In a recent New York Times Op Ed entitled “Genetically Engineered Food for All,” Nina Fedoroff made a novel argument: The manifold virtues of genetically engineered food, she claimed, remain unrealised because of excessive regulation. The US government is stifling innovation by an over-cautious approach to this benevolent, life-sustaining technology.
Here’s what AGRA Watch’s Phil Bereano had to say in response:
Editor, NY Times:
Contrary to the assertion by Nina Fedoroff (Aug 19 Op Ed) that the US has a “regulatory thicket” which is “slowing down the development” of GE crops, the government has essentially abandoned what little oversight it did exercise. Our procedures fall far short of those recommended by international agencies such as the treaty governing the movement of GE organisms across international borders and the UN guidelines for scientific assessment of GE food risks.
To avoid drawing the public’s attention to GE and its risks, the government decided in 1986 against Congressional consideration of a special GE regulatory statute. Instead it announced that existing laws would be stretched to cover these new products. The result has been the deployment of illogical legal pretence to “cover” vastly novel products (like engineered fish). Further, the set up provides few opportunities for public information and oversight.
In 1992 the FDA announced it would not regulate GE foods, claiming (without evidence and over the opposition of its own scientists) that they were “substantially equivalent” to regular ones; subsequently, this view has been rejected by international authorities.
Meanwhile the Agriculture Department has refused to do any environmental assessments of GE crops, despite mounting scientific and empirical evidence of contamination and harm to biodiversity. In recent years, court lawsuits forced it to do several such examinations, but these have been inadequate by international standards. Thus, the “safety” of GE is far from proven. Risk research is barely funded; rather “don’t look, don’t find” has been the US posture.
The absence of evidence of GE risks is, therefore, not evidence of the absence of risk or that GE crops are safe.
– By Philip L. Bereano, professor emeritus at the University of Washington
The budding field of agroecology represents a synthesis between ecology and agronomy. Embracing traditional, local knowledge as much as modern science it has already produced impressive results in the field: increasing crop yields, lowering input costs, enhancing soils, and combating deforestation. Yet despite these proven benefits, agroecological methods are scorned or ignored by most food policy makers. Why neglect such a promising toolbox? In a recent article, Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on the right to food, makes the case for agroecology and identifies the political and economic obstacles to expanding its implementation. The solution to hunger is not to continue the toxic trajectory of the original Green Revolution or rely on an expensive and hazardous ‘gene revolution,’ as promoted by AGRA. The world can not afford to choose between productivity and sustainability—we need both, and fast. If given a chance, agroecology has the potential to produce abundant food, sustain livelihoods, and safeguard the environment.
The past few decades have witnessed changing agricultural labor dynamics in the Global South. Beginning in the 1980s, during an era of giddy faith in Reganomics, international lending agencies and western governments began pressuring and cajoling many African nations into structural adjustment programs. These programs, aimed to foster agricultural development and economic growth, were predicated on a certain model of agriculture, certain hallowed criteria: African agriculture must follow the path of the United States and other developed nations; it must be rationalized, industrialized, and the state’s apron strings must be cut (shameless hypocrisy in the face of massive production and export subsidies for farmers in the U.S. and Europe).The result was the promotion of large-scale, market-oriented, chemical-dependent, and capital-intensive agriculture and the denigration of subsistence farming. In many areas this forced rural farming communities to adapt their livelihoods and become more ‘flexible’ with their labor.
Although the consequences of the first Green Revolution and structural adjustment have taken different forms in different parts of Africa, in general farmers and laborers have been uprooted and forced into labor mobility. No longer able to survive in one place, these people must migrate, traveling to cities during the off-season for additional income or hired temporarily by contractors to work on large farms just so that they can hold onto their own land, homes, and sense of place.
This phenomenon has been termed ‘footloose farming’ because, under the pressures mentioned above, farming—traditionally a livelihood intimately bound to a patch of earth, literally grounded in the soil—requires migration. For the most part it is men who migrate, unencumbered with child-care and ‘free’ to roam. It is a double-edged sword, for although migration can be relatively lucrative, it leaves whole villages without men and destabilizes rural communities. Furthermore, large, capitalist farming enterprises benefit from this situation as a migratory workforce faces greater obstacles in resisting exploitation; it lacks the time, social networks, and leadership required to muster the collective bargaining power to improve labor conditions.
