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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.

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."