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Perpetuating the Eternal Food Fight

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In his January 10 New York Times blog spot "Beyond the Eternal Food Fight," Andrew Revkin appeals to whom he considers to be the Alpha and Omega of food and disaster experts, Lester Brown and Vaclav Smil. He asks whether the current food prices spikes are "the edge of the cliff or just another bump in a long, climbing road?"

Predictably, Lester Brown advances his usual environmental catastrophe argument while Smil claims we need better governance and must somehow keep the Chinese from adopting grain-fed meat diets. Revkin pleads for a "least-regrets course forward." Refreshingly, everyone seems to agree that the developed countries shouldn't waste so much or live so high on the hog (literally). What is good about Brown's argument is that he recognizes that the current economic system is destroying the environment that we depend upon to survive (something Smil denies). What is good about Smil's argument is that he recognizes we have more than enough food to go around -- it just doesn't get around.

Unfortunately Brown, Smil and Revkin all converge uncritically on the well-worn "solutions" (genetic engineering and individual consumer choices) resting firmly on the heroic assumptions propping up the global corporate food regime:

1) All problems have a technological solution, and
2) Liberal ("free") markets are inviolate

It is disappointing to see the New York Times recycle these neoliberal fetishes because it keeps us from addressing the root causes of hunger: poverty, unregulated markets, monopoly concentration and the inequitable distribution of food producing resources.

Crop scientists know that genetically engineered crops (GMOs) are not intrinsically higher yielding. They can't make the plant produce bigger or heavier or more abundant grains. They can, for a time, reduce losses to pests (by inserting the gene from Baccillus thurengensis (Bt), or losses to weeds (by inserting a gene that makes the plant resistant to herbicides like Roundup). However, as farmers in the U.S. and elsewhere are already painfully aware, insects develop resistance to Bt and weeds build resistances to herbicides.

As far as "climate-ready" GMOs are concerned, climatologists agree that the problem is not simply warming temperatures and drought, but extreme and unreliable weather: drought and cold, heat and flood, pest outbreaks, etc). It is impossible for scientists to find a gene for every cultivar to resist every climate event.

So why does the seed industry insist they can raise yields and resist climate change? The answer is easy: because companies like Monsanto have saturated seed, fertilizer and pesticide markets in North America and now need African, Asian and Latin American farmers to buy their products.

Framing the market solution in terms of individual "consumer choice" and personal dietary habits is a facile way to avoid examining the excessive concentration of market power, and extensive social and environmental costs inherent to a food system controlled by giant agrifoods monopolies. Of course we all need to eat lower on the food chain and we should choose to consume products that do not harm the environment. However, this does nothing to address the urgent need for things like land and market reforms, for effective antitrust regulation, or for halting worldwide rural (and urban) land grabs. "Voting with one's fork" is fine for those who can afford it. Unfortunately we have become a two-tiered society in which those who can afford it eat good food and the poor consume the cheap, mass-produced, processed food that has brought us an epidemic of obesity and diet-related disease.

The majority of the hungry people in the world are small farmers -- most of them women -- scratching out a subsistence on minuscule parcels of land through ever more heroic acts of self-exploitation. Many of them actually produce at much higher levels of productivity pound-per-acre that large agribusiness farms. However, they sell their harvest cheap because they must compete with subsidized grains from the U.S. and Europe that are dumped on their national markets. Months later, they are forced to buy food at high prices. Since they can't afford to buy enough food, they go hungry. What they need is more land and protection from dumping and gouging -- not more genetic engineering or liberalized markets.

There is a vast reservoir of well-documented agroecological methods of farming around the world that lower production costs, provide decent, sustainable yields and build in resilience to the weather extremes associated with climate change. The difference with this approach to genetic engineering is that instead of manipulating the seed genetics of one cultivar at a time, agroecology manages whole agroecosystem functions to improve farm performance. Unfortunately for agribusiness, this leaves little opportunity for profit, which is why it is avoided like the plague by Monsanto, Syngenta, and USAID.

Agroecology has spread from farmer to farmer with the help of NGOs, farmers' organizations and agroecological scientists. The systemic denial of the efficiency of these methods is evident in the visceral rejection by the U.S. and the genetic engineering industry to the findings of the International Assessment on Agricultural Knowledge , Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The IAASTD -- a four year study carried out by six hundred scientists -- found GMOs to be at best irrelevant to the task of ending hunger. The scientists from a wide variety of disciplines (not just agronomy and molecular biology) took a problem-oriented and systems approach to conclude that the existing agroecological and farmer-led solutions held the most promise for ending hunger.

Unfortunately, by constructing a false dichotomy between Lester Brown's environmental determinism and Vaclav Smil's technological fundamentalism, Revkin directs us away from the root causes of hunger: the corporate food regime itself. The result is the perpetuation of the eternal food fight.

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