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Twisted tunnel vision of food locks in hunger

Fran's picture
Submitted by Fran on Fri, 04/12/2013 - 20:21

The Ideas and Society discussion “Can we feed 9 billion in 2050?" at La Trobe University was profoundly disillusioning. The destructive structure of our global food system was apparently invisible to the panel.  Instead much energy was devoted to claiming people concerned about GM crops are a huge problem. This was news to MADGE.

The question the panel should have addressed is “Since we produce enough food to feed 9 billion people right now, why are nearly 1 billion people hungry today?” The answers are not a secret, people are hungry because:

  1. They are poor. Poor people in Brazil, Chad and Rwanda spend 40-80% of their income on food. 70% of the hungry are small farmers and agricultural workers. Governments have neglected them while promoting the large farms that supply markets. Developing countries aren't the only ones with hungry people. One in twenty (5%) of Australians cannot always afford to put food on the table. In the US, the country that grows the most GM crops, one in five children live in households that are food insecure. The panel did not discuss poverty.
  2. Our food system is wasteful. Almost 50% of food grown is thrown away. Fruit rots on the tree in Australia while processors import cheaper produce. Huge quantities of crops are fed to animals and the corn turned into biofuel in the US could feed 412 million people for a year. This was mentioned but not explored.
  3. Our food system is run for profit, not to feed people. Goldman Sachs, the investment-banking firm, made $400 million in 2012 from betting on food prices. Deregulation of markets since 2000 has allowed this ‘food bubble’ to develop. The global financial crisis in 2008 sent money pouring out of other investments and into commodities. This helped push 250 million people into food crisis.  Food price riots were mentioned by the panel but not the deregulated financial capital that is a significant cause of them.

Instead of discussing these issues panel member Elizabeth Finkel attacked those concerned about GM crops. She cited Mark Lynas, an anti-GM campaigner who has since repented of his actions. He now regards GM as the way to preserve forests and feed people. Critics of GM were portrayed as anti-science and equivalent to climate change deniers.

This is a bizarre distortion since GM soy has destroyed huge areas of South American rainforest. People are being driven off their land for monocultures of GM soy that are exported to China and Europe for animal feed. The pesticides sprayed on this GM crop are causing an epidemic of cancer and birth defects in nearby communities.

Once again this is not a secret. “Bad Seeds”, a report by Al Jazeera, interviews people who have been displaced, poisoned, and impoverished by GM crops and shows the environmental devastation they cause.

Elizabeth Finkel also claimed that GM bt cotton has reduced pesticide use in India, increased yields and farmers now have TV’s, a sign of their increasing affluence.

These statements conflict with news coming from India where 270,000 farmers have committed suicide since the 1990’s.This is when the Indian economy was restructured to receive IMF loans. Foreign agribusiness entered and Monsanto, the company that owns most GM crops, now controls 95% of the Indian cottonseed market.

In 2012 40% of GM cotton in the Indian state of Maharashtra failed. This affected 5 million farmers who are being blamed for the failure, not Monsanto's GM technology. This is a surreal form of injustice. The social and economic devastation caused by neo-liberal reforms and GM cotton can be seen in films like “Bitter seeds”.

Panel member Philip Keane’s presentation was a relief as it showed the importance of restoring degraded farmland, putting land into the hands of women farmers and that sustainable farming does not require high technology.

This aligns with the finding of the largest scientific investigation into how to feed the world, the IAASTD,’s “Agriculture at a Crossroads”. This system of farming, agroecology, “can double food production in entire regions within 10 years while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty.” The biotech companies walked out of the IAASTD’s 3-year research project when it was clear that GM is irrelevant to agroecology. 

So why has agrocology been virtually ignored despite its scientific and agronomic superiority to GM? A paper by Vanloqueren and Baret (2009) suggests that GM fits the current mindset, structure and ideology.

GM is reductionist, concentrating on the gene and cell level. It can be patented. It is profitable for the public-private partnerships that most universities and research establishments are now dependent on. GM suits “the new rules of global finance and free trade, or consolidations and strategic alliances in the agricultural input industry.” Four companies control 56% of "brand name" seed sold world wide. The largest owner of conventional, GM and organic seed in the world is US company Monsanto. GM technology also has the support of the most powerful government in the world, the US

In contrast agroecology designs agricultural systems that require few agrochemcial and energy inputs. They use ecological interactions and synergies that create their own soil fertility, productivity and crop protection. (Altieri 1995). This is the exact opposite to industrial farming, of which GM is the latest flowering, which depends on fertilizers, chemicals and purchased seed. In agroecology the farmers are in control and reap the benefits. In GM the seed, fertilizer and chemical companies set the price, make the profits and control the system. Which do you think will better feed people?

The media has maintained public trust in GM by reporting its future promises as certainties: salt and drought tolerance, higher yields, better nutrition. It ignores that non-GM breeding and traditional seeds already have achieved these goals. It also ignores the result of the introduction of GM: crop failures, ecosystem destruction and the control of farmers by corporations. It ignores the field of agroecology almost entirely.

The "Ideas and Society" discussion was a strange hybrid, showing the potential of agroecology but promoting GM. It made invisible the political, social and economic forces that are actively hostile to scaling up the agroecological farming systems that work without them. This myopia will lock in the injustice that is currently behind global hunger. 

Outside university discussion forums millions of people, farmers, scientists and citizens, are organizing to transform this broken system into one where people and the planet can thrive. Why does “Ideas and Society” appear to know nothing of this enormous global movement?