Is Obama’s Plan for Tackling Hunger Just Another Chance for Big Ag and Biotech to Cash In?
President Obama has great faith in high-tech agricultural practices. Despite his promises to restore science to its rightful place, his faith is misplaced, because there is nothing scientific about modern agriculture, except the science of maximizing profit at the expense of public health and environmental quality. This story is from Alternet
Is Obama’s Plan for Tackling Hunger Just Another Chance for Big Ag and Biotech to Cash In?
By Jill Richardson, AlterNet. Posted August 10, 2009.
When Barack Obama’s recently announced that he and other G8 nations will commit to funding a brand new global food security effort, who could really argue with his intentions? In his speech in Ghana, he described his plan, saying “our $3.5 billion food security initiative is focused on new methods and technologies for farmers — not simply sending American producers or goods to Africa. Aid is not an end in itself. The purpose of foreign assistance must be creating the conditions where it is no longer needed.” Yet, despite the altruistic intent of this promise, some wonder if it may do more harm than good. Will it really help to slash the number of hungry people or is this really a puppet policy with big agricultural interests pulling the strings to ensure greater profits?
One reason to question America’s efforts toward global food security is its rejection of something known as the IAASTD report, which focuses on using agricultural technology to meet the world’s food needs. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development, a global report commissioned by the World Bank and the UN, is described by one of its lead authors, Jack Heinemann, as “the single largest research effort on this topic in all of human history,” and “the most authoritative statement on current knowledge.” The report was written by an intergovernmental body that involved over 400 scientists and 30 governments. When it was released last year, the United States, under the George W. Bush administration, was one of only three nations that did not approve it. (The other two were Canada and Australia). The U.S. rejection came as a result of fears that the report’s conclusions were “protectionist,” thus running counter to America’s free-trade-at-all-costs agenda. Furthermore, the U.S. did not like the report’s rejection of modern biotechnology as the key to solving the world’s agricultural problems.
“The IAASTD calls upon rich and poor nations alike to build an agriculture that also builds sustainable societies,” says Heinemann. “To do this, agriculture must acknowledge and reverse its true environmental and nonrenewable energy costs, food and biomaterials produced for export from rich countries must not be subsidized, the seeds and livestock must be owned locally, and the technologies chosen for agriculture must be the right ones, not just the commercially viable ones. This is a goal that we cannot simply delegate to the private sector and will require a renewed investment from governments that do not tie agricultural innovation to private profit.”
The report points out that solving world hunger requires more than just producing more food or producing cheap food. In the past 50 years, growth in food production has outpaced population growth, and food prices, adjusted for inflation, have fallen. Yet a record number of people go to bed hungry every night. Thus, the problem is not merely one of increasing agricultural yields. And unfortunately, U.S. policies play a role in undermining poor farmers in developing nations by dumping cheap commodities on the world market, making it impossible for them to compete. Our role in causing global warming also jeopardizes poor farmers, as Africa loses arable farmland to rising temperatures and increasing drought. Yet changing our agricultural subsidies or enacting meaningful global warming legislation has not yet been politically possible in Obama’s America. We may have a genuine desire to help the hungry, but so far we are unwilling to take steps that will actually create meaningful change for those without enough to eat.
In its assessment of agricultural technology, the IAASTD report found that genetically modified crops are not appropriate for subsistence farmers, such as those Obama pledged to help in Africa, for a number of reasons. Additionally, the report found questionable evidence of the benefits of GM crops (increased yield, decreased pesticide use) and cited a number of risks associated with GM crops (including safety and allergenicity). IAASTD lead author Molly Anderson sums up their findings, saying, “Imposing US-developed technology, including modern genetically-engineered crops, in places that do not have the capacity to monitor its full social, economic and environmental consequences risks repeating serious mistakes needlessly.”
Instead, the report authors found that agroecological methods (farming methods that utilize the science of ecology, such as using cover crops or beneficial insects) are “competitive with or superior to conventional and genetic engineering-based methods of productivity… [and] not only lower the environmental impacts of agriculture, they may reverse past damage.” Anderson calls for “relatively low-cost, high-return agricultural practices and systems-such as agroforestry, polycultures and organic farming,” which she feels carry promise for raising production while improving environmental quality and farm incomes. Anderson says, “Agricultural support needs to target the people who have been underserved in the past: women small-scale farmers who produce most of the food in developing countries, landless workers, other marginalized populations, and poor people living in places most vulnerable to environmental and social threats such as climate change and water scarcity.”
