Hurdles in Thinking about Hunger- A Letter to the New York Times

The New York Times seems quite happy to trot out the standard myths about how Africa is waiting to be tossed the left-belt of genetically modified food. Here’s a response to a piece that the paper published a little while ago, by John Collins Rudolf, that offers perhaps the only attempt we’ve seen at addressing some of the issues that Eric Holt-Gimenez, Annie Shattuck and I raised in our Nation magazine piece a few months back. Predictably, Rudolf offers no new evidence, but the triumph of this dodgy thinking succeeds not through graceful argument, coherence or evidence, but ceaseless and powerful repetition. More below the fold.

Dear Editor

John Collins Rudolf’s Stumbling in the Race to Feed Africa’s Millions (New York Times, Feb. 22, 2010) is so ridden with breathless hyperbole, groundless assumptions and flat-footed mistakes, it’s not surprising that the conclusions fall over themselves in error.

For starters, Food First is not an “advocacy group for organic farming” but a think tank with 35 years experience tracking the root causes of hunger. We’re proud to be associated with an institution that the New York Times itself has referred to as one of the United States’ “most established food think tanks”.

Further, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report referred to by Mr. Rudolf was not written by an “international coalition” in any meaningful sense. While the report was initiated by the World Bank, and included Syngenta and the US government among many other business, governmental and non-governmental interests present at its inception, the conclusions of the report were fractious. Despite being peer-reviewed and consulted on by over 400 scientists, and approved by 58 governments, the US government and representatives of agribusiness refused to endorse the report they themselves funded and shaped. This is a shame, because it is the most comprehensive scientific assessment of world agriculture to date. It calls for a radical change “[In] the way the world grows its food… to better serve the poor and hungry… to cope with growing population and climate change while avoiding social breakdown and environmental collapse.”

It is clear that the reason IAASTD has been so poorly received by the likes of Monsanto and Syngenta is that, in proposing solutions to hunger and offering transformations within the food system, the authors of the report damn the biotech industry with faint praise. The IAASTD scientists concluded that augmenting 20th century industrial agricultural techniques with genetically modified crops is unlikely to meet the 21st century challenges of sustainability, hunger, poverty and climate change.

The agricultural technologies of the last century have already been oversold, and Rudolf seems to have bought an excess. The Malawi Miracle he cites is a perfect example. On paper, the country appears to be doing tremendously well by investing in inorganic fertilizer. But this is hyperbole. Had Rudolf visited Malawi recently, he’d have seen the consequences of the miracle. Malawi is a country with no means of making its own inorganic fertilizer, and hence it must earn foreign exchange in order to buy it. So expensive did the fertilizer become last year, that in order to sustain the miracle, foreign exchange reserves were emptied. If you go to Malawi to find proof of the miracle, you’d better bring your own fuel. Earlier this year, there were lines outside gas stations because there was no foreign exchange left to pay for imported gasoline. Worse, the jury is out on whether increases in crops were caused by fertilizer, or just by the return of seasonal rains. And the rise in output still hasn’t eradicated hunger among Malawi’s poorest – a problem that no amount of technology can address.

Rudolf marshals poor evidence, and even poorer logic.The ideological “wedge” of “productivity or sustainability” quoted by Mr. Rudolf presents a false dichotomy between productive industrial agriculture, and scrappy sustainable agriculture. Peer-reviewed studies show conclusively that sustainable and organic agriculture in Africa is highly productive, more resilient and distributes more social benefits to villagers than Green Revolution technologies. As the IAASTD points out, the main factors limiting stable, sustainable food production in Africa are structural, not technological. By substituting a technological silver bullet for real agrarian change, it is the Gates Foundation and its partners in government—not sustainable agriculture—that are taking us back in time.

Ending hunger is not simply a matter of growing more food – but of cultivating democracy. Africa can feed itself, using modern, productive agroecological technologies that have been shown to conserve resources, protect agrobiodiversity and reduce farmers’ dependence on external inputs. Against the odds, sustainable agriculture is flourishing in Africa, but farmers need supportive agrarian policies and protection from US agricultural commodity dumping, not technological band-aids from Washington DC or Seattle. If there is stumbling in the race to feed Africa, it is due in no small part because of the hurdles raised by the thinking Mr Rudolf offers.

Yours etc
Raj Patel
Eric Holt-Gimenez
Annie Shattuck

4 Replies to “Hurdles in Thinking about Hunger- A Letter to the New York Times”

  1. That’s exactly what we need: common sense and intelectual sharpness.

    We must accept simple truth (or fact if somebody don’t like word “truth”), that simplicity in food production just works.

    Simplicity in sense: local, sustainable and organic agriculture.

    It’s so simple.

  2. I always wondered, from a purely economic standpoint, if it is partially the United States fault due to our fetish with “fair-trade” commodities such as coffee. From a supply-demand point of view, if we are paying prices above the market equilibrium for coffee, then we are crowding out farming of consumable food that Africa can sustain itself with, and instead forcing them to grow coffee to feed our lifestyle.

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