Posted October 31, 2013 by Jim Kleinschmit
Next week the state of Washington will vote on mandatory labeling of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in food products. This is an important election and moment in the battle over GMOs, but in many critical ways, it is increasingly obvious to me that GMO opponents have already won.
News story after news story makes it clear that, even in the U.S., where the introduction and acceptance of GMOs in the fields and grocery aisles has been most pronounced, the tide has shifted. While the “war” is by no means over in a country that has genetically modified crops growing on over 60% of its total crop acres, we need to celebrate this victory. But, as importantly, we need to take advantage of the market and policy openings it provides to go beyond opposing GMOs and achieve greater overall sustainability in our farming and food system.
The most apparent signs of the change in American public opinion on GMOs are the labeling campaigns rolling around the country. Connecticut and Maine have already successfully passed labeling laws, but require neighboring states to pass complementary labeling legislation before it goes into force. The California labeling initiative on the ballot in 2012 was defeated, due in large part to overwhelming spending by the food and biotech companies that opposed it. Similar tactics and heavy corporate spending is happening in the current Washington battle as well, with the outcome still too close to call.
The labeling campaigns are the most public demonstration of this shift, but there are other, less recognized, yet very important signs of a change in public perception and the marketplace around GMOs:
· Mexican Federal judge Jaime Verdugo’s ruling that immediately halted cultivation of GMOs throughout Mexico
· The recent rejection of GMO salmon by several grocery chains
· The vote by the Big Island of Hawaii County Council Committee to restrict cultivation of GMO crops on the Big Island of Hawaii.
· The admission of complete defeat in Europe by Monsanto, with their decision to cease efforts to promote GMO crop production on the continent
Yet perhaps the most important, but least acknowledged indicator of change is the recent approval by USDA of the non-GMO verified label for meat and liquid eggs products. This USDA-approved label is a game-changer along the lines of the first voluntary labeling of Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormones (RBGH) in milk. Those “voluntary” labels quickly became de facto requirements, as consumers made clear that they were not interested in buying milk from cows injected with hormones. I believe the same will be true with the new non-GMO verified label—poll after poll indicate that, given the choice, consumers say they will choose not to eat GMO food. Now, with this label, we will finally get to see if their actual purchasing habits reflect this desire.
We need to celebrate both this victory over GMOs and those who worked tirelessly on this often lonely issue (including, but not limited to our colleagues at the Center for Food Safety, the non-GMO Project, the Organic Consumers Association, Just Label It and all of the state campaigns). But as important as this victory over GMO technology is, we can’t let it stop at the seed. This market opening provides a rare and needed opportunity to advance broader sustainability in the fields and on our grocery shelves. Chemical use, greenhouse gas emissions, soil and water quality impacts and other environmental concerns associated with farming need to be brought into this discussion and market area as well—something that has to be done with, rather than to farmers.
The great news is that there is already growing interest among farmers in non-GMO, or “conventional” crop production. Whether a result of the increasing limits and problems (i.e., growing pest and weed resistance) associated with the use of GMOs and related herbicides, the falling commodity prices or the premiums linked to non-GMO markets, farmers across the country are beginning to look at non-GMO options. They can do more. With the appropriate market incentives, farmers are ready to not only stop using GMOs and eliminate the biodiversity and other sustainability concerns that come with these crops, but also reduce negative impacts on soil, water, pollinators, animal and human health, and the climate from their farming practices as a whole.
We believe this because we have experienced it. For over 10 years, IATP has been working closely with farmers to implement just such a “non-GMO Plus” approach through our Working Landscapes Certificates (WLC) program. Created to support sustainability endeavors in the bioplastic sector, IATP’s WLC program provides farmers with a payment for following clear criteria around chemical selection, use and handling, nutrient management, biodiversity and habitat conservation, among other areas of concern associated with their farming practices. Tested through numerous and very different seasons, crop production under the WLC system has proven to neither significantly increase farmers’ costs or negatively impact yields, all while providing a host of environmental benefits and a premium market for the participating farmers.