Yet, although the IAASTD report was rejected under Bush, the Obama administration has made no efforts yet to embrace it. While Obama himself has been vague, a look at members of his administration, like Nina Federoff, science advisor to Hillary Clinton and outspoken advocate for modern biotechnology, tell us what the government might be likely to do. Clinton’s State Department oversees USAID, which will carry out any plans for food and agricultural aid in the developed world. USAID already participates in public-private partnerships with companies like Monsanto to develop genetically modified crops, so it’s hardly a stretch to imagine they would continue in the same direction. (Also, citizens hoping to meet with USAID to discuss the findings of the IAASTD report were warned by a top Capitol Hill source to avoid using the term ‘agroecological’ when talking with USAID; apparently USAID is not open to the idea, even though it was a key recommendation of the IAASTD report.)
Another indication of the direction of the U.S. government comes from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which held a hearing in April 2009 that used a different report — one by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs — as a blueprint for America’s plan to help feed the developing world. The vision of the Chicago Council report, which was written under the leadership of Dan Glickman and Catherine Bertini with funding by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, looks far more similar to pesticide and biotech industry talking points than it does to the IAASTD report. The pesticide and biotech industries frequently relate solving global hunger to increasing agricultural yield, and they claim to offer the best (if not only) methods of increasing yield. In the hearing, witnesses and Senators alike spoke of the need for hybrid and GM seeds, petroleum-based fertilizer, and pesticides in Africa and South Asia. The Chicago Council report received the endorsement of the other witnesses at the hearing, including the anti-hunger group Bread for the World, as well as other prominent anti-hunger groups like Oxfam. Why were these organizations so closely aligned in their talking points to agribusiness, and why weren’t they considering the IAASTD report and its findings?
…The United States government — the Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, if not Obama himself — are ignoring the recommendations of a comprehensive peer-reviewed study (the IAASTD report) and instead taking advice that more or less maintains the status quo of our agricultural and trade system while creating new markets for multinational corporations in Africa and South Asia.
But the connections named above hint at the potential biases and the motivations of the people involved. Certainly anyone sitting on a corporate board, despite a true wish to help the world’s hungry, will have good reason not to advocate any solution to hunger that may jeopardize the profitability of that corporation. A more direct link between the wishes of biotech giant Monsanto and the recommendations of the Gates Foundation can be found in Robert Horsch, the former Monsanto vice president for international development who now holds a senior position at Gates. While the Gates Foundation probably does have a genuine interest to help the world’s hungry, they are carrying out their agenda by privatizing the means of food production in Africa (via technologies like genetic engineering).
The problem (for multinational corporations) with the agroecological methods advocated by the IAASTD report authors is that they are free. It costs nothing to save seeds, fix nitrogen in the soil with cover crops, rely on beneficial insects and biodiversity to deal with pests, or fertilize with manure. In addition to requiring no seeds, commercial fertilizer, or pesticides, these technologies require no oil or banks. And if the poor farmers of the world grow crops to eat or sell locally, then their crops will not benefit corporations who rely on cheap commodities sold on the world market.
At best, the individuals like Dan Glickman, Catherine Bertini, and other leaders advocating the Chicago Council’s report are guilty of poor judgment and perhaps ignorance. Most of these people are not farmers, nor have they studied related scientific fields like soil science or ecology. Furthermore, perhaps they are suffering from a “bubble” effect, as they are surrounded by other, powerful, well-educated, likeminded people. Straying from the conventional wisdom of such a group would be risky for any one of them. Still, it appears that the power structure is polluted by corporate money and influence. If Obama wishes to truly help the people of the developing world, he should take measures to avoid following corporate interests that are not in the best interest of the people he hopes to help.
President Obama is a moderate Democrat. He is in the thrall of conventional wisdom, perhaps even more so than was President Bush, whose religious convictions sometimes conflicted with what passes for science. Neither had any concern that high-tech agricultural practices are unsound and not in the best interests of anyone, outside those making money from laying waste to the soil, air, water, public health, and biodiversity. These practices have to hide from actual scientific scrutiny, because they could not pass muster. It is all about money, science for hire, not truth, logic, feeding the hungry, sustainability, responsibility, or solving problems.
Corporate interests sometimes also serve the public interest, but more often they do nothing of the sort. This is why corporations used to be kept on a tight leash. The potential for abuse is obvious, but for some strange reason, politicians turn a blind eye. The reason is also obvious. Corporate cash greases the wheels of political reality. As long as that goes on, there will be no real solutions to any problem, especially not solutions that benefit people directly. The bigshots of industry want to control everything, and politicians are only too eager to assist. Obama promised change, but whatever change he meant, it was not to challenge political reality, or to restore actual science to its rightful place. That would expose the terrible flaws of modern agriculture. No change will be forthcoming to challenge the stranglehold big business exerts over politics and science. That would be too radical for a moderate Democrat like President Obama. So in the guise of feeding the hungry, big agribusiness and biotech will cash in, big time.