One can argue that this socially destructive phenomenon of footloose farmers is not just an unfortunate side effect of western-imposed agricultural change in Africa (and indeed many other parts of the Global South), but a core piece of a dominant development ideology that devalues food sovereignty and community cohesion, tossing these aside for the sake of blind inequitable growth.
In several ways the approach of AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) to agricultural growth is likely to exacerbate the phenomenon of ‘footloose farming.’ Why is this so? AGRA, as its name suggests, operates within the same paradigm of the original Green Revolution. Its focus is on high-tech (and thus capital-intensive and market oriented) farming. If the historical effects of this approach are anything to go by, AGRA’s efforts will only continue this deleterious trend of dispossession. Although the Alliance’s public rhetoric purports to encourage small-holder farming and empower women farmers, internal conversations reveal a hidden ideology. One of AGRA’s primary patrons, the Gates Foundation, subscribes to a ‘theory of change’ that admits to promoting a type of agricultural development that will push ‘inefficient’ farmers who are not market-oriented off their land, a process the Foundation euphemistically describes as ‘land mobility:’
‘In order to transition agriculture from the current situation of low investment, low productivity and low returns to a market-oriented, highly-productive system, it is essential that supply (productivity) and demand (market access) expand together… [this] involves market-oriented farmers operating profitable farms that generate enough income to sustain their rise out of poverty. Over time, this will require some degree of land mobility and a lower percentage of total employment involved in direct agricultural production (Gates Foundation 2008).’
The forces that lead to footloose farming and land mobility are threats to the larger question of food sovereignty. Defined by La Via Campesina, a global movement of peasant farmers, as ‘the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems,’ food sovereignty stands in opposition to AGRA and other high-tech, foreign-imposed approaches to farming. It stands in opposition to a form of inequitable and short-sighted ‘growth’ that cleaves farmers from fields, people from place.
Does drought cause famine? The question isn’t as simple as it might seem.
There is a tendency in Western governments, much of the international aid community, and mainstream media to view the social consequences of natural phenomena as inevitable. Unlike war, suffering and death in the wake of floods, earthquakes, and droughts is seen as tragic yet unavoidable. Capricious mother nature will have her way. Yet a cursory glance at mortality rates for earthquakes in the US versus China, or malnutrition rates for droughts in Australia versus Africa belie this assumption. In an article for the Washington Post, William Moseley asks Why They’re Starving in the Horn of Africa and critiques dominant approaches to famine prevention and relief. Deep structures at the heart of agriculture make or break the capacity of a community or region to weather nature’s unpredictable mood swings.
A thoughtful Seattle Times article questioning the Gates Foundation’s focus on bio-fortification (using GE and conventional breeding to increase nutrient content of crops) to combat hunger in Africa. AGRA Watch’s own Phil Bereano, cited in the piece, points to research concluding that crop variation as well as decreasing water and chemical use are more effective and sustainable approaches to conquering hunger. Nutrient ‘Band-Aids’ don’t solve the underlying problems – no matter how chic and shiny said Band-Aids might be!
Farming is production at its most fundamental. Today it is often claimed that the agricultural revolution was humanity’s most transformative innovation. And whether you see the first seed sown as our original sin or as the beginning of civilization there is little debate over one fact: farming irreversibly influenced the fate of humanity. It was the prerequisite for the growth of cities, the division of labor, and for so much subsequent history.
Farming is also human agency at its most unadulterated. The knowledge acquired by the world’s agriculturalists—how to harness the powers of nature for our nourishment, how to select and save the best seed for the following year, how to foster fertile soil and channel life-giving water to crops—all this became vital and empowering. With the development of farming, humans became active agents on this earth in new, more powerful ways than ever before.
