Dr. Ruth Mendum on Seeds and Biodiversity

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To hear Dr. Ruth Mendum's lecture, and the following discussion, about the role of seeds in global agriculture, and the threat of diminished biodiversity, click HERE to listen in ITunesU.

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Ruth Mendum discussed the importance of indigenous agriculture – which has seemingly been left behind by a scientific paradigm that highly values genetic manipulation and high yield agriculture. I believe Mendum raises important concerns regarding the instability of our current system of agriculture – this seems undeniable. And Mendum accurately and professionally understands the precise history regarding the birth of this instability. Her diagnosis of the problem and her understanding of its origin, are most seemingly accurate. Our system of agriculture actually does seem instable and unsustainable.
But in response to Mendum, I have to question the idea of stability or sustainability as it would pertain to any agricultural goal of stability. I understand stability to be a multitude of different states ranging from the entirely static, to the mathematically consistent. This distinction is important to me. In some senses, I think an entirely static system of agriculture is very stable and sustainable. And this system would perhaps use more natural systems of agriculture. Lewontin would probably agree – these systems naturally balance surplus and deficit yields so as to account for imbalances in the fruitfulness and fertility of the environment, or at least more so than current genetically engineered plants. But this system is very static, and any development or progress would have to come slowly from this system. So if the technology permits, why limit ourselves to the merely static when a more mathematically consistent stability, which allows development, seems perfectly possible through the means of technology.
Perhaps now we are riding the wings of technology with too much weight; I agree with Mendum here, but it seems foolish to abandon technology entirely. I’d think that the rate at which our technology in agriculture grows, inherently allows us to develop at a stable and at-least-existent rate, and thus allows us to escape the static yet sustainable life style achieved through indigenous agriculture. Does technology not allow for mathematically consistent yet stable development and agricultural style?

Dr. Ruth Mendem pointedly explained the development of, and current controversy regarding, agricultural crop production and technology, in her presentation, starting from the earliest indications of civilizations employing agricultural rather than nomadic survival techniques.

The most intriguing topic within her presentation in my opinion was the elucidation of Albert Howard’s understanding of production and breeding techniques after his work in the West Indies. Howard and his wife worked in plant pathology for sugar cane producers, but his true interests lay in plant breeding and the traditional understanding of soil use (the N-P-K system, wherein nitrogen, phosphorus and pot-ash/potassium are the exclusive variables in plant growth or soil fertility.) Howard, trained at Cambridge, was the first to admit his ignorance of the agricultural situation of the Indians: instead of taking what could be considered the traditional colonial route, he acknowledged his lack of understanding and went to observe the peasantry in their work. His observed that: peasants reusing materials and utilizing the natural attributes of indigenous plants could more effectively combat pest pressure. This became the Indore Method, which argued that one is unable to compensate with plant breeding and the addition of soil fertilizers. What Dr. Mendem explained is that implicit in Howard’s critique is an understanding that the usefulness of the European sciences is indeed limited.

This position is one that closely ties in with our observations in the class, in what I believe should not be an offensive proposition to the sciences but rather simply another red flag that should point the worried observer to the propositions that Bruno Latour has explained in our readings: the necessity of an integration of scientific and political processes and values.

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