what happens on the land. Thus the knowledge to respond to changes is in the hands of a small fraction of the community. The rural people who see the water, soil, and organisms on a daily basis are often not the same ones who have the power to respond, because urban-generated global market forces drive the adoption of genotypes and practices. Researchers who have often never seen a field produce technologies which are then used by people who do not understand them, and cannot easily modify them. Also, since the consumers of food are not the same people who produce food, the urgency of agricultural crises is not apparent to most members of society.

Monocultures are a logical outcome of the business worldview. The best producers are those who are most efficient. Farmers purchase high-yield seeds varieties and then apply fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to realize the promised yield. Individuals have little knowledge of the consequences of their actions. They simply look at the size of the yield and then follow directions provided by agribusiness. The feedback loop is long — sometimes it must wind through five levels from farmer, salesman, distributor, corporation, and research division — creating a slow response time. And the incentives are divorced from the needs of a specific place.

I contend that sustainable agriculture cannot be attained as long as the primary purpose of growing food is to make a profit. In order to sustain profits, business requires expansion, excess production, and increasing consumption. Sustainability requires an emphasis on subsistence and local markets, and a commitment to living within limits. Given this vision of sustainable agriculture, what can be predicted about the role of biotechnology? Biotechnology as a whole is not likely to help us shift the focus of our agriculture from making profits in a global market to supplying the local economy and feeding people as the main incentive.

First, biotechnology requires a large, complex industrial infrastructure. Purified enzymes require rapid, refrigerated transport; information about genes is stored and manipulated in computer networks; chemicals and machines used in isolating DNA, maintaining constant temperatures for tissue growth, and so on, all rely on chemical companies, centralized and inexpensive energy sources, and efficient marketing. To maintain and expand the infrastructure required to do biotechnology research and then to implement the results will be easier for people already well established in that network Their interests are to maintain the status quo, not to shift the balance.

It also requires special expertise to develop and use biotechnologies. People have to be trained for years in Western science. For rural people, this usually means that they have to go to universities in urban areas or foreign countries. There they are trained to be urban industrial consumers. Talent is removed from the local level, with a concomitant loss of respect for the local knowledge of how to do things. Thus the gap between people developing technologies and those using them widens. The feedback loop gets bigger.

By turning everything it touches into commodities, biotechnology also has the effect of making products and processes that fit more easily into the global market. Seeds that used to be saved by the farmer now must be purchased each year, for example. Genotypes that used to be specific to a slope, soil type, and rainfall amount in a particular valley are replaced with a genotype that will grow in a whole region. Markets that respond to short term increases in production replace subsistence or local markets that respond to the need for a secure food supply in unpredictable conditions. Diversity is lost.

Finally, biotechnologists are not dependent for their own immediate survival on the success of their craft. They get their food from some distant place. If the crop fails in California, the supplier buys from Florida instead, and the biotechnologist buys it from wherever he can get it. There is no direct accountability or urgent stake in the sustainability for the developer of the technology.

It seems clear to me that our economic system, of which agribusiness is a part, cannot be sustainable. My solution is a radically conservative one: more people need to be directly involved in sustaining their own lives, and they need to have control of the technologies used to grow food. Land reform, support for regional autonomy and democracy, policies that strengthen local markets, removal of subsidies that favor global markets, and a willingness to learn from non-industrial people would all do more to promote sustainable agriculture than any specific technological change I can think of.


  • Flannery, K.V. and J. Marcus. 1976. Formative Oaxaca and the Zapotec Cosmos. American Scientist 64:374-383.
  • Cuddihy, L.W. and C.P. Stone. 1990. Alteration of Native Hawaiian Vegetation: Effects of Humans, Their Activities and Introductions. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu.
  • Clay, J.W. 1988. Indigenous Peoples and the Tropical Forests: Models of Land Use and Management from Latin America. Cultural Survival, Inc., Cambridge, MA.
  • Sandor, J. A. and N. S. Eash. 1991. “Significance of Ancient Agricultural Soils for Long-term Agronomic Studies and Sustainable Agriculture Research.” Agronomy Journal. 83:29-37.