Community Conference, Biotechnology Summit

Heather, Travis, and I recently attended the Community Food Security Coalition conference in Des Moines, Iowa. We spent several days strategizing, networking, and learning about food policy councils, sustainable agriculture, and the amazing work our allies are doing in various states and countries. We listened to Vilsack ramble on about providing technical assistance to struggling small farmers in Afghanistan (huh?), state his support for GMOs, and dodge other questions about why he kept stressing the need to help small AND large farms. (Some of us hissed…) We listened to a spokesperson from Sodexo try to appease us by expressing his appreciation of the the demands and needs of farmworkers, specifically the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who have been advocating for a 1 cent raise and a Code of Conduct. But more inspiring, we met with folks from Food First and Via Campesina, received an Honorable Mention Food Sovereignty Prize, attended a strategy session of the US Working Group on the Food Crisis, and received tons of support and new ideas for AGRA Watch’s work.

Across the street, the “suits” were planning the Iowa Hunger Summit, complete with World Food Prize banners, tabling opportunities for a range of corporations, philanthropies, and biotechnology advocates. Sustainability, anyone?

Bill Gates, in advance excerpts published in the Seattle Times, was set to “argue that the ‘ideological wedge’ between groups who disregard environmental concerns and groups who discount productivity gains could thwart major breakthroughs that are within reach.” He said himself,  “The fact is, we need both productivity and sustainability — and there is no reason we can’t have both.” Read the whole article here:

But, if we can and should have both, why is the Hunger Summit dominated by biotechnology solutions? Why did Bill Gates’s speech tout biotechnology as the solution to global hunger? Because people, corporations, foundations often find answers where they are willing to look, and for the Gates Foundation–built on profits from technological advances–the answer has to lie in technology. And of course, those setting out to “end hunger” can’t be implicated in its causes–we can’t talk about how unsustainable our consumption is, how our systems are built on slavery, colonialism, and unfair trade relationships. Those of us that do, according to Bill Gates, are keeping necessary technologies away from the poor because of our “ideology.”

Hans Herren, who I heard speak at the CFSC Conference, responded in the following way: “What I think is wrong is to blame the people who question the utility now as the bad guys responsible for hunger… Look at the people who have quadrupled yield in perfectly good agriculturally sound systems. Why is this not taken as the example, not to multiply everywhere but as the basis to adapt to different systems?”

Read the Seattle Times article here:

From the Hunger Summit tabling:


“Supporting seed entrepreneurship and increasing yields…”


“Would you like to work for a global corporation?”


Biotech for water, food and fuel…


Bt Eggplant was a very common theme.


Yikes… and on that note:


So much for these efforts centering on small-scale farmers. From this image, we’d assume their only role is to accept new seeds and guidance from white scientists.

I conclude with AGRA Watch’s response to Gates’s speech:

“Those of us questioning AGRA support both productivity and sustainability, however we also support democracy and thus cannot get behind a foundation whose sheer wealth can direct the future of agriculture toward what it sees as the virtues of (bio)technology. Yet Bill Gates continues framing the debate as one between productivity and sustainability, without mention of colonial history, international trade, and export-driven growth, which prioritize foreign markets over local food security. The first Green Revolution also neglected the social, economic, and political roots of hunger, and not surprisingly, hunger and inequality have persisted despite increased yields. The same results can be expected for AGRA.

AGRA’s focus on productivity is not surprising, given that this narrow framing of the problem opens numerous opportunities for corporations to profit from researching, creating and selling seeds and chemical inputs that claim to generate higher yields. Whether these seeds are genetically engineered or not, they are certainly patented and take control and security away from small-scale farmers.In contrast, social movements call for food sovereignty, which is defined by La Via Campesina as “the right of peoples, countries, and state unions to define their agricultural and food policy… [and to organize] food production and consumption according to the needs of local communities, giving priority to production for local consumption.”

Very rarely do agricultural development programs equally benefit corporations and small-scale farmers, which is why social movements and farmer networks in Africa, and our organization, support sustainable agricultural practices that promote food sovereignty AND maintain high productivity without heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers and global capital. Productivity and sustainability cannot be defined in corporate terms and rooted in technological solutions—they must be rooted in grassroots democracy, local resilience, and a more nuanced analysis of the causes of global hunger. The “ideological wedge” to which Bill Gates alludes is a healthy one—between the world’s small-scale agricultural producers and the world’s most powerful corporations. It is up to the Gates Foundation on which side of this gap their interests fall, but they cannot make large grants to institutions
looking for (bio)technology fixes and market-seeking opportunities, and still claim to be aligned with smallholders in Africa.

What is dangerous is not this rift, but what Gates attempts to do: invoke the urgency of poverty and hunger to push through undemocratic techno-fixes that repeat the same social and environmental failures of the first Green Revolution, and skim over the sustainable practices proven by African smallholders to work for their communities. Instead, Gates could help ensure that the knowledge of African small-scale farmers is protected, celebrated, and shared equitably, rather than appropriated by researchers using Intellectual Property Rights to privatize Africa’s genetic wealth and sell it back to African farmers.

Some AGRA Watch members were able to peek in at the Iowa Hunger Summit, and we assure you from the materials we saw and the people we spoke to, it is very clear that the message is less about solving hunger than it is about using hunger in Africa—the “final frontier” for biotechnology and industrial agriculture—to generate profits.

If Bill Gates wants to close the gap, it is his powerful foundation’s responsibility to think more critically about whose interests they are serving, and how they might be more socially, environmentally, and politically responsible. It is not on us to abandon our hopes for food sovereignty and a more just, democratic, and sustainable global food system.”

The struggle continues…


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