All That Glitters is Not Gold: Biotechnology Has Failed Us, So Why Promote It Abroad?

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CommonDreams.org

All That Glitters is Not Gold: Biotechnology Has Failed Us, So Why Promote It Abroad?

The head of the World Food Program announced on Friday that an additional 105 million more people have become hungry in 2009, adding to the one billion plus who were already food insecure. The day before, Secretary Clinton gave a speech about hunger in the world, speaking in broad strokes: "[H]unger belies our planet's bounty. It challenges our common humanity and resolve. We do have the resources to give every person in the world the tools they need to feed themselves and their children."

In the next sentences, she gives a clue about what "tools" she might be referring to by praising the Green Revolution - without noting the depleted water table, reduced soil fertility, massive farmer debts and increased rates of farmer suicides left in the wake of the failed experiment in India.

The Green Revolution was a product of a biotechnological approach to feeding people, the thinking being that we could create ways of tricking nature in a lab: ridding ourselves of pests and weeds, increasing yields and efficiency. Unfortunately pests and weeds have become more virulent in these systems, as they evolve to withstand higher and higher doses of chemicals. These "monocultures" - field plantings of a single crop, usually corn, cotton or soy - have relied heavily on oil and resource inputs the third world can't afford. Furthermore, these systems have yet to actually improve yields. Efficiency has been the greatest achievement of biotechnology; however, as Michael Pollan and others point out, redundancy, though counter-intuitive, is the only way to ensure food safety. But biotechnology companies like Monsanto have a huge lobbying presence in Washington, and corporate shills like Nina Federoff have the ear of Secretary Clinton. So its no surprise that in the name of philanthropy, the US has begun to adopt the "feeding the world" mantra of Big Ag.

The focus has been mostly on Africa, where a third of the population is malnourished, and where groups like the Gates Foundation are among the newcomers trying to renew the idea of creating a "Green Revolution for Africa," using many of the same methods that have been so bad for India.

Meanwhile, here in the US, 36 million people are food insecure, and yet we are one of the biggest agricultural producers in the world. Given the fact that these commodity crops cannot be eaten until processed, it turns out that what Big Ag is feeding us is not nourishing us. So it seems that hunger is not just a function of yield, but involves distribution, concentrations of power, and policy.

At the end of the day, do we actually seek to feed these hungry people, or to feed our bottom line? Because in this instance, we can't do both.

Raj Patel put it succinctly in a recent email exchange:

Everyone agrees that African farmers need support. But this story is like the vacuum cleaner salesman who dumps dirt on your floor to show you how his product can pick some of it up. In Africa's case, the dirt was dumped in the 1980s, when US-led economic policy from the World Bank actively prevented African governments from investing in their farmers. The results were, the Bank now admits, a disaster. Into this disaster now steps biotechnology, offering to fix the problem. Actually, it's a bad metaphor. This makes it sound as if GE crops can actually increase yields. The problem of hunger in Africa today has very little to do with seed quality, and a great deal to do with poverty, chronic underinvestment in agriculture, and an active stamping-out of the agroecological alternatives that have proved so successful in fighting hunger. Why are these alternatives being suppressed in US government policy? Because they're not profitable for the US biotech industry, and the US government has, since Vice President Dan Quayle shepherded legislation in the US to support the industry, been an aggressive supporter of genetic engineering.

Patel is co-author, with Eric Holt-Giménez, of the forthcoming book, Food Rebellions: Crisis and the Hunger for Justice, which outlines the conditions which led to the global food crisis of 2008, and some of the many steps we can take to solve hunger. The book ties the issue of hunger to a growing dependence on our imports:

The profits and concentration of market power in the industrial North mirror the import dependence, food deficits and the loss of control over food systems in the global South. Fifty years ago, developing countries had yearly agricultural trade surpluses of $1 billion. Today, after decades of development and the global expansion of the industrial agrifoods complex, the Southern food deficit has ballooned to U.S.$11 billion/year (FAO 2004). The cereal import bill for Low Income Food Deficit Countries reaching over U.S.$ 38 billion in 2007/2008 (De Schutter 2008). The FAO predicts it will grow to $50 billion by 2030.

Instead of teaching poor countries to fish, so to speak, we are selling them the fish with the hook still in its mouth.

That hook infers dependence, but there is also another catch: depleted resources. Biotechnology as it is used right now cannot be sustainable. It relies heavily on three things that are waning: surplus water, cheap oil and a stable climate. As much as biotech proponents claim their technologies could be used for sustainable aims, we don't have decades to wait while the technology is perfected. And what if it is never perfected? In addition, in putting all of our eggs in one basket with biotech, the problem is misrepresented, and solutions that are already out there are being ignored.

It seems, therefore, that the only real solution to hunger is to transform the food system from the ground up. In Africa, 80% of the population is rural, and there are 33 million small farms (those farming less than 2 hectares), which produce 90% of the continent's food (Patel and Giménez, 2009). Why don't we, then, instead of promoting an intensive agriculture that is ruining our environment, our health and is lining the pockets of a few corporations, increase aid to agriculture? There is plenty of fertile land in Africa, much of which is being snatched up in massive land grabs by the Chinese and other countries foreseeing their own imminent food insecurity. Perhaps its time to invest in agriculture for Africans, before it's too late.

This was the recommendation of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science, and Technology for Development, or IAASTD, which was a joint project of the World Bank, FAO and UNDP that determined in 2008 that a complete overhaul of the food system was necessary. 61 countries signed onto the findings of the panel. Patel and Gimenez sum up the IAASTD thusly:

IAASTD's four-year analytical exercise started with a collective framing of the core problems of hunger and environmental destruction. Scientists then identified and evaluated the most appropriate actions and solutions to these problems, locally, nationally and internationally.

The IAASTD team found that the limiting factors to production, equitable distribution and environmental sustainability were overwhelmingly social, rather than technological in nature. Further, many proven agroecological practices for sustainable production increases were already widespread across the global South, but unable to scale up because they lacked a supportive trade, policy, and institutional environment. This is why IAASTD recommends improving the conditions for sustainable agriculture, rather than just coming up with technological fixes.

Somehow this gets swept under the rug of policy in the US. But if we are committed to actually helping, it would behoove Secretary Clinton, and others in this administration, to read the findings of the IAASTD and consider it before making policy.

Again, from Patel and Giménez:

Who improves African agriculture, how, under what agreements and by what means, will determine whether the efforts to end hunger in Africa succeed or fail. Lack of attention to these issues runs the risk that the long-overdue support to African agriculture will be used as prop for a flawed global food system when what is needed is a thorough transformation of agriculture.

Will Africans be a cog in our capitalist machine, or will we follow through with our promises to end hunger?

Paula Crossfield

Paula Crossfield is the managing editor of Civil Eats. She is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post's Green Page and is a contributing producer at The Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio where she focuses on food issues. She is currently tending a vegetable garden on her roof in the Lower East Side. You can follow her on Twitter.

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