The emerging market for non-GMO food and ingredients offers the chance to focus not only on the seed, but to also take a big step forward on some of these other major sustainability challenges associated with farming. These opportunities don’t come along very often, so it’s important we recognize and utilize this opening to support more sustainable farming approaches. Companies and advocates that have already been leading on the issue of non-GMOs will be key to this effort. But doing it right means this effort needs to be led not by them alone, but by the farmers, consumers and other stakeholders who have together managed to achieve such a real and crucial victory over GMOs in our food and farming system.
Posted October 30, 2013 by Dr. Steve Suppan
In the hall at the University of São Paulo School of Mining, Materials Science and Engineering is an exhibit of electronic microscopy photographs of nanomaterials which have been engineered to between atomic and molecular size. One of the most beautiful photographs is titled “Campos do trigo”, that is, "fields of wheat," represented by carbon nanotubes synthesized on a silicon layer. These waves of grain measure about one hundred millionth of a meter. Nanotechnology requires visualization of materials at this scale to manipulate them for use in consumer and industrial products.
I was invited to give one presentation on agriculture and nanotechnology and another on the regulatory and trade policy outlook for nanotechnology at X Semisonoma, the 10th international seminar of Renanosoma, the Brazilian Network on Nanotechnology, Society and Environment. The former presentation was based in part on an IATP report on the effect of nanomaterials on soil health. The latter presentation reflected a small section in IATP’s just published report on agriculture and food under the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
The week-long seminar covered a broad array of issues affecting the use of Engineered Nanoscale Materials (ENMs) in consumer and industrial products. Among Renanosoma’s most powerful members is the Metal Workers’ Union, which is lobbying the Brazilian government to require companies to report to the unions which kind of ENMs are being used in union workplaces and pay for a hierarchy of occupational safety and health controls. The hierarchy spans from workplace design to safety procedures to protective clothing and masks. The carbon nanotubes in “Campos do trigo” are beautiful to look at, but cause cancerous lesions when put on the lungs of laboratory rats.
In August, the Brazilian government committed 440 million reales (about $186 million USD) to support nanotechnology research and development in 2014—further solidifying its position as a global leader in nanotech development. However, as with the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative budget, there is almost no budget dedicated to research into the environmental, health and safety effects of ENMs manufacturing. One of the great challenges of such research is to develop nanotech specific toxicology metrics that would serve as a basis for the risk assessment of ENMs as they are used in the workplace, not just as they are evaluated in laboratories.
A presentation via Skype by Professor Pieter van Broekhuizen outlined how such metrics might be developed. Current toxicology metrics and regulation are mass-based. However, the minute mass itself of ENMs is irrelevant to the chemical reactivity that may be toxic. Rather, said van Broekhuizen, to measure ENM toxicity requires a metric that takes into account the density of nanoparticles in a three-dimensional surface area. Van Broekhuizen’s “Nano Reference Values” of toxicity are defined by the number of nanoparticles within a cubic centimeter over an eight hour Time Weighted Average (TWA), i.e., the length of a typical workday. For nanosilver, for example, 20,000 particles per square centimeter TWA suffices to trigger a precautionary approach to use of nanosilver in the workplace. Different classes of different nanomaterials have different particle counts for triggering precautionary controls in the workplace. Such nano-specific reference values are not unique within toxicology, but they are laboratory developed rather than workplace developed. Broekhuizen’s consultancy works with labor unions, government scientists and employer associations to develop Nano Reference Values that represent the metrics of toxicity to which workers are exposed in the workplace.
Van Broekhuizen’s research, in a U.S. context, is unusual in that it proposes a Precautionary Approach to use of ENMs in the workplace. These Nano Reference Values are not yet part of Dutch or European Union regulation of ENMs but their development with the cooperation of employers to protect workers is a considerable advance over the U.S. regulatory situation, in which the Precautionary Approach continues to be regarded as a disguised non-tariff barrier to trade.
The seminar featured ENM presentations by University of São Paulo graduate students and post-doctoral researchers on research and development phases of various ENM applications. Professor José María Monserrat’s presentation of his introduction to nano-toxicology long-distance learning course was not only impressive for its scientific content, but also for its pedagogy, and use of the internet. With a budget of just $300,000, Professor Monserrat was able to offer two free on-line courses, one of 20 hours and the other 120 hours, to introduce hundreds of students at dozens of Latin American universities to the basics of nanotechnology and nano-toxicology. I suggested that the dozen or so law school participants in the seminar should be signing up for the course to begin to acquire the scientific literacy that future Brazilian nanotech regulators would need.
