Wrong Response to Food Crisis

During the United Nations High-Level Conference on World Food Security, Climate Change and Bioenergy, Rome-based U.N. agencies announced yesterday that a new partnership was struck between the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and the World Food Programme (WFP). AGRA is the massive initiative for sub-Saharan Africa funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation. The new alliance forged in Rome is the wrong response to the food emergency. Multilateral agencies are grasping for a magic bullet to confront the food emergency. Governments are failing to govern and, as a result, they’re abdicating responsibility for agriculture and international development to philanthro-capitalists and agribusiness. Read more about the multilateral muddle and Food’s Failed Estates here.

According to the FAO news release, the new partnership will “work closely with other stakeholders in these breadbasket areas to rapidly improve food production, food security and rural incomes…Each agency will deliver unique expertise towards achieving an environmentally and economically sustainable green revolution that will end the continent’s perennial food crisis.”

The agreement forged by AGRA, FAO, IFAD and WFP will ultimately promote market-based solutions to poverty and hunger that will create new dependencies on industrial agriculture’s patented seeds and agrochemicals. Jacqes Diouf, FAO’s Director General, says the new alliance is about “Unlocking Africa’s Potential.” But it’s really about “Unlocking Africa’s Markets.” Market-based, so-called philanthropic solutions will introduce high-tech seeds that are accompanied by intellectual property laws, corporate-inspired seed regulations, trade liberalisation and other practices amenable to agribusiness interests. Renewed emphasis on increasing production with an influx of new technology ignores the fundamental systemic issues. This approach will undermine the rights of small farmers and their capacity to produce food for their own communities.

The very same day that AGRA, FAO, IFAD and WFP announced the new deal, Monsanto came out with it’s own news release. It’s a page from the same playbook. Monsanto – the world’s largest seed corporation – is responding to the food crisis with an opportunistic public relations strategy that’s designed to drive farmers and reluctant consumers to accept genetically modified seeds. In a bid to win moral legitimacy for their controversial GM seeds, Monsanto now pledges to improve the lives of smallholder and resource-poor farmers by “sharing its expertise in a way that gives them access to modern agricultural technology.” As a first example, Monsanto boasts that it’s teaming up with the Gates Foundation and CIMMYT to develop drought tolerant seeds. For its part, Monsanto and its agrochemical partner, BASF, will “donate” drought tolerant genes to poor African countries. Under the guise of philanthropy, the ultimate goal is to pry open new markets for multinational seed companies – before Africans farmers and consumers are allowed to make their own decisions about GM seeds. Lest we forget, Monsanto’s in the business of selling patented seeds for industrial agriculture – not philanthropy. GM seeds developed by Monsanto over the past twelve years have no relevance to the needs of small farmers. Industry statistics show that 80% of world area devoted to GM crops is planted to herbicide-tolerant varieties that are engineered to withstand a showering of chemical weedkillers. These transgenic crops have nothing to do with increasing yields, enhancing nutrition or disease resistance. Monsanto and BASF already hold hundreds of patents and patent applications on so-called climate-ready genes. But patented techno-fix seeds will not provide the adaptation strategy that small farmers need to cope with climate change. These proprietary technologies will ultimately concentrate corporate power, drive up costs, inhibit independent research and further undermine the rights of farmers to save and exchange seeds.

Today's New York Times (5 June 2008) reports on related events. Private companies are seizing lucrative investment opportunities, not only in agricultural commodity markets, but also in farmland, fertilizer, grain elevators and shipping equipment. “Food is Gold, So Billions Invested in Farming,” explains how hedge fund managers and investment firms are hoping to profit from the current food emergency. For example, UK-based Emergent Asset Management is raising $450 million to $750 million to invest in farmland in sub-Saharan Africa, where it plans to consolidate small plots into more productive holdings and introduce better equipment. A representative from Emergent told the New York Times that the fund chose Africa because “land values are very, very inexpensive, compared to other agriculture-based economies…Its microclimates are enticing, allowing a range of different crops. There’s accessible labor. And there’s good logistics — wide open roads, good truck transport, sea transport.” (Diana B. Henriques, The New York Times, June 5, 2008, The Food Chain: Food Is Gold, So Billions Invested in Farming.")

A handful of biotech, seed and agrochemical corporations must not be invited by governments (that are failing to govern) to determine the agricultural research agenda. U.N. food and agricultural agencies, philanthro-capitalists and transnational corporations are pouring money into sub-Saharan Africa to impose a massive structural adjustment for agriculture -- without talking to African farmers and their organizations. Inter-governmental bodies (and the governments that govern them) in Rome have failed because they’re ignoring the most fundamental principle – that small farmers must be the principal architects and actors in strengthening Africa’s food sovereignty.

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