Today, the Group of 8 meeting in L'Aquila, Italy pledged 20 billion dollars in agricultural aid, responding to a request made yesterday by President Obama. For the first time, instead of being given directly as food aid, these funds are set to be allotted for building an agricultural economy in nations in need, specifically in Africa. Just what this agricultural infrastructure entails (the fine print mentions fertilizer and seed, grain storage vessels and plant variety research) could be the key to whether the plan actually seeks to feed many of the billion people on earth who are now hungry, or whether the U.S. and other nations will, instead, further fuel the food crisis.
Yesterday in speaking with Allafrica.com, President Obama discussed today's trip to Ghana, and his ideas for alleviating hunger in Africa. In just a few words, he revealed a bit about his possible economic agenda there, too:
"Now, I also think on the ground in many of these countries, how we think about not high-tech stuff but low-tech technologies to, for example, improve food production is vitally important."
Low-tech technologies could imply better education around sustainable farming practices and food storage. But "improving food production" sounds a lot like boosting yields, similar to what Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in June ("If we can help countries become more productive themselves then they will be in a better position to feed their own people"). Both messages imply that not enough food is currently being produced to feed the world population. But as I've argued before, hunger is not a yield problem. Feeding people is about access, which is lacking even in the United States, where around 36 million people are food insecure. Speculation on commodities, the same practice that bottomed out our financial sector, has resulted in higher food prices and by extension, a food crisis, because people could not afford to buy food.
And yet these overtures are all too familiar. The President is echoing the wording featured in advertisements by companies like Monsanto, in whose interest it is that we continue to pursue GM seeds abroad (Monsanto holds 90% of seed patents) even though in the last 20 years these seeds have failed to produce the higher yields and drought tolerance they have promised. In an economic crisis, perhaps there is discussion that we can stimulate our economy by getting Africans hooked on our seeds and the herbicides/pesticides they require. But it will surely not be Africans who benefit from this arrangement.
"And I'm still frustrated over the fact that the green revolution that we introduced into India in the '60s, we haven't yet introduced into Africa in 2009."
There are very good reasons why we have never introduced a Green Revolution into Africa, namely because there is broad consensus that the Green Revolution in India has been a failure, with Indian farmers in debt, bound to paying high costs for seed and pesticides, committing suicide at much higher rates, and resulting in a depleted water table and a poisoned environment, and by extension, higher rates of cancer. If President Obama is lacking this information, it is his cabinet that is to blame.
Agricultural development is a loaded phrase, vague in the way political phrases can be, because the way it is implemented depends on the viewpoints of those involved in decision making. President Obama is currently embedded in a bubble featuring some of the fervent promoters of the biotech industry and a Green Revolution in Africa, such as Nina Fedoroff, who is a biotechnology researcher currently serving as Hilary Clinton's adviser on science and technology, and Rajiv Shah who left his post at The Gates Foundation's Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to serve as the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Research, Education, and Economics (REE) and Chief Scientist at the USDA. One can't help but wonder, then, if by requesting this money from the G8 in the name of charity we are instead trying to promote our own economy.
Right now, with most studies being sponsored by industry, millions of dollars being spent on lobbying by agribusiness in Washington, and a revolving door that brings people from private sector agricultural companies to Capital Hill, the public is being given one side of the story on biotechnology. Six European countries have now banned the planting of GMOs in their fields based on this lack of information, following what is called the "Precautionary Principle:" that if there is no scientific consensus, there is a responsibility to intervene and protect the public from possible harm. Instead, the U.S. is conducting a scientific experiment on its people, and the results have been alarming.
Aside from the the impact GMOs have on our health, on which study has been lacking, these crops are responsible for massive pollution and depletion of our waterways, and require high oil inputs and a stable climate to produce. This is not sustainable. Isn't it then a bit short-sighted to promote GMOs and commodity crops in Africa, where 80% of the population is rural, and 33 million farms each farming 2 hectares or less are producing 90% of the continent's food?
If we really want to help the hungry, we should invest in tools, arable land for communities, and education about sustainable farming in Africa. We should teach seed-saving and intercropping, so that diets will be diverse and healthy. Most of all, we should avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to hunger, as there are no easy answers. Empowering locals to work within their own climate, governance and culture will ensure that real strides are made in alleviating hunger. Otherwise, instead of teaching Africans to fish, we will be giving Africans fish with the hook of dependence still attached.
Update: The full G8 summit statement on food security can be read here. It is wide-sweeping, and a lot more focused on localized efforts than this piece had predicted. We shall see what the outcome of this statement will be.