Why Food Prizes Shouldn’t Go to Biotech Scientists

By Eric Holt-Giménez | The Progessive | Aug 18, 2013

Back in June, three corporate scientists were recognized for conducting the original research on using plant bacterium to insert genes from one organism into another. Though somewhat dated today, their discoveries (and patent law) opened the biotechnology floodgates for the genetic engineering of modified organisms, GMOs.

Why did the prestigious World Food Prize wait two decades to recognize this achievement?

The answer is simple: profits, politics and self-absorption. Aside from a rather obvious attempt to resurrect the slumping share prices and polish up the tarnished reputation of the biotech industry, this year’s World Food Prize was also an unabashed corporate celebration of self.

Awardees Chilton and Fraley are, respectively, vice presidents at Syngenta and Monsanto. The third recipient, Marc Van Montagu, is founder and Chairman of the Belgian Institute for Plant Biotechnology Outreach. In addition to Syngenta, Pioneer and Monsanto, donors to the World Food Prize Foundation include Cargill, ADM, Walmart, Pepsi, Land O’Lakes, the American Soybean Association, the Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Farm Bureau. (Biotech boosters Howard Buffet and Rockefeller Foundations have each given a million bucks; and the Monsanto-friendly state of Iowa, $1.4 million.) Of course, it wasn’t the first time the agrifoods industry has given itself a prize.

But this year’s awards backfired.

The World Food Prize’s Facebook page quickly filled with over a hundred angry comments. A signed statement by 81 laureates of the Right Livelihood Award and The World Futures Council stated flatly, “In honoring the seed biotechnology industry, this year’s World Food Prize… betrays the award’s own mandate.” Signatories accused the World Food Prize of falsely portraying GMOs as a solution to hunger, while diverting attention from proven agroecological approaches. Outside of the corporate agrifoods axis, mainstream food and agriculture institutions offered perfunctory praise. The silence among anti-hunger groups was deafening. The industry’s public relations debacle prompted the Business Day section of the New York Times to remark that this year’s prize was, “likely to add heat to an already intense debate about the role biotechnology can play in combating world hunger.”

Given the growing global backlash against GMOs, perhaps it is of no surprise that by the time the World Food Prize is formally awarded in Des Moines, Iowa in October, it will have been eclipsed—by the Food Sovereignty Prize

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Given the growing global backlash against GMOs, perhaps it is of no surprise that by the time the World Food Prize is formally awarded in Des Moines, Iowa in October, it will have been eclipsed—by the Food Sovereignty Prize.

Now in its fifth year, the Food Sovereignty Prize stands in sharp contrast to the World Food Prize. While the latter is awarded to individuals and has the well-financed backing of government, big philanthropy, and the monopolies controlling the global food system; the Food Sovereignty Prize is awarded to social movements, peasant organizations and community groups working to democratize—rather than monopolize–our food system. While the World Food Prize emphasizes increased production through proprietary technologies, the Food Sovereignty Prize rewards social and agroecological alternatives coming from those sectors that are most negatively impacted by the corporate food system. It is a creation of the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, a US-based collection of food justice, anti-hunger, labor, environmental, faith-based and food producer groups that work to end the injustices that cause hunger.

This year’s Food Sovereignty Prize winners, The Group of 4 of Haiti and the South American Dessalines Brigade, are themselves an alliance of Haiti’s four largest peasant organizations (representing over a quarter million Haitian farmers), and a delegation of South American peasant leaders and agroecologists named after the 19th-century Haitian independence leader Jean Jacques Dessalines. They work together to preserve Haitian Creole seed and to bring rural development and earthquake relief projects to poor communities. Members of the Group of 4 made global headlines in 2010 when they threatened to burn a donation of seeds from Monsanto, countering the industry’s claim that only privileged northern consumers reject their product.

This year’s honorable mentions for the Food Sovereignty Prize go to farmers organizations in Mali, the Basque Country and India. All are being recognized for raising public awareness and on-the-ground action, and for developing policies and practices for food sovereignty. The Alliance looks for organizations that build global linkages into their work and use collective action to bring about social change. The award prioritizes the leadership of women, indigenous people, people of color, migrant workers and other food providers marginalized and exploited by the global food system.

