Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Food security: feeding the future

The war over genetically modified organisms is a part of a larger and increasingly complicated global struggle

A controversy surrounding the World Food Prize (WFP) highlights how the fault-lines of power struggles are no longer essentially between nations. Civil society organizations across the world are taking on corporations and governments over who will secure our food future.

Interestingly, both WFP and its counter, an activist initiative known as the Food Sovereignty Prize, are based in the US. This year’s WFP is being shared by three biotechnology scientists for their work on genetically modified foods—two of them senior executives of agri-industry giants Monsanto and Syngenta. The Food Sovereignty Prize has gone to a peasant organization in Haiti with honourable mentions to a farmers group in Spain, one in Mali and the Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective in India.

WFP, which has sometimes been referred to as the Nobel for agriculture, was founded in 1987. It was instituted by Nobel Laureate Norman E. Borlaug, commonly known as the father of the Green Revolution.

The Food Sovereignty Prize, in contrast, is the work of an activist network called the US Food Sovereignty Alliance. Members of this alliance include a wide range of groups working to end poverty, rebuild local food economies, and assert democratic control over the food system.

This tableau easily lends itself to a one-dimensional narrative. Proponents of genetically modified organisms (GMO) dismiss the protesters as being anti-science and anti-growth. The protesters condemn GMO as a Frankenstein technology than endangers both human health and bio-diversity. Both sides accuse each other of endangering future food security.

Over the last decade this polarization has manifested itself in most countries, including India. There is an urgent need to at least look beyond, if not overcome, this stalemate.

There are two dimensions to this dispute. One is over what is good science and how we might make choices about technology. The other has to do with the clash between command-and-control business models versus more equitable models that foster economic democracy.

Interestingly, Borlaug is best known for integrating various streams of agricultural research into viable technologies. Today, a plurality of approaches to agri-technology is the bone of contention. The “GMO war", which tends to generate the loudest headlines, is one part of a larger and increasingly complicated global struggle.

There is no dispute about the need to accelerate responsible agriculture and lift millions of people out of poverty. But how is this goal to be met?

This is why the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization in 2002 initiated the International Assessment on Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technologies for Development (IAASTD) as an initiative involving scientists, government officials and private sector representatives from 110 countries.

The IAASTD report, released in April 2008, concluded that current models of industrial agriculture cannot ensure future food security. While the report did not reject GMO, it clearly concluded that there is no basis for saying that future food security depends on GMO. The US, Canada and Australia were conspicuous among countries that refused to be signatories to the final report. However, the UK and France joined numerous developing nations in adopting the IAASTD report.

This means that all claims about GMO—for or against—need closer scrutiny. Anyone who suggests that science has settled the matter is not quite telling the truth.

It is, however, concerns about economic democracy that drive much of the opposition to the agri-business tilt of WFP. Entities such as the US Food Sovereignty Alliance are essentially opposed to business models that are privatizing seeds and promoting chemical-dependent agriculture that becomes more and more capital intensive. In particular, they are opposed to patent regimes that ensure that more and more of the surplus generated benefits a handful of firms.

These fears have grown following the US Supreme Court judgement, earlier this year, in the case of Monsanto vs Bowman. In a unanimous ruling, the court said that farmers cannot replant harvest from Monsanto’s patented genetically-altered soybeans without paying the company a fee. Though the legal implications of the ruling are said to be limited, it has nevertheless strengthened the case of those who oppose corporate control of agriculture.

It is not clear how this power struggle between big agri-business and other models of agriculture will be resolved. But the events in Des Moines this week may have a silver lining.

Ghana’s cardinal Peter Turkson, who is also president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has been invited to speak at WFP ceremony. He also plans to appear at an event hosted by the Occupy the World Food Prize campaign. Turkson has earlier described economic dependence on agri business as a new form of slavery because “…if poor farmers have to buy every seed that they plant then it limits their ability and freedom to plant and grow food." There is a need for many more leaders who, like Turkson, are keen to find a solution acceptable to both sides.

Rajni Bakshi is Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

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