In August, the Brazilian legislature rejected a bill that would have required the labeling of nano-cosmetics, including sunscreens. As with the rejection of earlier legislation to regulate ENMs and nanotechnologies, officials claimed that labeling would lead to consumer alarm about a technology in which the government was investing heavily. Luiz Carlos Olivera, an occupational health and safety expert for the Steel Workers Union of São Paulo, said that legislation had been rejected in 2010 to require employers to disclose to unions when ENMs were being used in their manufacturing and to design nano-specific worker safety controls.
Nevertheless, Brazilian labor unions continue to campaign for such legislation and are building a scientifically robust worker education program in ENMs and nanotechnology related worker safety. Three labor union comic books on nanotechnology were distributed as part of the seminar materials, along with the Portuguese language version of “Principles for the Oversight of Nanotechnologies and Nanomaterials”, to which IATP is a signatory. Because of the political power of Brazilian labor unions, relative to their U.S. counterparts, when nanotechnology regulation comes to Brazil, it will likely be as a result of the combined efforts of the labor unions, nano-toxicologists, such as Professor Monserrat and Dr. van Broekhuizen, and the public education activity of Renanosoma and its webcast program, “Nanotechnology Inside Out”.
I participated in the 232nd webcast of the program, hosted by Dr. Paulo Martins. That program was a round table dedicated to exploring how “Nanotechnology Inside Out” could improve. With the stated purpose of ensuring that the public who pays for nanotechnology research has a say in its future development and regulation, “Nanotechnology Inside Out” will surely be part of nanotechnology’s future in Brazil.
Posted October 24, 2013 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn
After being delayed by the U.S. government shutdown, talks for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are quietly gearing up again. Tariff barriers between the U.S. and EU are already low, so these negotiations are focused squarely on achieving “regulatory coherence.” In other words, industry lobby groups and their political allies on both sides of the Atlantic see the trade deal as an opportunity to get rid of rules and regulations that limit their ability to buy and sell goods and services. The outcome of TTIP has implications for the rest of the world. Leaders from both regions have made clear, the terms of this trade agreement will set the standard for future free trade agreements.
TTIP could affect a broad range of issues, from energy to the environment, and intellectual property rights to labor rights. It could also have a significant impact on the evolution of agricultural markets and food systems in the U.S. and EU, as well as solidify the ability of corporations and investors to challenge new regulations that could affect expected profits through international tribunals. Unfortunately, little concrete information is known about the content of the TTIP proposals, since the governments involved have refused to publish draft text.
In both the U.S. and EU, the time to influence the substance of the agreement is before it is completed. That’s a tricky task, since the negotiations are happening behind closed doors, but it means that civil society groups and legislators need to pay close attention to what is on the agenda, even without complete information.
In Promises and Perils of the TTIP: Negotiating a Transatlantic Agricultural Market, (which we are co-publishing with the Heinrich Boell Foundation) we outline some of the key differences between rules in the U.S. and EU that will likely be on the negotiating table during the trade talks:
Discussions on these rules on safer and more sustainable food systems need to happen under conditions of full transparency and should not be subsumed within a trade agreement.
If there is any hope that the focus on regulatory coherence does not simply mean shifting standards toward the lowest common denominator, then the U.S. and EU governments need to prioritize human and environmental well-being over market openings for multinational corporations. That seems entirely improbable given statements made by the governments up to this point. Improbable isn’t the same thing as impossible though. The current approach is a political choice; a different path is possible.
Posted October 22, 2013 by IATP
The Farm Bill was designed to reign in price volatility, manage supply and protect nature while providing vital nutrition programs for the country’s poor. Instead, it’s been ravaged by constant corporate assault and a Congress too emboldened with industry money to stand up for our best interests.
The result? An agriculture system that is highly productive at the expense of health, the environment and rural communities.
It's time to move Beyond the Farm Bill and design the type of food and agriculture policy we need. One that provides:
Safe food for everyone.
Access to healthy food.
Fair pay and dignity for food workers.
