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August 6, 2009

Follow the Money -- to Africa!

Paula Crossfield at Civil Eats describes the implications of a recent visit by Ag Sec Tom Vilsack and Sec State Hillary Clinton to a Kenyan agricultural research institute:

Yesterday Secretary Clinton was in Kenya with a delegation that included Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, as well as Representatives Donald M. Payne (D-NJ) and Nita M. Lowey (D-NY). While the group was there on a broad platform to discuss economic development in Africa, including food security issues, the delegation took the opportunity yesterday afternoon to visit the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) lab, which is best known for unsuccessfully trying to produce a genetically modified, virus-resistant sweet potato under a US-led program...

Historically, the introduction of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the US and other countries has primarily profited patent-holding companies, while creating farmer dependence on the chemical fertilizers and pesticides produced by a few US corporations, used to the detriment of human health, soil quality and the environment... USAID is not shy about their desire to promote biotechnology, and have been working towards furthering a GMO agenda abroad since 1991, when it launched the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project (ABSP).

This comes in the context of a new push within the administration as well as in Congress to use biotechnology in general and GMOs in particular to "solve" world hunger. Leave aside the misguided nature of the enterprise. Or rather, read Paula's post in full to understand the misguided nature of the enterprise. However, it's important to keep in mind the fact that fundamental to understanding American efforts to address world hunger is that they have precious little to do with addressing world hunger.

This is not to say that administration officials don't care about world hunger or don't want to end it. But the sad fact is that, though we may have a part-Kenyan president, neither Kenyan citizens nor African citizens generally are allowed to vote in US elections -- nor, more importantly, are they allowed to make campaign contributions in American elections. The fact is that US development policy, focusing at it does on food, is pretty well captured by Big Ag. Indeed, up til now, the main beneficiaries of US development policy have been US industrial farmers and, of all things, shipping companies. US food aid sent to Africa is sold to the government by American industrial farmers (you didn't think Big Ag donated it, did you?) and then the government pays to ship it (you didn't think it went on government ships, did you?). As BusinessWeek put it in its examination of US food aid spending during last year's food crisis:

The U.S. earmarks about $2 billion per year on food for the world's hungry, more than any other country. Nearly two-thirds of that, however, is spent on items other than food. The $290 billion farm bill, like others before it, requires commodities be bought in the U.S. and shipped to needy countries. And as shipping and delivery costs have risen, the amount of actual food the U.S. sends overseas has fallen dramatically--by 52% between 2001 and 2006--according to one government report. The situation is even more dire this year, due to sky-high prices for commodities like wheat and corn, as well as for fuel.

There was an attempt made during the debate over the 2008 Farm Bill to allow the US government to buy some amount of food aid abroad -- but it failed.

Last year's crisis (and the fact that most other countries have already reformed their development aid policies) has led to increasing interest in ending the US reliance on direct food aid -- a reform supported by most international aid groups. A bill moving through the Senate would do just that. The idea is to spend more money on helping African farmers grow their own rather than continuing to require the continent to rely on food donations from the developed world.

But with the prospect of a shift of the great federal taxpayer firehose away from Big Ag, this being America, other interests have rushed in. In this case, the biotechnology companies. They want a piece of the action. In fact, with their siren songs of magic genetically modified seeds designed for use in Africa -- none of which are on the market and all of which are at best decades away from reality -- these companies have convinced many in the administration and Congress to mandate spending on biotech research as part of US development policy. Of course, "someone" (aka the American taxpayer) will have to pay Monsanto and Syngenta to give their seeds to African farmers -- in the unlikely event, that is, they ever succeed in their quest for the magic seeds. You didn't think these corporate giants would donate their seeds, did you?

Meanwhile, you have a report on world agriculture by an international group of experts funded by the World Bank and various UN agencies and endorsed by 61 countries (not the US, though. The report was too dismissive of, you guessed it, biotechnology) which concludes that spending money in African countries on African farmers in order to teach them agro-ecological techniques and improve the "food infrastructure" is the key to ending world hunger. Ironically, even Hillary Clinton, at the end of her Kenyan speech on the issue which focused mainly on technology, admitted as much.

So when we talk about farming, we're also talking about infrastructure, aren't we...? We're talking about farm-to-market roads. We're talking about storage and warehouse facilities, refrigeration facilities. We're talking about local markets buying from local farmers. If Kenyan farmers were linked up with Kenyan buyers of food, everyone would benefit. Instead of importing food that you can grow right here in Kenya, grow it and then sell it to each other. That's a win-win strategy for farmers and for the Kenyan people as well.

Too right, Hillary. But let's be serious. Spending American money on African farmers -- does that sound like something Congress is likely to do? Monsanto, according to its lobbying reports, has already spent a good part of $4 million lobbying this year alone to make sure it won't. And really, how can African farmers and international development experts hope to compete with 4 million cold hard reasons like that?

Photo by Tracy O used under a CC license

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