Biotechnology: A False Sense of Food Security

In his Foreign Policy essay
"Attention Whole Foods Shoppers," Robert Paarlberg paints the movement
for sustainable food production and security as a Western elite
preoccupation. He writes, "From Whole Foods recyclable cloth bags to
Michelle Obama's organic White House garden, modern eco-foodies are
full of good intentions... Food has become an elite preoccupation in the
West, ironically, just as the most effective ways to address hunger in
poor countries have fallen out of fashion."

In the same breath that he criticizes these "Western elites" who
support sustainable food production, Paarlberg espouses the very
Western, elitist argument that the only definition of "good,"
"modern," or "improved" agricultural inputs are the ones created,
patented and sold by big Western biotech companies such as Monsanto,
where Paarlberg serves on the Biotechnology Advisory Council (PDF).

Paarlberg seems to believe that the only two options for global
agriculture are dirt poor subsistence farmers barely eking out a living
or mass biotech production on the Green Revolution scale. But between
these two extremes is a middle ground: A diverse and robust rural
sector that includes small and medium farmers serving local communities
and nations along with appropriate technologies that help re-balance
the mix between locally sourced and imported food options.
In my role at American Jewish World Service (AJWS), I see the wisdom of
this third way set of approaches every day through initiatives like Lambi Fund of Haiti's home-grown seed banks.

The insistence that "modernization" only has one meaning and one
possible approach puts Paarlberg out of step not only with many of the
people on the ground actually living with this issue every day, but
also with the current consensus among experts in the field as laid out
by the findings of the International Science, Technology and Development (IAASTD) initiative.
This process - a three-year intergovernmental research and analysis
project on the state of global agriculture conducted under the
co-sponsorship of the FAO, GEF, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, the World Bank and
WHO - came to almost the exact opposite conclusion of Paarlberg's.

Wherever one stands on the issue of biotech in agriculture - and
people of good will can disagree - the notion that all biotech
practices are inherently "good" or "modern" whereas all non-biotech
practices, such as indigenous seed banking and hybrid cultivation,
composting and drip irrigation, are inherently "bad" or "backward"
comes across as more ideological than scientific.

The first and biggest proponent of non-biotech food security is Via Campesina,
a global social movement that represents millions of peasant and
small-scale farmers in hundreds of developing countries. People who
suffer from lack of food around the developing world do not need
Western 'eco-foodies' to tell them that local food sovereignty is the
best way to feed their families. They already know it, and knew it long
before "locavorism" came to these shores.

No one is seriously suggesting that the current system is working.
Paarlberg is right that farmers need good inputs (seeds, fertilizer,
etc) as well as the existence of basic infrastructure (roads, power,
etc) to succeed. But he undercuts his argument by failing to discuss
the many factors that led to the current situation, other than a
throwaway line about food aid, with which I heartily agree and wish
Paarlberg would expound upon.

AJWS is paying particular attention to this aspect of hunger issues
in Haiti, where huge influxes of US-subsidized bio-tech produced rice
will continue to undercut local farmers' ability to feed their country
if something isn't done soon. AJWS is asking Congress to support
common-sense aid to Haiti - you can make your voice heard by signing our petition.

Most can agree with Paarlberg that food aid has not helped hungry
people in the developing world and that we must switch from investing
in sending bags of food to the continent to sending real support for
agricultural development assistance. AJWS strongly supports US foreign
assistance for sustainable agricultural initiatives, but only when they
are supported and led by the people on the ground. People who really
care about feeding the world's hungry cannot create situations that
just replace the old dependency on foreign food aid with a new
dependency on inputs that are wholly controlled biotech corporations.

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