Local control and fair competition.
A voice for all Americans in food policy.
Protected natural resources.
The Farm Bill can no longer deliver. Now it’s up to us.
We can't do it alone. Join IATP’s Beyond the Farm Bill, sign up to stay engaged and contribute, and help IATP build a better future for our food and agriculture systems before it’s too late.
Posted October 10, 2013 by Andrew Ranallo
Pete Huff and Dr. M. Jahi Chappell have joined IATP’s staff this fall and together will be leading the organization’s efforts to further a sustainable, diversified and prosperous agriculture and food system.
Pete Huff, IATP’s new director of food systems, will be focusing on advancing healthy and fair food systems in the coming year, including our Beyond the Farm Bill initiative. His background spans the worlds of organic agriculture, market gardening, school food-waste reduction and urban agriculture policy in the nonprofit and local government sectors in both the U.S. and Australia. Learn more about Pete on his staff page.
Dr. M. Jahi Chappell is IATP’s new director of agriculture policy, working on farm policy that supports agroecology and more democratic systems. Most recently, Dr. Chappell served as an assistant professor in the Environmental Science and Justice program of Washington State University Vancouver’s School of the Environment. He is a leading scholar of the food security policies of the city of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, which served as a basis for Brazil’s acclaimed national Zero Hunger programs. He’ll be a featured speaker at the upcoming Borlaug Dialogue as part of the World Food Prize. Learn more about Jahi on his staff page.
Posted October 9, 2013 by John Parker
This piece was produced by IATP intern John Parker for IATP's Beyond the Farm Bill.
When it comes to faith in our democracy, this year has raised some eyebrows. In the case of food and agriculture policy, a disturbing fact emerges: Our democracy is increasingly a façade.
Agribusinesses have been subverting the democratic process from Washington D.C. to state legislatures across the country to ensure that people know less and less about how their food is produced and distributed. Moreover, they have engaged in a determined effort to obstruct opportunities for citizens and legislators to engage in the democratic process. Consider the following to illustrate the point.
Having failed to pass a Farm Bill in June, House GOP leadership brought forward a new bill in July with a radical change that would repeal permanent agriculture laws form 1938 and 1949. The House Agriculture Committee never debated such a provision, not once in two years of hearings. GOP leadership placed the provision into the 600-page Farm Bill late on a Wednesday night; they did not allow for debate or amendments and forced the House to vote on it the next day. What happens if Congress replaces permanent law with the Farm Bill they pass this year? Instead of allowing for review and reform every five years, this current Farm Bill would be permanent and very difficult to change. Rep. Peterson’s (D-Minnesota) reaction sums it up, “I think that repealing permanent law all but ensures that we’ll never write a Farm Bill again. If you’re concerned about conservation, fruits and vegetables, research, these other areas, there’s never going to be [another] Farm Bill if we [pass] this.”
Speaking of sneaking provisions into legislation, Monsanto scored a similar victory earlier this year. After the House Appropriations Committee defeated a provision on genetically modified foods, Monsanto asked for help from Senator Blunt (R-Missouri) who, in March, quietly attached Monsanto’s policy onto a budget bill written to avert a government shutdown. Most members of Congress were unaware it was even there. There was no debate. The policy, by the way, prevents federal courts from halting the planting or sale of GMOs due to health issues or pending litigation.
Almost entirely in secret, the U.S. is currently negotiating trade agreements with Europe and countries included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Leaked details of the negotiations reveal that lowering standards affecting health, the environment and consumer labeling are on the negotiating table. This could affect things like chemical safety, the use of technologies such as genetic engineering and nanotechnology in food production as well as the use of antibiotics in animal production. If approved, these trade deals will make it more difficult for individual countries to reform standards in the future.
Interestingly, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) has allowed certain corporations into the talks, but so far, members of Congress and the public are in the dark. What we do know is the USTR wants to eliminate all “local barriers to trade” which could potentially include farm-to-school programs.
On the state and local levels, agribusiness and lawmakers are colluding to silence those reporting on these issues, while at the same time limiting the ability of communities to create policy.
