Biotechnology: A False Sense of Food Security

In his Foreign Policy essay “Attention Whole Foods Shoppers,” Robert Paarlberg paints the movement for sustainable food production and security as a Western elite preoccupation. He writes, “From Whole Foods recyclable cloth bags to Michelle Obama’s organic White House garden, modern eco-foodies are full of good intentions… Food has become an elite preoccupation in the West, ironically, just as the most effective ways to address hunger in poor countries have fallen out of fashion.”

In the same breath that he criticizes these “Western elites” who support sustainable food production,  Paarlberg espouses the very Western, elitist argument that the only definition of “good,” “modern,” or “improved” agricultural inputs are the ones created, patented and sold by big Western biotech companies such as Monsanto, where Paarlberg serves on the Biotechnology Advisory Council (PDF).

Paarlberg seems to believe that the only two options for global agriculture are dirt poor subsistence farmers barely eking out a living or mass biotech production on the Green Revolution scale. But between these two extremes is a middle ground: A diverse and robust rural sector that includes small and medium farmers serving local communities and nations along with appropriate technologies that help re-balance the mix between locally sourced and imported food options. In my role at American Jewish World Service (AJWS), I see the wisdom of this third way set of approaches every day through initiatives like Lambi Fund of Haiti’s home-grown seed banks.

The insistence that “modernization” only has one meaning and one possible approach puts Paarlberg out of step not only with many of the people on the ground actually living with this issue every day, but also with the current consensus among experts in the field as laid out by the findings of the International Science, Technology and Development (IAASTD) initiative. This process – a three-year intergovernmental research and analysis project on the state of global agriculture conducted under the co-sponsorship of the FAO, GEF, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, the World Bank and WHO – came to almost the exact opposite conclusion of Paarlberg’s.

Wherever one stands on the issue of biotech in agriculture – and people of good will can disagree – the notion that all biotech practices are inherently “good” or “modern” whereas all non-biotech practices, such as indigenous seed banking and hybrid cultivation, composting and drip irrigation, are inherently “bad” or “backward” comes across as more ideological than scientific.

The first and biggest proponent of non-biotech food security is Via Campesina, a global social movement that represents millions of peasant and small-scale farmers in hundreds of developing countries. People who suffer from lack of food around the developing world do not need Western ‘eco-foodies’ to tell them that local food sovereignty is the best way to feed their families. They already know it, and knew it long before “locavorism” came to these shores.

No one is seriously suggesting that the current system is working. Paarlberg is right that farmers need good inputs (seeds, fertilizer, etc) as well as the existence of basic infrastructure (roads, power, etc) to succeed. But he undercuts his argument by failing to discuss the many factors that led to the current situation, other than a throwaway line about food aid, with which I heartily agree and wish Paarlberg would expound upon.

AJWS is paying particular attention to this aspect of hunger issues in Haiti, where huge influxes of US-subsidized bio-tech produced rice will continue to undercut local farmers’ ability to feed their country if something isn’t done soon. AJWS is asking Congress to support common-sense aid to Haiti – you can make your voice heard by signing our petition.

Most can agree with Paarlberg that food aid has not helped hungry people in the developing world and that we must switch from investing in sending bags of food to the continent to sending real support for agricultural development assistance. AJWS strongly supports US foreign assistance for sustainable agricultural initiatives, but only when they are supported and led by the people on the ground. People who really care about feeding the world’s hungry cannot create situations that just replace the old dependency on foreign food aid with a new dependency on inputs that are wholly controlled by biotech corporations.

2 thoughts on “Biotechnology: A False Sense of Food Security

  1. Pingback: Biotechnology: A False Sense of Food Security « Black Cafe Network News

  2. Nice piece. I believe that your approach to knocking the extremes out of this debate is most needed. We need a third way that combines agro-ecological, cultural, and economic lenses in balance.