Sunday, December 18, 2005

World Food Day

World Food Day is a time of year to reflect on where our food comes from, on the abundance of food for some, and the lack of access for so many others. It is a time to reflect on the history of food, and the future of food.

The importance of food for our survival, and it’s central role in our economy mean that it is a highly politicised issue. Throughout history, civilisations have risen and fallen on their ability to feed their populations. Today, it is estimated that 840 million people are severely undernourished, while in other countries obesity is reaching epidemic proportions. With world population continuing to grow, the politics of food are set to heat up considerably over the coming decades.

The world’s most important food crop is rice. It forms the staple diet of over 3 billion people around the world, and for many cultures: Rice is Life. Not only does rice play a central role in culture, but culture plays a central role in rice production. Over thousands of years, subsistence farmers have developed tens of thousands of different varieties of rice, painstakingly adapting them according to local environmental and cultural conditions. And it is this diversity that forms the basis of our food security.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) World Food Day this year reflects this intersection of cultural and agricultural diversity through it’s theme: Agriculture and intercultural dialogue - celebrating the contribution of different cultures to world agriculture.

However, many of the thousands of rice varieties that existed even 50 years ago have disappeared, replaced by the monoculture farming practices of the green revolution. And the sustainability and diversity of rice farming is now facing a new threat in the form of genetic engineering (GE).

The two varieties of GE rice that are proposed for commercial release are Bt rice and BB rice. Bt rice is genetically engineered to express a pesticide known as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), while BB rice is resistant to Bacterial Blight. Both carry the environmental risks inherent in GE technology, while significant health concerns have been raised over Bt rice in particular.

China has been widely touted to be the first cab off the rank to give GE rice the green light, however, a recent shift in the State Agricultural Genetically Modified Crop Biosafety Committee indicates that China is taking a more cautious approach to approving GE crop commercialization. The structure of the new committee reduces the influence of GE crop researchers and makes it more likely that decisions about commercializing GE crops will be based on ecological and food safety. The Chinese government is well aware that should it approve GE rice, it will be entering unknown territory and would be the first country to allow genetic engineering of it’s staple food crop.

GE rice is being promoted on the basis of something that bears little or no relation to the actual characteristics of the GE varieties that are being so aggressively pushed for commercial release. The need to solve world hunger and overcome starvation is used as a crude form of moral blackmail to encourage acceptance of products that are largely un-needed and unwanted.

Overcoming hunger and feeding people is very obviously a function of both producing food, and then distributing it to the people in need so that they have access to the food. In the real world, people don’t starve because there isn’t enough food produced, but because they are poor and are denied access to it. As a striking example, in 2001, the Indian government was sued after allowing grain to rot in government granaries while innumerable starvation deaths were reported throughout the country. Many countries in Europe pay their farmers not to grow food. While in other countries, produce is routinely destroyed due to market failures. Meanwhile, millions starve.

On the production side, there is scant evidence to support the claim that GE crops will increase production in anycase. The opposite is probably closer to the truth. The experience of the world’s most widely grown GE crop, shows that despite claims of increased yield, roundup ready soy yields around 5% less than conventional soy. The varieties of GE rice that are being developed are not supported by credible claims of increased yield either.

Rather than addressing the actual causes of malnutrition and hunger, too much of our research funding is being spent inventing more far-fetched, high-tech solutions to reinforce and extend a food system that is fundamentally designed to make profits for agribusiness rather than to feed people.

On World Food Day 2005, the absurd myth that genetically engineered rice has got anything at all to do with feeding the world should be buried at last in the dustbin of history.

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