This summer, Kansas authorities arrested famed National Geographic photographer George Steinmetz for taking aerial photos of an animal feedlot. On assignment for National Geographic, Steinmetz and his assistant ran afoul of an “Ag-Gag” law when they were paragliding across Kansas taking photos. The law prohibits individuals from photographing animal facilities and feedlots. These so called “Ag-Gag” laws are designed to keep secret the practices and treatment of animals housed in concentrated animal feeding operations. Eleven states introduced similar legislation this year. Utah authorities arrested and filed charges against a woman in April under similar legislation only to drop the charges due to massive public backlash.
This past spring, Mississippi passed a law preventing cities, counties, towns and villages within the state from regulating or restricting the sale of food based on nutritional information. A month later, Kansas and Missouri introduced legislation to ban the “use of public funds to promote or implement sustainable development.” Alabama passed similar legislation last year. The effort is in reaction to a non-binding United Nations sustainability plan.
Thankfully, there are many exceptions to the trend. Notably, 193 food councils across the U.S. are reinvigorating local democratic decision-making. When it comes to policies affecting the food system as a whole, however, we appear to be a democracy in name only. What does it mean for a state like Vermont to require GMO labeling, if agribusinesses can secretly influence trade agreements that strip away the right of states to enact such legislation? What does it mean for a food council to create a farm-to-school program if agribusinesses buy legislation to eliminate such programs as “barriers to trade”?
U.S. food and agriculture policy seems to be built on secret provisions snuck into bills at the 11th hour with little opportunity for debate, or trade negotiations taking place behind closed doors. The result is government rigged against farmers and workers who want to have a say in policies affecting their livelihoods, against communities who want to protect their natural resources and against parents who want to know what is in the food they feed to their children.
Democracy means rule of the people, not rule of the corporations. We need to move beyond this flawed mess, redefine what democratic participation means and act on it. It is no longer enough to call your Senator or write a letter to your local newspaper. We need to begin the work of reclaiming authentic participation in democratic decision-making. Otherwise, we will continue to watch agribusiness steal the game and tell us all to shut up.
Posted October 3, 2013 by Harriet Barlow
As you may have heard, Jim Harkness intends to step down as president of IATP at the end of this year, to work fulltime on China. I am writing to ask your help in finding IATP’s next leader.
But first, I want to say something about Jim.
Jim came to IATP in 2006, taking the reins from founding director Mark Ritchie. There is always a danger when a founding director leaves that an organization will stumble; instead, Jim has led us through the past seven years with intelligence, grace and courage, and IATP is the stronger for it. Under his leadership, we have deepened our commitment to our core values of justice, internationalism, and sustainable, decentralized food, farm and energy systems. Under his leadership, IATP brought rural communities and agriculture to the table, whether the discussion was climate, finance, trade agreements, food policy, public health or GMOs. Under his leadership, IATP’s board shifted to bring on seven new members while keeping three of the founding members and myself. In short, Jim leaves IATP a strong, vibrant organization and we are truly grateful for that.
We are also eager to find the next president of IATP, and here I need your help. I am heading the board-staff search team that is looking for a collaborative, values-driven, visionary leader who is internationalist in perspective, passionate about agriculture and food systems, and skilled at managing a complex, dynamic organization. Applicants should have stature in a relevant field, experience with other cultures, excellent communication skills and demonstrated leadership ability. The position is based in Minneapolis. You can read the full job announcement here.
I would ask you to share it widely. I am confident that together we can find an extraordinary leader for IATP as it approaches its fourth decade.
on behalf of the IATP Board of Directors
Dr. Arie van den Brand, President, Groupe de Bruges, The Netherlands
Becky Glass, Deputy Director, Labor Network for Sustainability, U.S.A.
Dr. Sivan Kartha, Senior Scientist, Stockholm Environment Institute (U.S. Office), Tufts University, U.S.A.
Jane Kretzmann, Senior Fellow, University of Minnesota, U.S.A.
Hannes Lorenzen, Senior Adviser, Comm. on Agriculture and Rural Development, EU Parliament, Belgium
Firoze Manji, Director, Documentation and Research Centre, CODESRIA, Senegal
Estrella Penunia, Secretary General, Asian Farmers Association, Philippines
Pam Saunders, Quality and Industry Relations Manager, Organic Prairie, U.S.A.
