When the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) met in Chicago May 3rd-6th they were, no doubt, elated to hear that the U.S. State Department would be aggressively confronting critics of agricultural biotechnology.

Jose Fernandez, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Economic, Energy and Business Affairs noted that the State Department was ready to take on the naysayers. In addition to confronting the critics, Fernandez stated they would be building alliances (presumably with the biotech industry and foreign governments), anticipating roadblocks to acceptance and highlighting the science. Read more

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. Read more

One thing we know for sure is that we just don’t know enough about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and biotechnology to know that in planting their seeds, we aren’t affecting future generations’ ability to feed themselves. For many people, the fact that they’re corporately controlled and thus make for bad social policy, or that they genetically contaminate other species and as such increase claims against farmers, while undermining a farmer’s ability to save seed and be self sufficient, are enough of an argument against their propagation. But in Claire Hope Cummings’ excellent book, Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds, she weaves in the stories of the people and places behind a phenomenon that’s gotten a few rich, while farmers struggle with shrinking margins. Read more

The World Summit on Food Security convened in Rome this week, where world leaders discussed how best to combat worsening worldwide hunger and escalating food prices. Biotechnology has historically been a part of the debate.

As a polarizing subject, biotechnology has no peer.

On the one hand, it has potential to raise crop yields, increase the nutrient value in food and speed up traditional plant breeding through marker-assisted selection, a biotechnology that does not mix genes of different species.

On the other hand, biotechnology is generally funded and controlled by large corporations. The corporations then patent the products produced through the technology and sell them to farmers to make a profit. Read more

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. Read more

Seed and chemical giant Monsanto and friends have lately been conducting all-out re-branding campaigns, seeking to present themselves as the answer to world hunger and the actualization of sustainability.  As an extension of this tight message control, Oxfam is hosting a panel discussion at the Asia Society in New York tomorrow at 8:30 am called “The Global Food Crisis – Time for Another Green Revolution?”  But the discussion seems like it will be rather one-sided. Read more