Monsanto’s Dedication to Ending Global Hunger (?)

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

CFT Titles 12-26 / Wikipedia

CFR Titles 12-26 / Wikipedia

Sometimes it takes a pair or two of extra-sharp eyes to figure out what a corporate lobbyist is up to. Here’s a good one: Monsanto’s lobbyists are trying to get the Senate to write a mandate for research and technology transfer of genetically modified agricultural techniques into S. 384: Global Food Security Act of 2009. The bill “would streamline the aid process and focus on long-term agricultural development,” write Dr. Hans Herren and Dr. Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, in an op-ed piece entitled “Genetically modified crops are not the answer.

This bill includes a mandate that we spend foreign aid dollars developing genetically modified (GM) crops. No other kind of agricultural technology is mentioned. Unsurprisingly, Monsanto has lobbied more frequently on this bill than any other entity.

You’ve got to have eyes in the back of your head to pick up a gem like this. Deep in the bill’s text is Sec. 202, which seeks to amend the research section of Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which is Sect. 2151a-1 of the United States Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Title 22 – Foreign Relations and Intercourse. (You don’t have to remember all this; I’m showing it to you so you can be suitably impressed by the attention to tiny details involved in trying to head off a policy that is not in the interests of the supposed beneficiaries of this bill.) The CFR is the collection of government rules and regulations passed since forever and still in effect. I can’t imagine how big it is, how many volumes it comprises. The image at the top of this article is of just a portion of the CFR.

What the authors turned up is an addition to this section:

§ 2151a–1. Agricultural research

Agricultural research carried out under this chapter shall

(1) take account of the special needs of small farmers in the determination of research priorities

(2) include research on the interrelationships among technology, institutions, and economic, social, environmental, and cultural factors affecting small-farm agriculture, and

(3) make extensive use of field testing to adapt basic research to local conditions. Special emphasis shall be placed on disseminating research results to the farms on which they can be put to use, and especially on institutional and other arrangements needed to assure that small farmers have effective access to both new and existing improved technology.

Monsanto’s lobbyists are pushing senators to add:

(4) include research on biotechnological advances appropriate to local ecological conditions, including genetically modified technology.

You don’t have to wonder what other “biotechnological advances” are “appropriate to local ecological conditions.” If there are any, the lobbyists won’t tell senators – unless Monsanto has them patented so no one else can sell them. (I’ll tell you more about Monsanto’s way of protecting its patents one of these days.)

Dr. Herren and Dr. Ishii-Eiteman are leaders of the UN-affiliated International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). They explain what’s wrong with the proposed amendment.

The trouble with a mandate for GM crops is this: it won’t work. A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists demonstrates that GM crops don’t increase crop yields. USAID has already spent millions of taxpayer dollars developing GM crops over the past two decades, without a single success story to show for it, and plenty of failures. A recent, highly touted partnership between USAID and Monsanto to develop a virus-resistant sweet potato in Kenya failed to deliver anything useful for farmers. After 14 years and $6 million, local varieties vastly outperformed their genetically modified cousins in field trials. Another 10-year USAID project for GM eggplant in India recently met with such outcry — from scientists and Indian farmers alike — that the government put a moratorium on its release. Growing insect resistance to genetically modified cotton and corn shows that the technology is already failing farmers and will continue to fail over the long term. Sadly, today’s GM obsession shows every indication of duplicating the first ill-fated “Green Revolution” that trapped millions of farmers on a pesticide treadmill while devastating the functioning of the ecosystems on which we depend.

In other words, USAID should stop wasting the money it’s essentially putting in Monsanto’s pocket. There is another way.

Fortunately, we have alternatives. Improved farming practices, conventional breeding and agro-ecological techniques deliver far better results, without the risks and high input costs that accompany GM seeds. A 2008 study by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development found that “organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and … is more likely to be sustainable in the long term.” Even the chief agricultural scientist of Punjab — a home of the Green Revolution —argues that Indian farmers should farm organically.

And there’s convincing scientific data that show biodiversity – anathema to Monsanto’s single-seed-source intentions – and support for local efforts at resilience and sustainableable agriculture will have far more beneficial results.

Meanwhile, the World Bank and UN agencies have completed the most comprehensive analysis of world agriculture to date: the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). This four-year study — by more than 400 scientists and development experts from 80 countries and approved by 58 governments — found that reliance on resource-extractive industrial agriculture is risky and unsustainable, particularly in the face of worsening climate, energy and water crises. It noted that expensive, quick fixes — including GM crops —fail to address the complex challenges that farmers face, and often exacerbate already bad conditions. Instead, the IAASTD highlighted the need to build more resilience into our food systems by increasing investments in agro-ecological sciences, small-scale biodiverse farming methods and farmer-led participatory breeding programs.

The success of ecological agriculture rests not only in its immediate outcomes of better and more reliable performance, but also in its ability to address the underlying cause of hunger: poverty. Congress could learn from the thousands of Kenyan farmers who have obtained bumper crops and higher household income through the ecological pest management system known as “push-pull.” By planting a variety of grasses in and around their cornfields, these farmers have suppressed insect pest and weed populations, reduced input costs, doubled or tripled their corn harvest, increased forage for livestock, supplied their families and local markets, paid off debts and set aside money to pay for school, medicines and other needs. No amount of gene-splicing (or lobbying or advertising) by Monsanto has ever accomplished this much for an African family.

Ultimately, tackling global hunger and poverty requires more than a focus on production technologies. The bigger, more fundamental challenge today is about restoring fairness and democratic control over our food systems. This requires strengthening local food economies, increasing small-scale farmers’ control of seed and land, and —importantly — breaking up corporate monopolies in agriculture and establishing fairer regional and global trade arrangements.

If Congress is serious about addressing world hunger, they should take their lead from the most comprehensive science and from farmers on the ground — not from Monsanto lobbyists.

If you want to keep an eye on S. 384, you can do it here or here.

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