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Frankenfood Critics Fight Industry PR

The Progressive Populist
Calamity Howler/A.V. Krebs

"To deny desperately hungry people the means to control their futures by presuming to know what is best for them is not only paternalistic but morally wrong," Hassan Adamu, Nigeria's ex-minister of agriculture and rural development, wrote in a recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post.

Also, the New York Times' Andrew W. Pollack has pointed out that with opponents of agricultural genetic engineering urging the Kenyan government to reject corn donated by the United States and Canada, because some of it was genetically modified, poses a troubling question -- are opponents so against it that they are willing to let people die?

"Indeed," Pollack reports, "the critics, most of whom live in wealthy countries, are increasingly being called imperialists for opposing a technology that could be used to develop improved crops for poor nations."

"For us to take an attitude that these farmers are gullible and ignorant and we have to take care to protect them from Western influences is absurd," said C.S. Prakash, a professor at Tuskegee University who is developing genetically modified crops for the third world. He accuses biotech opponents of romanticizing the old ways that left people in poor health and abject poverty.

But as critics of genetically engineered crops emphasize, corporate agribusiness' efforts to focus their public relations campaigns on hunger rather than safety concerns is designed to help the beleaguered biotechnology industry: It emphasizes the potential benefits, not the risks, while using the poor to justify selling their products to the rich.

When the United States sent corn and soy meal to India after a 1999 cyclone that killed 10,000 people, Vandana Shiva, a long-time prominent biotech critic in that country, accused Washington of using the cyclone victims as "guinea pigs" for bio-engineered food.

"The feeding-the-world argument is a very carefully engineered P.R. exercise to create some moral legitimacy for this technology," Brian Halweil, an analyst at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, is quoted as observing in Pollack's report. Halwell also rightfully points out that the industry concentrates on crops like herbicide-resistant soybeans for farmers in the Midwest, not drought-tolerant millet for subsistence farmers in Africa.

While not all critics want to stop biotechnology -- some just want to increase testing and regulation -- most critics contend that genetic engineering won't alleviate hunger in the first place, for the world already produces enough food (4.3 pounds per day for every man, woman and child on earth), they say, but the poor can't afford to buy it. They also note that peasant farmers in India have destroyed fields of genetically engineered crops, so it is not only well-fed environmentalists who oppose them.

Biotechnology companies "don't really want to get to the crux of the matter, which is about control of the food system," said Anuradha Mittal, co-director of Food First, a food-policy research institute in Oakland, Calif.

As Pollack reports, "many critics see biotechnology as the latest incarnation of corporate agriculture, which is heavily dependent on pesticides and which replaces diverse crops with single varieties. Such an approach, they say, is antithetical to lower-tech sustainable farming practices, like better crop rotations, which in some cases can produce dramatic gains at lower cost.

"There is also a fear that poor farmers, who often save seeds from one year's crop to plant the next, will have to buy expensive biotech seeds every year, making them dependent on multinational companies or driving them off their land if they cannot afford the costs," he adds.

To illustrate their point concerning the efforts of the proponents of genetically engineered crops to promote their products in the name of hunger rather than safety, critics point to the recent developments in "golden rice," which contains bacterial and daffodil genes that allow it to make a nutrient that the body converts to vitamin A.

While such rice, developed by public sector scientists in Switzerland and Germany, could help alleviate a vitamin deficiency that blinds and kills millions of people each year and is to be given free to poor farmers in developing countries, critics have denounced golden rice as a Trojan horse aimed at winning acceptance of genetically engineered food.

The rice doesn't contain enough of the vitamin-A precursor to make a difference, they say, and the current diet of hungry children lacks the fat and protein needed to convert the precursor into vitamin A. It is also contended that solving just one vitamin deficiency won't make much difference for children who suffer from multiple nutrition problems and that there are other ways of providing vitamin A, such as vitamin capsules or unpolished rice.

Ingo Potrykus, the Swiss scientist who led the development of golden rice, claims opponents have a "hidden political agenda." In an article to be published in the journal Vitro Plant, he writes: "It is not so much the concern about the environment, or the health of the consumer, or help for the poor and disadvantaged. It is a radical fight against a technology and for political success."

Sustainable Ag Raises Farm Yields, Helps Environment, Feeds Hungry

Farmers across the developing world are throwing away their ploughs in a dramatic example of "sustainable" farming, a practice that is now sending crop yields soaring on millions of farms.

The findings come from the largest ever study of sustainable agriculture, released at a recent conference in London and reported on Jan. 17 by New Scientist Magazine.

The report's author, Jules Pretty of the University of Essex, says sustainable agriculture is now defying its reputation as a worthy enterprise with little chance of feeding millions of starving people. He says sustainable farming has been the most effective way of raising farm yields in the past decade and that farming without tilling is among the most widely adopted forms.

Pretty says the growth is very exciting: "If it spreads we can make substantial inroads in reducing hunger."

Sustainable agriculture deliberately lowers manmade inputs such as chemicals, while maximizing nature's input. It replaces fertilizers with plants that fix nitrogen in the soil and pesticides with natural enemies of pests.

