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Is Obama's Plan for Tackling Hunger Just Another Chance for Big Ag and Biotech to Cash In?

There's good reason to fear that Obama's new global food security effort may do more harm than good for the world's hungry.
 
 
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When Barack Obama's recently announced that he and other G8 nations will commit to funding a brand new global food security effort, who could really argue with his intentions? In his speech in Ghana, he described his plan, saying "our $3.5 billion food security initiative is focused on new methods and technologies for farmers -- not simply sending American producers or goods to Africa. Aid is not an end in itself. The purpose of foreign assistance must be creating the conditions where it is no longer needed." Yet, despite the altruistic intent of this promise, some wonder if it may do more harm than good. Will it really help to slash the number of hungry people or is this really a puppet policy with big agricultural interests pulling the strings to ensure greater profits?

One reason to question America's efforts toward global food security is its rejection of something known as the IAASTD report, which focuses on using agricultural technology to meet the world's food needs. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development, a global report commissioned by the World Bank and the UN, is described by one of its lead authors, Jack Heinemann, as "the single largest research effort on this topic in all of human history," and "the most authoritative statement on current knowledge." The report was written by an intergovernmental body that involved over 400 scientists and 30 governments. When it was released last year, the United States, under the George W. Bush administration, was one of only three nations that did not approve it. (The other two were Canada and Australia). The U.S. rejection came as a result of fears that the report's conclusions were "protectionist," thus running counter to America's free-trade-at-all-costs agenda. Furthermore, the U.S. did not like the report's rejection of modern biotechnology as the key to solving the world's agricultural problems.

"The IAASTD calls upon rich and poor nations alike to build an agriculture that also builds sustainable societies," says Heinemann. "To do this, agriculture must acknowledge and reverse its true environmental and nonrenewable energy costs, food and biomaterials produced for export from rich countries must not be subsidized, the seeds and livestock must be owned locally, and the technologies chosen for agriculture must be the right ones, not just the commercially viable ones. This is a goal that we cannot simply delegate to the private sector and will require a renewed investment from governments that do not tie agricultural innovation to private profit."

The report points out that solving world hunger requires more than just producing more food or producing cheap food. In the past 50 years, growth in food production has outpaced population growth, and food prices, adjusted for inflation, have fallen. Yet a record number of people go to bed hungry every night. Thus, the problem is not merely one of increasing agricultural yields. And unfortunately, U.S. policies play a role in undermining poor farmers in developing nations by dumping cheap commodities on the world market, making it impossible for them to compete. Our role in causing global warming also jeopardizes poor farmers, as Africa loses arable farmland to rising temperatures and increasing drought. Yet changing our agricultural subsidies or enacting meaningful global warming legislation has not yet been politically possible in Obama's America. We may have a genuine desire to help the hungry, but so far we are unwilling to take steps that will actually create meaningful change for those without enough to eat.

In its assessment of agricultural technology, the IAASTD report found that genetically modified crops are not appropriate for subsistence farmers, such as those Obama pledged to help in Africa, for a number of reasons. Additionally, the report found questionable evidence of the benefits of GM crops (increased yield, decreased pesticide use) and cited a number of risks associated with GM crops (including safety and allergenicity). IAASTD lead author Molly Anderson sums up their findings, saying, "Imposing US-developed technology, including modern genetically-engineered crops, in places that do not have the capacity to monitor its full social, economic and environmental consequences risks repeating serious mistakes needlessly."

Instead, the report authors found that agroecological methods (farming methods that utilize the science of ecology, such as using cover crops or beneficial insects) are "competitive with or superior to conventional and genetic engineering-based methods of productivity... [and] not only lower the environmental impacts of agriculture, they may reverse past damage." Anderson calls for "relatively low-cost, high-return agricultural practices and systems-such as agroforestry, polycultures and organic farming," which she feels carry promise for raising production while improving environmental quality and farm incomes. Anderson says, "Agricultural support needs to target the people who have been underserved in the past: women small-scale farmers who produce most of the food in developing countries, landless workers, other marginalized populations, and poor people living in places most vulnerable to environmental and social threats such as climate change and water scarcity."

Yet, although the IAASTD report was rejected under Bush, the Obama administration has made no efforts yet to embrace it. While Obama himself has been vague, a look at members of his administration, like Nina Federoff, science advisor to Hillary Clinton and outspoken advocate for modern biotechnology, tell us what the government might be likely to do. Clinton's State Department oversees USAID, which will carry out any plans for food and agricultural aid in the developed world. USAID already participates in public-private partnerships with companies like Monsanto to develop genetically modified crops, so it's hardly a stretch to imagine they would continue in the same direction. (Also, citizens hoping to meet with USAID to discuss the findings of the IAASTD report were warned by a top Capitol Hill source to avoid using the term 'agroecological' when talking with USAID; apparently USAID is not open to the idea, even though it was a key recommendation of the IAASTD report.)

