What to do about world food crisis?

posted Tuesday, April 29, 2008        

(From the Desmoines Register)

Food shortages are suddenly front-page news, but they are not new. Hundreds of millions of people were left starving or malnourished last year, and this has been going on for decades. The only change is that it has become more difficult for the institutions that control the global food chain to manage the situation with smoke-and-mirrors public relations, including celebrations of the low cost of food, that have masked a failed food system.

Our current global food system was designed by U.S.-based, industrial-agribusiness conglomerates like Cargill, Monsanto and ADM. It has been forced into place over the past 50 plus years by the U.S. government, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. This has been a highly profitable enterprise for the major players who set up the system. It has been a disaster for poor people and for farmers in the United States and abroad who have been schooled to believe that their only hope of survival and prosperity is to produce cash crops for export and alternative fuels. Growing healthy food for local consumption and regional stability has been relegated to the fringes of the conversation, treated with benign neglect at best or open opposition at worst.

We currently have 37 nations with food crises. Meanwhile, Cargill Corp. declares an 86 percent rise in profits and Monsanto reports record sales from its herbicides and genetically modified, patented seeds. Corporate-industrialized agribusiness has promised farmers for decades — directly and through grants to state universities — that the problems farmers faced would be solved by trade deals and technology, in particular genetically modified seeds. Astute observers of the situation have been raising flags about this approach for years.

Recently, University of Kansas research has suggested that the New Green Revolution promised by genetically modified seeds actually reduces food production. And then there’s the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) Global Report. This report was commissioned in partnership with the United Nations after a group of biotech companies asked the World Bank what it thought of genetic-engineering technology as an agricultural strategy for developing countries. The IAASTD Global Report roundly rejects biotechnology and modern-industrial farming as a viable solution to the problems of soaring food prices, hunger, social injustice and environmental degradation. The IAASTD report calls for a major paradigm shift that would place strong focus on small-scale farming and agro-ecological farming methods to feed local communities, address social inequities and protect the environment while scaling back energy-intensive, chemical agriculture and addressing trade imbalances that hurt the rural poor.

There are a few things we can do about world hunger right now. For starters, tell Congress to quit wrangling over the overdue farm bill and make sure that the version that goes to the president’s desk expands programs for getting fresh food from local farms to local consumers. Congress should also use the opportunity of a new farm bill to make sure that farmers can count on reasonable prices for growing the food that Americans need. Congress can do this by providing a safety net that helps farmers survive weather and market disasters, and set up a strategic-grain reserve (like the strategic U.S. petroleum reserve) that can serve as a buffer against inflation in food prices.

Congress can also get off the free-trade bandwagon that has a lot to do with the world-food crisis we’re reading about these days. We need trade and development policies that help developing countries create domestic markets that feed the hungry first rather than feed multinational-corporate profits. This is called food sovereignty. We would do well to institute such a policy here in the United States and do everything possible to make it a centerpiece of our foreign policy and world-trade policy going forward.

— Patrick Bosold,

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