Past recipients of the Food Sovereignty Prize have included organizations from emblematic struggles in both the global South and the industrial North, such as the Landless Workers Movement of Brazil (2011), the U.S. Family Farm Defenders (2010); and La Via Campesina (2009). Honorable mentions have been awarded to urban organizations like the South Central Farmers of Los Angeles, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and the Toronto Food Policy Council. Despite the broad social, geographic and political sweep of these organizations, their shared commitment to food sovereignty suggests that the global food movement is converging in its diversity, moving beyond political fragmentation and challenging the status quo of what social scientists are now calling the “corporate food regime.”

The two prizes reflect profoundly different views on the causes of hunger. They also represent diametrically opposed visions for a better world.

The foundational mantra of the biotech industry was faithfully recited by Secretary of State John Kerry, keynote speaker at the World Food Prize announcement held, appropriately, at the State Department. “So, the stakes are really high,” Kerry said, “And the challenge is… that by 2050, the world’s population is going to grow to 9 billion people. That is going to demand at least a 60 percent increase over our current agricultural production.”

The not-so-tacit assumption lurking in this statement is that anything less than carpeting the planet with GMOs will result in mass starvation. The trouble is, over the last 20 years GMOs have filled feedlots, pork bellies and gas tanks, but have yet to feed any of the planet’s hungry people. Folks in poor communities in the global North consuming GMOs in cheap, processed food are suffering an epidemic of diet-related diseases. In any case, the world already produces enough food for 10 billion people, so simply increasing production clearly won’t end hunger, food insecurity or malnourishment. The World Food Prize’s love affair with biotechnology elides the structural causes of hunger and ignores the documented successes of agroecological methods for ensuring productive, sustainable yields of the healthy food crops people actually eat.

The truth—known since the days of the Irish Potato Famine and the Late Victorian Holocausts—is that people do not go hungry because of a lack of food, they go hungry because they are poor and don’t have the resources to buy or to grow food when prices go up. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who witnessed and then researched the Great Bengal Famine in India, confirmed this thesis, as did Frances Moore Lappé in her seminal 1971 book, Diet for a Small Planet. More recently, the global food crises of 2008 that swelled the ranks of the hungry to over 1 billion, and the food riots of 2011 that touched off the Arab Spring, both occurred during periods of record global harvests, record food prices and record profits enjoyed by the same agrifoods corporations that are now receiving—or funding—the World Food Prize.

Ironically, most of the world’s hungry are the very people producing half the world’s food: peasant women. Similarly, many of the food insecure people in the developed world are food and farm workers. Hunger and malnutrition are not by-products, but an integral part of the inequitable and unsustainable global food system constructed by the agrifoods monopolies over the last half century. Ensuring environmental sustainability, food security and good nutrition around the world—as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) asserts—will require a radical transformation of our food system. It will require another vision.

I once asked a member of the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance what the difference was between food security and food sovereignty. She reflected a moment, and then said, “You can be food secure in jail. Or not. Depends on if they want to feed you.” The concept of Food Sovereignty addresses control over food and food-producing resources—like land, water and, yes, seeds. For Food Sovereignty advocates, there is no food security without food sovereignty. Seen through the lens of food sovereignty, giving the World Food Prize to Monsanto and Syngenta is like giving the Medal of Freedom to the prison industrial complex.

Examples of food sovereignty are gaining ground. Agroecologically-managed smallholder farms like those of Latin America’s Campesino a Campesino Movement increase yields, conserve soil, water, and biodiversity and are capture carbon to cool the planet. Urban farms from Havana to Bangkok are steadily increasing food production and improving livelihoods. Community-supported Agriculture groups around the world provide fresh, healthy food for members and a living income for local family farmers. Hundreds of municipal Food Policy Councils and Food Hubs are implementing citizen-driven initiatives to keep the food dollar in the community where it can recycle up to five times, create jobs and kick-start local economic development. What do all these efforts have in common? They are grounded in sustainable, equitable and dignified livelihoods.

The Food Sovereignty Prize, to be awarded October 15th in New York City this year, is an antidote to the toxic prize given to the biotech industry. It is also an opportunity to celebrate the emergence of a new, sustainable and more democratic food system, one that actually could end the injustices that cause hunger.

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