Global Food Security Act

Editor’s Note: This commentary was adapted from the reportWhy the Lugar-Casey Global Food Security Act will Fail to Curb Hunger,” by Annie Shattuck and Eric Holt-Giménez. (Food First Policy Brief No. 18. Institute for Food and Development Policy. Oakland, California.)

A new bill before the Senate would create a federal mandate for genetically modified (GM) crop research as part of U.S. aid programs, despite evidence that these crops will fail to curb hunger.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the sweet-sounding Global Food Security Act (SB 384) last month with little fanfare. The legislation, also known as the Lugar-Casey Act for the bill’s authors Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Robert Casey (D-PA), includes a provision sought after by aid groups that would allow food aid to be purchased — at least in part, locally. The bill aims to reform aid programs to focus on longer-term agricultural development, and restructure aid agencies to better respond to crises. While the focus on hunger is commendable, funding for agricultural development — some $7.7 billion worth of it — under the proposed law would be directed in large part to genetically modified crop research.

The bill is proving to be divisive among aid groups. But according to a new report by Food First that I co-authored, this bill is not an isolated piece of legislation, but a coordinated roll-out of the “new Green Revolution,” — a project that includes the Gates Foundation’s multi-billion dollar Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). In fact, the legislation is based on an industry-friendly report funded by the Gates Foundation. Initiated by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in fall of 2008 and drafted by the end the year, the hastily prepared report on which the new law is based calls for increasing research funding for biotechnology.

Ignoring the Evidence

In contrast, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a recent four-year study conducted by the World Bank and the Food and Organization (FAO) in consultation with more than 400 scientists and development experts, reached the opposite conclusions. The IAASTD found that reliance on resource-extractive industrial agriculture is unsustainable, particularly in the face of worsening climate, energy, and water crises. And it concluded that expensive, short-term technical fixes — including GM crops — don’t adequately address the complex challenges of the agricultural sector and often exacerbate social and environmental harm. The IAASTD called for land reform, agro-ecological techniques (proven to enhance farmers’ adaptive capacity and resilience to environmental stresses such as climate change and water scarcity), building local economies, local control of seeds, and farmer-led participatory breeding programs.

Evidence in favor of these alternatives is building. 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…it is more likely to be sustainable in the long term.” Numerous studies have documented these alternatives’ ability not only to raise yield — but reduce poverty and inequality, the root cause of hunger.

Lessons from the First Green Revolution

The Lugar-Casey Act represents the biggest project in agriculture since the original Green Revolution industrialized farming in the 1950s and 1960s. The first Green Revolution increased global food production by 11% in a very short time, but per capita hunger also increased equally as much. How could this be? Green Revolution technologies are expensive. The fertilizers, seeds, pesticides, and machinery needed to cash in on productive gains put the technology out of reach of most small farmers, increasing the divide between rich and poor in the developing world. Poor farmers were driven out of business and into poverty-stricken urban slums.

The new Green Revolution the Lugar-Casey bill highlights suffers from all these same problems. This time, however, the genetically engineered seeds will be under patent and privately owned by the biotechnology corporations that monopolize the seed industry. Patented seeds can be up to 35% more expensive than traditional and hybrid varieties.

Moreover, while the first Green Revolution did significantly raise yields, genetic modification has yet to do so. A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists showed that GM crops don’t raise the potential yield of crops at all — the best they can do is marginally reduce losses, something improved farming practices, conventional pesticides, and agroecological techniques do as well. According to microbiologist Margaret Mellon, “After more than 3,000 field trials, only two types of engineered genes are in widespread use, and they haven’t helped raise the ceiling on potential yields. This record does not inspire confidence in the future of the technology.”

New Subsidies, New Markets

The funding the Lugar-Casey bill mandates is essentially a subsidy to private research and development goals: it has nothing to do with reducing hunger. Public money will go to U.S. corporations to produce patented products, essentially subsidizing risky projects and privatizing gain in the name of charity.

While funding from the Lugar-Casey Act may greatly expand current government-biotech partnerships, it certainly does not invent them. The U.S. government is already funding public-private private research partnerships with foreign aid dollars. One such partnership between Arcadia Biosciences, USAID (the U.S. agency responsible for delivering foreign aid), and Mahyco Seeds, an Indian seed company in which Monsanto has a significant ownership stake, will license the seeds — developed with public funds — to Mahyco.

Another partnership between USAID and Monsanto to develop a virus-resistant sweet potato in Kenya failed to deliver any useful product for farmers. After fourteen years and $6 million, local varieties vastly outperformed their genetically modified cousins in field trials. Meanwhile, conventional breeders in Uganda developed a virus-resistant strain in a few years at a small fraction of the cost. What the USAID-Monsanto partnership did succeed in, however, was creating a legal framework to open Kenya to conventional biotech products. In 2001 Kenyan legislators passed the Industrial Property Act, which according to patent expert Robert Lettington “may actually place very little restriction on the patenting of life forms at all.” Lettington was right; this year Kenya approved a biosafety law that will allow for commercialization of genetically modified crops.

Currently, GM crops are legal in only three African nations. India and the Philippines are the only Southeast Asian nations that allow biotech plantings; Honduras is the only Central American nation to permit GM crops. Once attached to a pool of foreign aid money, the pressure to open markets to biotechnology will be substantial. The countries targeted for initial projects — Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Malawi, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Guatemala, and Honduras — are all nations where the biotech industry has made significant inroads. They also represent significant potential markets — and a windfall for U.S. seed and chemical companies.

One thing is clear: The Global Food Security Act isn’t just about feeding the hungry — it’s about advancing the interests of U.S. agribusiness. The IAASTD found that agroecological techniques, stricter regulation of multinational agribusiness, and increased democratic control of the global food system can address the root causes of hunger in a way that a biotechnology never will. Lugar-Casey’s renewed focus on agricultural development is welcome but that focus must come with a commitment to put the interests of small farmers before that of industry.

Annie Shattuck, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is a policy analyst at the Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First, in Oakland, California.