The Real Villain in the World Food Crisis
Huffington Post, May 19 2008
What's behind the world food crisis? Yes, the growing world population is a huge contributor to the need for more food. Yes, reckless food- and oil-seed-based biofuel subsidies have added to the problem. Yes, the climate crisis will contribute enormously. Yes, greater prosperity by previously vegetarian consumers in India and China will increase demand for feed grains.
But the media only occasionally touch on why we are having this particular food crisis: market fundamentalism and the privatization of world food security. Sunday's New York Times has a devastating article on the dismantling over the past 20 years of the network of publicly funded and accountable agricultural research centers.
What was supposed to take the place of public research? Privatized, market-driven, corporate research. How were they going to ensure food security? By developing genetically modified foods. What would motivate them? Profit -- geared to patented GMO (genetically modified organism) seed varieties. These patented seeds would cost more, but farmers' yields would go up so much that the world would be better off. Unfortunately, the hard truth is that GMOs have actually made the world's food supply smaller -- because the varieties developed for crops like soy beans and cotton, thus far at least, have yields that are lower than the conventional strains they replace.
This might mean that GMO crops simply can't produce the continually increasing crop yields that their advocates have promised. But it is also fair to say that we have no real idea whether they can or can't, because the privatized market for developing GMOs has almost no interest in crop yield per se -- it has been developed for purposes such as making crops that are more tolerant of the herbicide Roundup.
In fact, the Department of Agriculture concedes that not a single GMO crop on today's market was designed to increase yields. By contrast, the entire focus of the publicly funded agricultural research that led to the Green Revolution was increased yields.
For years a staple of the literature advocating GMO crops has been salt-tolerant barley for marginal soils in Africa. I'm not a crop scientist, so I have no idea whether salt-tolerant barley is feasible -- and if it is feasible, no idea whether GMO crops are the most likely pathway to develop it. But I know enough economics to be pretty sure that Monsanto won't get rich selling the seeds of a GMO salt-tolerant barley to marginal farmers in Mauritania -- the market is neither big enough nor rich enough. Wheat farmers in the Dakotas are a much better investment for Monsanto, especially when they are backed by huge crop subsidies, and the company has followed the market signals. As a result, virtually all the crops emerging from the privatized corporate agricultural research establishment are designed not to increase yields or to lower costs but to increase resistance to herbicides or a narrow range of first-world pests.
Even today, we don't need GMO rice to fight the current devastating outbreak of brown plant hopper on Asian rice fields. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has identified more than a dozen conventional varieties that could produce resistance if they were crossbred into the commercial types in common use in Asia. But the IRRI lacks the funds to do the necessary work. And private seed companies lack the financial inventive, because the hopper continually evolves, so even if a private food corporation developed a resistant variety, it could market it for only a few years. Seed sales just wouldn't make a big enough profit.
As a result, we have poor farmers in India committing suicide because their GMO cotton crops didn't meet expectations or failed; we have governments trembling from Haiti to Afghanistan because their people can no longer afford to eat; we have newly empowered pests chewing their way through the world's rice paddy fields; we have inadequate stores of grain to survive even modest droughts in Australia -- and we act as if this should be a surprise.
It's not as if this is a new problem. At least as far back as the Irish potato famine, it has been clear that unregulated markets can't handle the inevitable ups and downs of food production. Ireland actually had plenty of food to feed itself, but Victorian market fundamentalists insisted that most of it be exported. Then, as now, intentional public policy was needed to avoid famine and starvation.
Dare we hope that this fall that the Presidential candidates will actually be asked about this issue? Only if we insist. And the debate will be meaningful only if we ask the hard questions about why we have abandoned publicly funded and accountable agricultural policy mechanisms for the long-discredited concept that privatization of research and market fundamentalism will feed the world.