All That Glitters is Not Gold: Biotechnology Has Failed Us, So Why Promote It Abroad?

The head of the World Food Program announced on Friday that an additional 105 million more people have become hungry in 2009, adding to the one billion plus who were already food insecure. The day before, Secretary Clinton gave a speech about hunger in the world, speaking in broad strokes: “[H]unger belies our planet’s bounty. It challenges our common humanity and resolve. We do have the resources to give every person in the world the tools they need to feed themselves and their children.”

In the next sentences, she gives a clue about what “tools” she might be referring to by praising the Green Revolution — without noting the depleted water table, reduced soil fertility, massive farmer debts and increased rates of farmer suicides left in the wake of the failed experiment in India.

The Green Revolution was a product of a biotechnological approach to feeding people, the thinking being that we could create ways of tricking nature in a lab: ridding ourselves of pests and weeds, increasing yields and efficiency. Unfortunately pests and weeds have become more virulent in these systems, as they evolve to withstand higher and higher doses of chemicals. These “monocultures” — field plantings of a single crop, usually corn, cotton or soy — have relied heavily on oil and resource inputs the third world can’t afford. Furthermore, these systems have yet to actually improve yields. Efficiency has been the greatest achievement of biotechnology; however, as Michael Pollan and others point out, redundancy, though counter-intuitive, is the only way to ensure food safety. But biotechnology companies like Monsanto have a huge lobbying presence in Washington, and corporate shills like Nina Federoff have the ear of Secretary Clinton. So its no surprise that in the name of philanthropy, the US has begun to adopt the “feeding the world” mantra of Big Ag.

The focus has been mostly on Africa, where a third of the population is malnourished, and where groups like the Gates Foundation are among the newcomers trying to renew the idea of creating a “Green Revolution for Africa,” using many of the same methods that have been so bad for India.

Meanwhile, here in the US, 36 million people are food insecure, and yet we are one of the biggest agricultural producers in the world. Given the fact that these commodity crops cannot be eaten until processed, it turns out that what Big Ag is feeding us is not nourishing us. So it seems that hunger is not just a function of yield, but involves distribution, concentrations of power, and policy.

At the end of the day, do we actually seek to feed these hungry people, or to feed our bottom line? Because in this instance, we can’t do both.

Raj Patel put it succinctly in a recent email exchange:

Everyone agrees that African farmers need support. But this story is like the vacuum cleaner salesman who dumps dirt on your floor to show you how his product can pick some of it up. In Africa’s case, the dirt was dumped in the 1980s, when US-led economic policy from the World Bank actively prevented African governments from investing in their farmers. The results were, the Bank now admits, a disaster. Into this disaster now steps biotechnology, offering to fix the problem. Actually, it’s a bad metaphor. This makes it sound as if GE crops can actually increase yields. The problem of hunger in Africa today has very little to do with seed quality, and a great deal to do with poverty, chronic underinvestment in agriculture, and an active stamping-out of the agroecological alternatives that have proved so successful in fighting hunger. Why are these alternatives being suppressed in US government policy? Because they’re not profitable for the US biotech industry, and the US government has, since Vice President Dan Quayle shepherded legislation in the US to support the industry, been an aggressive supporter of genetic engineering.

Patel is co-author, with Eric Holt-Giménez, of the forthcoming book, Food Rebellions: Crisis and the Hunger for Justice, which outlines the conditions which led to the global food crisis of 2008, and some of the many steps we can take to solve hunger. The book ties the issue of hunger to a growing dependence on our imports:

The profits and concentration of market power in the industrial North mirror the import dependence, food deficits and the loss of control over food systems in the global South. Fifty years ago, developing countries had yearly agricultural trade surpluses of $1 billion. Today, after decades of development and the global expansion of the industrial agrifoods complex, the Southern food deficit has ballooned to U.S.$11 billion/year (FAO 2004). The cereal import bill for Low Income Food Deficit Countries reaching over U.S.$ 38 billion in 2007/2008 (De Schutter 2008). The FAO predicts it will grow to $50 billion by 2030.

Instead of teaching poor countries to fish, so to speak, we are selling them the fish with the hook still in its mouth.

That hook infers dependence, but there is also another catch: depleted resources. Biotechnology as it is used right now cannot be sustainable. It relies heavily on three things that are waning: surplus water, cheap oil and a stable climate. As much as biotech proponents claim their technologies could be used for sustainable aims, we don’t have decades to wait while the technology is perfected. And what if it is never perfected? In addition, in putting all of our eggs in one basket with biotech, the problem is misrepresented, and solutions that are already out there are being ignored.

It seems, therefore, that the only real solution to hunger is to transform the food system from the ground up. In Africa, 80% of the population is rural, and there are 33 million small farms (those farming less than 2 hectares), which produce 90% of the continent’s food (Patel and Giménez, 2009). Why don’t we, then, instead of promoting an intensive agriculture that is ruining our environment, our health and is lining the pockets of a few corporations, increase aid to agriculture? There is plenty of fertile land in Africa, much of which is being snatched up in massive land grabs by the Chinese and other countries foreseeing their own imminent food insecurity. Perhaps its time to invest in agriculture for Africans, before it’s too late.

This was the recommendation of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science, and Technology for Development, or IAASTD, which was a joint project of the World Bank, FAO and UNDP that determined in 2008 that a complete overhaul of the food system was necessary. 61 countries signed onto the findings of the panel. Patel and Gimenez sum up the IAASTD thusly:

IAASTD’s four-year analytical exercise started with a collective framing of the core problems of hunger and environmental destruction. Scientists then identified and evaluated the most appropriate actions and solutions to these problems, locally, nationally and internationally.

