Saturday, March 3, 2012

GMOs, World Hunger, and the Gates Foundation

Several weeks ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released its annual letter that enumerated its goals for 2012.  The first quarter of the letter outlines the Foundation’s plans to promote innovations in agriculture, with special emphasis placed GMO crops. The Gates premise goes like this: there are far too many people in extreme poverty, and at risk of starvation, in Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, and the solution to this problem is to invent new crops that will help farmers overcome the harsh growing conditions and pests that far too often ruin their harvests.  In this letter, Bill Gates supports this initiative by touting the success of the “Green Revolution” that increased the agricultural production of impoverished regions of the world during the 1960s.

No one questions the good intentions of the Gates Foundation, but plenty of people have lined up to question its logic on these agricultural initiatives.  The first problem, many argue, is that the Foundation’s memory of the Green Revolution is skewed.  From Gates’s perspective, the Green Revolution was an unmitigated success because “researchers created new seed varieties for rice, wheat, and maize (corn) that helped many farmers vastly improve their yields. In some places, like East Asia, food intake went up by as much as 50 percent. Globally, the price of wheat dropped by two-thirds. These changes saved countless lives and helped nations develop.”  Other observers describe this global agricultural policy differently.  A 2008 article in The Seattle Times describes provides this historical summary: “Using strains of crops that required fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation, the Green Revolution methods increased yields. But they also damaged the environment, favored wealthier farmers and left some poorer ones deeper in debt”.

If we split the difference between these perspectives, it’s fair to suggest that the Gates Foundation should at least temper its enthusiasm about the Green Revolution, provide some discussion about what went wrong during this early round of “agricultural innovation,” and explain how this second Green Revolution will avoid those problems.  The closest the Foundation has come to addressing these concerns is to pledge that “local involvement and farmer choice are project cornerstones,” and that the “transgenic” seeds the plan will provide to farmers “will be available royalty-free to farmers, who will not have to pay any additional fees to use them.”

Just as the Gates Foundation overlooks the socioeconomic failures of the Green Revolution in favor of its completely positive version of history, the Foundation also fails to address the legitimate concerns about the “transgenic” seeds in which it sees so much promise.  The problems with these seeds are widely recognized—they have been the subject of highly credible news reports, web sites, and documentaries, and significant numbers of Americans are arguing that products derived from genetically modified crops should be labeled as such—but on all of this the Gates Foundation remains silent.

Bill Gates bases his entire agricultural plan on the idea of innovation, and the innovation he imagines is largely technological—biotechnological. His point of view is not the only one, however, and we should listen to the alternative voices. Beyond all of this, though, we should consider the larger questions that underlie the entire issue of providing for the poor and feeding the hungry. Do we trust corporations like Monsanto to stand by their purported promises to give poor farmers royalty-free seed stock when nothing in their U.S. track record (again, see the news reports and documentaries I referred to above) suggests that they would abide by such agreements? Do we trust that the needs of small farmers in desperate situations will be treated with dignity and respect by corporations that have trampled on farmers with considerably greater resources and political capital in the United States?

The greatest question of all is this one: do we think, as Bill Gates does, that GMOs are the only way to feed the constantly ballooning world population, or can we imagine other alternatives? 

The alternatives may be right before us—in all the organizations, like Upstate Locally Grown, that show us it is possible to feed ourselves without an industrial food system that consolidates a system of national production in places thousands of miles from where we live and relies on massive transportation systems.  Even on the international stage there are it may be possible to feed the global poor and hungry with methods that are cheaper and more effective than the transgenic solutions offered by biotech companies and promoted by powerful organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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