Another indication of the direction of the U.S. government comes from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which held a hearing in April 2009 that used a different report -- one by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs -- as a blueprint for America's plan to help feed the developing world. The vision of the Chicago Council report, which was written under the leadership of Dan Glickman and Catherine Bertini with funding by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, looks far more similar to pesticide and biotech industry talking points than it does to the IAASTD report. The pesticide and biotech industries frequently relate solving global hunger to increasing agricultural yield, and they claim to offer the best (if not only) methods of increasing yield. In the hearing, witnesses and Senators alike spoke of the need for hybrid and GM seeds, petroleum-based fertilizer, and pesticides in Africa and South Asia. The Chicago Council report received the endorsement of the other witnesses at the hearing, including the anti-hunger group Bread for the World, as well as other prominent anti-hunger groups like Oxfam. Why were these organizations so closely aligned in their talking points to agribusiness, and why weren't they considering the IAASTD report and its findings?

The connection between many of these groups is the Gates Foundation. Gates provided grant money to Bread for the World and Oxfam, and it funded the Chicago Council's report. Furthermore, Catherine Bertini is a senior fellow at Gates. She is also a former executive director of the UN's World Food Program. Dan Glickman, Clinton's Secretary of Agriculture and a former Congressman (D-KS), enters the picture when you examine his role on the board of Friends of the World Food Program where he served with the CEO of Yum! Brands (the parent company of KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell), a vice president at agribusiness giant Cargill, and Big Ag lobbyist Marshall Matz. The World Food Program is basically a good program, but its success is in delivering emergency food aid, not in changing the system so that fewer humanitarian emergencies occur (as Obama pledges to do). Glickman also sits on the board of the Kansas Bioscience Authority, a group devoted to expanding the biotechnology industry in Kansas, and he is a member of the influential Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, he sat on the international advisory board of Coca-Cola.

Going back to Gates, the president of the Global Development Program, the part of the foundation that leads its anti-hunger programs, is Sylvia Mathews Burwell. She held several senior posts in the Clinton Administration, including Chief of Staff to Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin, and as Deputy Chief of Staff to President Clinton. Rubin was famous for his belief in free trade, including policies that the IAASTD report call out as harmful to the poor in the developing world. Both Rubin and Burwell sit on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations, of which Glickman, as mentioned above, is a member.

Could it be, then, that part of the impetus for the ideas put forth by the Gates Foundation and the Chicago Council come from a worldview held by the Council on Foreign Relations? The website TheyRule.net shows a map of each of the directors on the Council on Foreign Relations's board and all of the other corporate boards they sit on. Between the 14 members of the board, they sit on 32 different corporate, academic, and institution boards, including a nice array of financial companies (AIG, Citigroup, Fannie Mae, Morgan Stanley), oil companies (Chevron Texaco and ConocoPhillips) and everything in between. A look at various agribusiness companies finds that Monsanto has a board member in the Council on Foreign Relations (George H. Poste). Additionally, the Council has a number of corporate members, ranging from Big Oil to Big Pharma to Big Food to Big Money (financial companies).

What does this mean? It does NOT mean that a conspiracy is afoot, or that the individuals involved are necessarily taking orders from corporations to manipulate foreign policy disguised as aid to their own benefit. And, obviously, the vast majority of corporations involved are not agribusiness giants. The Center for Media and Democracy's Sourcwatch site notes that the elitism of the Council on Foreign Relations "doesn't necessarily preclude the ability to provide unbiased and useful service." However, the fact of the matter is that the United States government -- the Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, if not Obama himself -- are ignoring the recommendations of a comprehensive peer-reviewed study (the IAASTD report) and instead taking advice that more or less maintains the status quo of our agricultural and trade system while creating new markets for multinational corporations in Africa and South Asia.

But the connections named above hint at the potential biases and the motivations of the people involved. Certainly anyone sitting on a corporate board, despite a true wish to help the world's hungry, will have good reason not to advocate any solution to hunger that may jeopardize the profitability of that corporation. A more direct link between the wishes of biotech giant Monsanto and the recommendations of the Gates Foundation can be found in Robert Horsch, the former Monsanto vice president for international development who now holds a senior position at Gates. While the Gates Foundation probably does have a genuine interest to help the world's hungry, they are carrying out their agenda by privatizing the means of food production in Africa (via technologies like genetic engineering).

The problem (for multinational corporations) with the agroecological methods advocated by the IAASTD report authors is that they are free. It costs nothing to save seeds, fix nitrogen in the soil with cover crops, rely on beneficial insects and biodiversity to deal with pests, or fertilize with manure. In addition to requiring no seeds, commercial fertilizer, or pesticides, these technologies require no oil or banks. And if the poor farmers of the world grow crops to eat or sell locally, then their crops will not benefit corporations who rely on cheap commodities sold on the world market.

At best, the individuals like Dan Glickman, Catherine Bertini, and other leaders advocating the Chicago Council's report are guilty of poor judgment and perhaps ignorance. Most of these people are not farmers, nor have they studied related scientific fields like soil science or ecology. Furthermore, perhaps they are suffering from a "bubble" effect, as they are surrounded by other, powerful, well-educated, likeminded people. Straying from the conventional wisdom of such a group would be risky for any one of them. Still, it appears that the power structure is polluted by corporate money and influence. If Obama wishes to truly help the people of the developing world, he should take measures to avoid following corporate interests that are not in the best interest of the people he hopes to help.

 

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. Her first book, Recipe for America, was just released.