The IAASTD team found that the limiting factors to production, equitable distribution and environmental sustainability were overwhelmingly social, rather than technological in nature. Further, many proven agroecological practices for sustainable production increases were already widespread across the global South, but unable to scale up because they lacked a supportive trade, policy, and institutional environment. This is why IAASTD recommends improving the conditions for sustainable agriculture, rather than just coming up with technological fixes.

Somehow this gets swept under the rug of policy in the US. But if we are committed to actually helping, it would behoove Secretary Clinton, and others in this administration, to read the findings of the IAASTD and consider it before making policy.

Again, from Patel and Giménez:

Who improves African agriculture, how, under what agreements and by what means, will determine whether the efforts to end hunger in Africa succeed or fail. Lack of attention to these issues runs the risk that the long-overdue support to African agriculture will be used as prop for a flawed global food system when what is needed is a thorough transformation of agriculture.

Will Africans be a cog in our capitalist machine, or will we follow through with our promises to end hunger?

6 thoughts on “All That Glitters is Not Gold: Biotechnology Has Failed Us, So Why Promote It Abroad?

  1. So true,

    Unfortunately neoliberalism lives on. So long as the US pushes a policy away from public investment and towards a private sector economy for places like Africa it is hopeless.

  2. Great article Paula. Makes me wonder if Bill Gates and the like have any idea of what “The Green Revolution” did in India or if they are just taking the word of Big Ag for granted.

  3. Pingback: Modern Ag is Failing Here, Why Send it Abroad? | Sustainable Table

  4. Great write-up Paula. You capture the essence of this debate but I just wanted to be a bit of a gadfly and take issue with a few things.

    First, not to dismiss Pollan and Patel, for they are doing fantastic work, but at least on the topics of Africa, the green revolution, and hunger there is a huge academic literature that has interrogated and critiqued the tropes that the US food-industrial complex has been pedaling over the last few decades. While I don’t want to suggest that somehow the academics are a better source I do think that it is important to recognize how widespread this critique is and how the findings which support much of what Pollan and Patel say has been subject to the rigors of peer review. Given the tactics that companies like Monsanto have been using, brilliantly deconstructed in Rob’s post COOL-ing Down Monsanto, it might be helpful to at least engage them on the terms of scientific rigor. Given that the standard portrayal of the sust. food and ag. movement is that we’re a bunch of ideological romantics playing around in fantasy land, it is helpful to be able to point to research which is a bit less explicitly polemic. There is plenty of it and I’d be happy to provide citations for anyone who is interested.

    My second concern is with your conclusion, specifically the notion that solving the problem of hunger lies outside the capitalist machine. I object to this not because I support capitalism, but rather because I think it is a bit of an oversimplified portrayal which fails to recognize how much of the “food” movement has already been incorporated into the logics of capitalism. The industrialization of USDA organics and the close ties between the SOLE food movement and urban gentrification are only two pieces of evidence. The discussions about what is a fair price for farmers to charge at Farmers Markets is also pretty good evidence that buying local food is, if anything, MORE capitalist than the heavily subsidized industrial food model. There was an interesting article a few years back about why conservatives should love the local food movement that made many of these points. This may be a bit uncomfortable for some of us who wish that capitalism would go away, but I think that we need to realize that the choice about how to deal with food production in Africa is not about capitalism or some alternative. I would argue that even for those who consider themselves ardent free-market capitalists there are some pretty compelling reasons to stop putting Africa over the barrel so to speak. Failed states, pirates, terrorist training camps are all very bad for business. Billions of Africans whose brains aren’t being atrophied by malnutrition and who can participate in market economies because they aren’t being gouged by seed supply companies would actually be very beneficial to a whole range of other industries. Of course, I’m not saying that the solution to African hunger is greater exposure to the forces of capitalism, but the choice about how to address hunger is somewhat tangential to the debate about capitalism. We could also point out that based on the evidence of the Green Revolution continuing down that path is going to be to the detriment of everyone. Pest resistance will spread, zoonotic diseases will evolve at greater rates, and so on.

    Again, I bring these points up not to counter the notion that biotech will increase hunger which, in the current form, I agree with 100%. Rather understanding the viability of political options does require attention to the underlying logics being deployed by participants in the debate. I’ll also fess up and confess to being a slightly overzealous graduate student with a love of obscure theory! However, I actually think that the space academia afford actually is useful in terms of picking apart these arguments. I only wish that academics were more active in using their skills to enhance activist efforts, but as the Lotter piece points out, the political economy of academic publishing is a whole other debate.

  5. I wanted to mention that the Union of Concerned Scientists report “Failure to Yield” did in fact find that one GE crop had improved yield when compared to its conventional counterpart. Unfortunately, the report made very broad statements after only examining two traits in two crops – herbicide tolerance and pest resistance in corn and soy. They ignored yield gains in cotton, canola, etc – saying those crops either weren’t eaten, or widely grown enough to include. Cotton seed is in fact used for food, so that’s a very incorrect and highly convenient way to reach a conclusion that you want. They also stated (incorrectly) that there have been no intrinsic yield-improving field trials – just google something called Mendel Biotechnology Yield trait to find out more – and that’s one example.

    It would be a good idea to look up this information about what is being cited, rather than taking it at face value.

    The Green Revolution, despite its drawbacks, still saved the lives of a Billion people. What we need is a Green Green Revolution.