NPR Gets It Wrong on the Food Crisis

Too bad.

I depend a lot on NPR, so my heart sank as I listened to Morning Edition's recent series on the world hunger crisis. Using Honduras as its case study, the four-part series reinforces dangerous myths that actually block us from seeing the real solutions to hunger all around us.

We're told that "across the globe .... [f]ood is expensive and there's not enough food to feed empty stomachs." No. In fact the world produces enough to make us all plump. True, today an estimated 100 million additional people are, or will soon be, facing hunger as food prices exceed their budgets, but the deeper lack they're experiencing is not food itself. It is power.

Drawing the distinction between lack of food -- a symptom -- and lack of power -- a cause -- is essential to seeing solutions. Yet this series portrays as progress examples that do nothing to correct, and in fact worsen, the underlying power imbalances at the heart of hunger.

In the broadcast, we hear that Wal-Mart is a solution because it provides a market for poor Honduran farmers who otherwise would have no way to sell their produce. But if access to a market is, in itself, farmers' salvation, here at home each year more than 10,000 farmers would not be going under. The question is who controls a market: Where the answer is a few monopsony buyers -- what Wal-Mart represents in the NPR case study -- power remains with them. They set the terms and they decide whether to stay or to leave.

Fortunately, in Latin America and elsewhere some rural communities are beginning to free themselves from distant, monopoly power. Imagine this: In what may be the pesticide capital of the world, the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, pests developed insecticide resistance and genetically modified (GM) cotton failed to live up to Monsanto's promises. Farmers faced catastrophic losses, triggering thousands of suicides, and many then began to move in another direction. Now, almost two thousand villages are embracing community-managed sustainable farming using natural pest controls, not purchased chemicals, and are enjoying improved incomes and health.

Yet, the NPR series ignores such hopeful examples. It notes gloomily that most small Honduran farmers will cut back on production this year, despite higher prices for their crops, because "prices for fertilizer and pesticides have gone up even more than food prices."

In a disturbing disconnect, the series still promote as solutions not only purchased farm chemicals but genetically modified seeds; yet the cost of these seeds puts them out of reach of many poor farmers, as acknowledged at the tail end of the second piece in the series. Worse, and not acknowledged, are the documented, serious environmental and health risks linked to GM seeds.

NPR misses the real story: On every continent one can find empowered rural communities developing GM-free, agro-ecological farming systems. They're succeeding: The largest overview study, looking at farmers transitioning to sustainable practices in 57 countries, involving almost 13 million small farmers on almost 100 million acres, found after four years that average yields were up 79 percent.

NPR chose to reinforce the myth that the only hope for poor rural people is dependency on concentrated economic power when, all over the world, poor farming communities are discovering their own power to work with each other and with nature to build healthier, more secure, and more democratic lives.

What a lost opportunity.

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