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The 2014 World Food Prize: Onward to the Glorious Past

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On June 18th Secretary of State John Kerry announced that plant breeder Sanjaya Rajaram would be the 2014 winner of the World Food Prize. During his 40-year career at CIMMYT and ICARDA (Green Revolution research centers), Dr. Rajaram developed hundreds of hybrid varieties of disease-resistant and high-yielding wheat.

A prodigy of Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, Dr. Rajaram's impressive scientific achievements and his views regarding how to end hunger follow in his mentor's footsteps. His personal story as the son of poor Indian farmers in Uttar Pradesh parallels that of farm-boy Norman Borlaug. From within the institutions of the Green Revolution, recognition of Dr. Rajaram's life's work was long considered overdue.

But the Word Food Prize -- established at Borlaug's urging as a "Nobel Prize for food" in 1986 -- was never simply about the laureates. It has always been primarily about showcasing the Green Revolution. It's about driving home the idea that the primary solution to global hunger lies in the constant introduction of new commodity crop varieties. In the past this was accomplished with rice, maize and wheat hybrids produced through conventional crop breeding. Increasingly, the focus is on GMOs.

Last year the World Food Prize was basically awarded to the GMO industry, provoking widespread dismay and a loss in global prestige for the prize. On the surface, it would appear that this year the World Food Prize Committee has taken a cautious step back from private sector GMOs to the halcyon days of public goods and conventional crop breeding. There will be no cries of "foul" this year to Dr. Rajaram's prize. The timing and the selection of the prize, however, raise some pointed questions.

The first, obvious issue regards wheat. There is no GMO wheat on the market -- yet.

Monsanto's experimental MON71800, a glyphosate-resistant GMO wheat, was found in a conventional wheat field in Oregon in 2013. The discovery prompted the suspension of wheat shipments and a temporary drop in U.S. wheat prices abroad. Though most of the world has made it clear they do not want to buy GMO wheat, the genetic engineering industry is desperately trying to find ways to introduce this product into global markets. Dr. Rajaram, true to his mentor, is decidedly pro-GMO. Awarding the prestigious World Food Prize to a pro-GMO wheat specialist provides a publicity platform for GMO wheat.

The second issue regards the fundamental Green Revolution assumption that the way to end hunger is through a relentless focus on the genetic improvement of commodity crop varieties. The political economy behind this half-century focus is crystal clear: Seeds can be owned, and thus, sold for a profit. Therefore other proven approaches to farm system improvement that can't be commodified are quietly ignored or dismissed as "unscientific." But the IAASTD, a three-year, four-hundred scientist assessment of agriculture stated very clearly that the best bets for ending poverty and hunger were agroecological practices for raising yields, reducing losses and building resiliency to climate change. The U.N.'s former Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food agreed.

The third, fundamental issue concerns the legitimacy of the Green Revolution itself. When subjected to a full accounting, it has simply never been true that the Green Revolution "saved a billion people from hunger." As Frances Moore Lappé showed in her classic work World Hunger Twelve Myths, excepting China, the Green Revolution created as many hungry people as it saved because it provoked the massive dispossession of peasant farmers. In Latin America, the number of hungry people actually increased. Regardless of the increases in rice, maize and wheat yields, people went hungry because they couldn't afford to buy the food being produced.

Even today the world produces 1.5 times enough food to feed every man, woman and child on the planet -- yet one billion poor people go hungry. They are mostly poor farmers, mostly women, and yet they produce 70 percent of the world's food. This is not a problem of productivity, but equity. To end hunger, the world needs a better distribution of food producing resources -- and a better deal in the market for farmers.

The 2014 World Food Prize represents a polite repackaging of the Green Revolution's past glory in order to open a new market and reaffirm its monopoly over the global effort to end hunger. It's a tactical step backwards to improve the industry's chances for a strategic leap at the real prize: the global seed market.

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