Steven Shrybman, Law Partner, Sack Goldblatt Mitchell, Canada
Dr. Daniel De La Torre Ugarte, Associate Dir., Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, Univ. of Tennessee, U.S.A.
Posted October 2, 2013 by Andrew Ranallo
IATP's new Director of Agriculture Policy, Dr. M. Jahi Chappell, has published a review of The Localization Reader, an overview and primer on "the coming downshift," the need and potential for local food systems in the October 2013 edition of Landscape Ecology. Raymond De Young and Thomas Princen, both professors of natural resources at the University of Michigan, compiled The Localization Reader's 26 pieces--a mix of old and new writings, including an introduction and concluding chapter by De Young and Prince themselves.
According to Dr. Chappell's review, "Landscape ecologists looking for inspiration, philosophical rumination on the local, or a glimpse of the historical evolution of its underlying ideas will find much to enjoy."
You can read the review on Jahi’s personal webpage.
Posted October 1, 2013 by Ben Lilliston
In a major win for public health, the FDA reported yesterday that it would withdraw approval of three of the four arsenicals in animal feed for poultry and hog production. The effective result is that of the 101 drug approvals for arsenic-based animal drugs, 98 will be withdrawn.
This action is the result of a more than seven-year effort by IATP and partners to force the FDA to remove this known carcinogen from animal feed, including a petition filed by IATP and the Center for Food Safety (CFS) in 2009, and the filing of a lawsuit earlier this year by CFS on behalf of IATP and eight other NGOs to force the agency to act on the petition. Better late than never.
In 2006, IATP published a report by David Wallinga, M.D. examining the use of arsenic in animal feed and how that arsenic ends up in chicken meat that consumers eat. Pharmaceutical companies add arsenic to animal feed in order to speed growth and improve pigmentation. The 2006 report estimated that more than 70 percent of all U.S. chickens raised for meat were fed arsenic and found detectable arsenic in much of the products we tested from supermarkets and fast food restaurants. We also found that many companies were not using arsenic in their animal feed, confirming our main point that the use of arsenic by these pharmaceutical companies was entirely unnecessary.
New research published earlier this year placed further pressure on the FDA to act. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Livable Future and Bloomberg School of Public Health confirmed those findings and went a step further, concluding that chickens likely raised with arsenic-based drugs result in chicken meat that has higher levels of inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen.
Behind the scenes, the industry was already acting. In 2011, Pfizer announced that it has voluntarily agreed to stop selling 3-Nitro, an arsenical known as roxarsone. Last month, after receiving letters from the FDA requesting additional information about the presence of arsenic in animal tissue, two other major feed manufacturers announced they would withdraw their arsenical products from the market. Zoetis requested that the FDA withdraw approval of roxarsone and carbarsone on September 19, and Fleming Laboratories, Inc. requested that FDA withdrawal approval of arsanilic acid on September 26.
The FDA has been slow to act on arsenic and a number of other practices by the pharmaceutical and animal feed industry. including the overuse of antibiotics in animal production, which is contributing to the rising risk to humans of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Let’s hope yesterday’s action on arsenic is a first step toward further action to address public health risks associated with animal feed.
Posted September 30, 2013 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell
I’m sorry, but saying that the Green Revolution saved millions of lives is unscientific.
Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, the president of the World Food Prize Foundation, recently made this widely repeated, but unscientific, claim in responding to columnist Rekha Basu. Basu recently criticized the foundation for awarding this year’s World Food Prize to three scientists who helped invent crop genetic modification. (Two of who are current or former vice presidents at Monsanto and Syngenta.) Quinn notes that the founder of the World Food Prize, famed Green Revolution researcher Norman Borlaug, specifically encouraged the foundation to consider these three scientists before his death. In his piece, Quinn admonishes Basu that “Dr. Borlaug would tell us it is our responsibility to use the power of science” to help solve widespread malnutrition. He does this shortly after lauding Borlaug as “the man who saved millions from famine and death in India and Pakistan.”
The reality is more complicated. And using careful social science and an examination of the history around the Green Revolution (AKA evidence), it is clear that Quinn’s statement is at best controversial and incomplete; at worst, it has been (at least in the case of India) disproven. The problems with his statements are related to at least two broad oversights, and these two things are crucially important if we want a future with a sustainable food system that is fair to farmers and healthy for eaters.