And it is catching on. It now covers 3% of third-world fields, an area the size of Italy. Its methods are having big impacts on farm yields, with typical increases of 40% to 100%

"Sustainable farming has grown in the past decade from being the preserve of a few enthusiasts into a broad movement involving governments and the private sector", says Pretty, whose study collected data on 200 projects in 52 countries and was commissioned by the UK government's Department for International Development.

"It is cheap, uses locally available technology and often improves the environment," he says. "Above all it most helps the people who need it -- poor farmers and their families, who make up the majority of the world's hungry people."

In Latin America, small farmers left behind by past farming revolutions have seen yields of grain and beans rise by two-thirds using "green" methods, says Miguel Altieri of the University of California, Berkeley.

The most widespread new technique is farming without ploughing. In Argentina a third of fields now never see a plough -- farmers get rid of weeds by planting off-season crops that kill them. Besides relieving them of one of the most tedious jobs on the farm, abandoning the plough improves soil quality and raises crop yields. It even helps curb global warming by accumulating carbon in the soil.

"In a short time, farmers saw reduced costs and greater productivity, increased income and a better environment," said Lauro Bassi, an agronomist from Santa Catarina in southern Brazil, where zero-tillage has been widely adopted "For us zero-tillage is like a social movement."

A recent study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), based on satellite maps, reveals that much of the world's farmland is in such poor condition that farmers will have to find better ways than currently to grow crops or else their production won't keep pace with the growing population. Only about 16% of the world's farmland is free of fertility problems, or "constraints," such as chemical contamination, acidity, salinity or poor drainage.

"The basic story is that agriculture is being pretty successful at keeping the world in food. It's been somewhat less successful in nurturing the natural resources that underpin that production capacity," said Stanley Wood, the report's lead author.

At the same time that the IFPRI study was being made public, Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute was noting that "until now, the paving over of cropland has occurred largely in industrial countries, home to four fifths of the world's 520 million automobiles ... For every five cars added to the US fleet, an area the size of a football field is covered with asphalt. More often than not, cropland is paved simply because the flat, well-drained soils that are well suited for farming are also ideal for building roads. Once paved, land is not easily reclaimed."

As environmentalist Rupert Cutler once noted, "Asphalt is the land's last crop." The United States, Brown adds, with its 214 million motor vehicles, has paved 3.9 million miles of roads, enough to circle the earth at the equator 157 times ... In developing countries, however, where automobile fleets are still small and where cropland is in short supply, the paving is just getting underway. More and more of the 11 million cars added annually to the world's vehicle fleet of 520 million are found in the developing world.

"This means that the war between cars and crops is being waged over wheat fields and rice paddies in countries where hunger is common. The outcome of this conflict in China and India, two countries that together contain 38% of the world's people, will affect food security everywhere," he concludes.

Taking into account such facts, Great Britain's New Scientist Magazine, in a Feb. 3, editorial commenting on the Pretty study, correctly notes:

"For some, talk of 'sustainable agriculture' sounds like a luxury the poor can ill afford. But in truth it is good science, addressing real needs and delivering real results. For too long it has been the preserve of environmentalists and a few aid charities. It is time for the major agricultural research centres and their funding agencies to join the revolution."

UN: Poverty More Acute in Rural Areas than Cities

Despite the widely held and erroneously held belief that the world's primary problems of widespread poverty are in the cities, a recent United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development study found that 75% of the 1.2 billion people living on less than one dollar a day are in rural areas, where the economy is based on agriculture.

"Current development efforts grossly and increasingly neglect agricultural and rural people," said Michael Lipton, director of the Poverty Research Unit at Sussex University in England, who contributed to the report, which was released in New York. "The tremendous decline in attention to rural poor that has taken place everywhere must be reversed," Lipton said.

The UN report notes that while at the Millennium Summit in September, nearly 150 world leaders pledged to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty by 2015, aid has yet to be directed where the majority of the poor live and work.

Nearly half the world's poorest people (44%) live in south Asia, with 24% in sub-Saharan Africa, 24% in east Asia, and 6.5% in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the report by the Rome-based agency.

"The failure stems in large part from a misconception that the main poverty problem has moved from the countryside to the burgeoning megacities of the developing world," said Fawzi Al-Sultan, president of IFAD.

To meet the goal, the agency said 30 million people need to escape poverty every year but only ten million are currently doing so. The failure is especially acute in sub-Saharan Africa, where the rate of poverty reduction needs to be six times faster to meet the 2015 deadline.

Thus, cutting world poverty in half requires a new focus on reviving agricultural development and responding to the needs of rural populations and calls for a global effort to give the rural poor better access to land, water, technology and capital, as well as more open markets. It also requires, the study adds, land reform and new policies to combat bias against women and girls, who constitute the majority of the rural poor --and whose poverty is often reinforced through cultural and legal obstacles.

A. V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project. P.O. Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98203-0201; email avkrebs@earthlink.net; web www.ea1.com/CARP/