Community leaders train on how to cultivate Moringa in Sierra Leone.
By Julia Kayser
July 13, 2012 — In the United States, corn is everywhere. An ear of fresh corn is the hallmark of summer. Throughout the rest of the year, we’ve got corn syrup in our drinks, cornstarch in our snacks, and even corn oil on our fried foods… plus, most of the livestock we raise is fed on corn. About sixty-three percent of the corn that we grow in the United States is genetically engineered. The two most common types of genetically engineered corn are insect-resistant corn (called Bt corn) and herbicide tolerant corn. If corn is everywhere and most corn is genetically engineered, then bioengineering is a way of life in the United States.
Since 1990, when genetically engineered crops first became available, they were heralded by the biotech industry as the solution to hunger for the world’s expanding population. But, genetically engineered crops haven’t gained as strong a footing in developing nations. That’s partly because the seed is so expensive. It’s also because most genetically engineered crops won’t grow in marginal soil with poor irrigation. So far, the research has been focused on corn and soybeans instead of cow pea, millet, cassava, quinoa, and other staples of subsistence farmers.
Should the international community invest in research and development of new genetically engineered crops? Long-term studies like Failure to Yield and Agriculture at a Crossroads indicate that biotech does not provide a significant increase in production. For example, since Bt corn hit the US market in 1996, it’s resulted in only 0.2-0.3 percent yield increases per year. So far, genetic engineering for crops has been focused on preventing damage from herbicides and pests. But that doesn’t actually increase the potential productivity of each plant. To eliminate hunger in a growing population, we need to do more than minimize our losses. We need to build capacity and increase the potential of farmland.
UMCOR’s Sustainable Agriculture and Development (UMCOR-SA&D) program is doing just that. When local communities invite UMCOR to partner with them, UMCOR provides supplies and training to a small group of community leaders. Then, those leaders spread the knowledge through word of mouth and hands-on Farmer Field Schools. Using field test plots, farmers make careful observations and analysis of crops they have grown organically or by using small amounts of chemical pesticides—determining which method produces the best quality at higher yields and with less production costs. These programs focus on culturally appropriate crops such as cassava and potato. The Farmer Field School is one example of how farmers learn how to grow healthy crops that in the end will result in less hunger and better nutrition.
UMCOR also offers training in beekeeping, integrated crop and pest management, agro-forestry, human nutrition, small animal production, micro-enterprise development, and the use and cultivation of Moringa— a tree whose leaves contain several essential nutrients and vitamins that also helps improve yields and reduces malnutrition.
Mozart Adevu, Africa’s regional coordinator for UMCOR-SA&D program, says that he is most proud of the promotion of nutrition using Moringa. “We have tested Moringa in some local communities,” says Mozart. “In the DR Congo, malnutrition was reduced from about 89 percent to only 47 percent.”
To end hunger, it’s going to take more than pest and herbicide resistant corn. We need to envision a whole new harvest.
Julia Kayser is a writer and regular contributor to www.umcor.org