Historically, food production has been the source of most subsequent forms of production: without farming there would be no freedom from the incessant search for food; there would little art or architecture, no surplus to feed doctors, politicians, and teachers. Even today, with a diminishing portion of the world’s population involved in farming, most within the development community agree that a robust farming sector is almost always necessary for sustained economic growth.
And yet many of the same politicians and development economists who acknowledge the importance of a sustainable agricultural sector also treat farming merely as a means to industrial ends. Agriculture becomes the slave of industry, exploited to feed the voracious appetite of urban factories with raw materials, financial capital, and displaced farmers themselves. In this model, it is often forgotten that farming is the source of nourishment for each and every human body; it is the essence of production and not merely a tool for capital accumulation.
It is strange then that modern farmers—the archetypal producers—have been reduced by the economic and technological hegemony of agribusiness to the status of consumers. The past century has witnessed a steady penetration of farming by capital—formerly self-reliant farmers coaxed and pressured into purchasing expensive inputs such as fertilizer and seed held by an increasingly small number of transnational corporations. This capital-intensive agriculture leads to a vicious cycle of debt and dependency from which it is difficult to escape. Today, food producers at all points along the spectrum, from large poultry farmers in America to small potato farmers in the Andes, have been significantly disempowered by corporate heavyweights.
Agribusiness has long sought to consolidate corporate power over agriculture, gaining ground with hybrid seeds and chemical inputs manufactured during the mid 20th century. The most recent way in which these companies reduce food producers to consumers is through genetically engineered (GE) seed. As the promoters of this technology are eager to point out, humans have been manipulating seed for millennia, selecting desired characteristics and bringing these forward for the next generation. However, these corporations fail to acknowledge that there is a crucial difference with GE: this seed manipulation takes place not by farmers on the land but instead by scientists in the lab. These companies, moreover, appropriate seed developed by farmers over thousands of years and then ‘improve’, patent, and sell it back to the same farmers as an original product, claiming sole authorship. Labeled biopiracy by critics of GE, it is an action that clearly illustrates the dynamic between seed corporations and farmers.
Philanthropies and their private sector partners are also seizing on the growing hunger and climate crisis to push GE on small farmers in the developing world, particularly in Africa. This ostensibly well-meaning effort to foster development is based on several questionable practices and assumptions including a failure to acknowledge the deleterious history of farmer debt and dispossession, environmental degradation, and social stratification that has long accompanied this capital-intensive agricultural paradigm.
The word ‘farm’ comes from the Proto-Germanic word ferhwo meaning ‘life force’ or ‘being’ and is related to the Old English feorh meaning ‘spirit’ or ‘life.’ Etymologically this reflects the vital place of farming as a source of human productivity. Yet today, in a global economy geared towards limitless growth, consumption is king and even farmers, the original producers, are rendered sterile, manipulated into becoming consumers on their own fertile lands.
Differences continued to emerge among leaders over whether the country should import genetically modified crops.
Medical assistant minister Kazungu Kambi and Belgut MP Charles Keter warned against the importation of GM maize, arguing that it had negative effects.
“We do not want our people to eat GM maize because it has bad effects on their health. We totally are against it,” said Mr Kambi.
However, Agriculture secretary Wilson Songa said the country could not run away from GM technology.
“The technology is coming, there is no stopping it,” he said.
Dr Songa said maize production in the country would double if the country adopted GM crops.
“Before we fully introduce the crop, it will go through the necessary agro-research analysis through Kenya Agricultural Research Institute,” he said.
He argued that a farm with GM crop could produce as much as 40 to 50 bags of maize per acre unlike the current case where only 30 bags were produced.
Kenya produces about 32 million bags of maize yearly while the consumption has shot up to 38 million due to rise in population.
The agriculture secretary noted that if the country adopted the technology, production would shoot up to about 64 million bags.
A 90kg bag of maize is currently going for Sh4,500, up from Sh1,200 three years ago.
Speaking during a Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security meeting at Intercontinental Hotel, Dr Songa said the country could not be competitive if it stuck to the old traditional methods of farming.
He cited South Africa, where farmers used three to four pesticides on a GM crop while in Kenya farmers used more than 15 pesticides before a crop matured.