1.) People Power
Humans have very strong tendencies for certain kinds of cooperation. Economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis have called these “strong reciprocity and basic needs generosity”—in other words, a tendency to trust, share and cooperate with those who share and cooperate with us, alongside a willingness to personally pay to punish those who violate this trust; and “a virtually unconditional willingness to share with others to assure them of some minimal standard” of living, especially through the provision of essential goods. (For those of you skeptical about these claims, Bowles and Gintis have literally written the book on human cooperation; their combination of history, psychology, economics, political science, evolutionary biology and mathematical modeling is hard to argue with, in my opinion.)
What does this have to do with anything? Well, in the long and short I’d argue many of the improvements in well-being (access to food, health, equity) are the result of peoples’ struggles based on these deeply human drives for (certain kinds of) justice. The many social movements and revolutions in human history, and the expanding understanding that all of our fellow human beings are in fact our fellow human beings, and not innately inferior or less deserving of rights, is at least as important as “science and technology” in improving the lots of many (though not all!) humans over the past centuries.
As important as science and technology are to human well-being, the list of important changes that are not solely or mostly due to technological change is notable: the end of outright empire and colonialism, the end to slavery and the slave trade, the end to the U.S.’s de jure system of repression under Jim Crow, ending the South African Apartheid; the improved socioeconomic status (and therefore health and well-being) of many former immigrant populations (e.g., Jews, Italians, and the Irish in the U.S.); increased suffrage for women and minorities around the world—science and technology played roles, good and bad, in all of these cases, and sometimes they represented one of the forces brought to bear in equality, but in ALL cases, the striving of oppressed groups and their allies for social and economic justice was pivotal.
What does this have to do with food? In short: the most powerful remedies to malnutrition and hidden hunger are and have been food sovereignty, and political sovereignty and equality more broadly. They are essential to get and to protect the right to a fair share of the food available in any society. In recent (and less recent) history, they are the most important element because in the majority of cases, enough food has indeed been available. Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen has been at the forefront of pointing this out—that (a lack of) sociopolitical rights predict hunger far more than presence or absence of enough food. Nowhere is this perhaps more visible than Smith and Haddad’s landmark study, “Explaining Child Malnutrition in Developing Countries: A cross-country analysis,” which found that over half—54 percent—of the decrease in infant malnutrition in developing countries between 1970 and 1995 was due to improvements in women’s status and women’s education (see figure 1). They also found that, at educational parity, women’s education could reduce infant malnutrition by three times as much as raising agricultural production to optimum levels. (see figure 2).
People have fought hunger and repression. Science and technology have been tools used to support—and to block—this fight. Without social movements, they are not enough—not nearly.
2.) Saying “A then B” does not count as evidence: Science doesn’t support the “Green Revolution fed millions” narrative.
If you were wondering what a controversial statement might look like, that’s probably a good one for you. It is widely “known” that the Green Revolution, particularly the hybrid crop varieties and packages of “improved” seeds and fertilizers saved millions of people from starving. The calculations for this are simple: productivity went up, number of hungry went down. A (increased productivity) must have caused B (decreased hunger), right?
Well, um…no. This is not how science works—while this is by no means a SILLY conclusion to make (unlike the Pirate Loss Theory of Climate Change), it is also not a proven one. Observing two things change at the same time, that seem like they should be related, does not prove one causes the other; science is the hard work of developing and analyzing real evidence around such relationships. Science is not blithely asserting the same (highly intuitive and likely seeming) idea again and again without assessing the nitty-gritty details.
And what do the details tell us? You won’t be surprised that (in my analysis) the nitty-gritty details show that the Green Revolution was NOT a primary cause of decreased hunger.
If this idea causes you to spit your coffee out, a.) IATP is not liable for the damage to your computer, and b.) you’re welcome to contest this using science:detailed and careful study of the evidence. One such attempt at a study, Evenson and Gollin’s “Assessing the Impact of the Green Revolution, 1960 to 2000” essentially says “it’s hard to imagine how else you could’ve made all that food.” Leaving aside the question of imagination, “it’s hard to imagine how else you’d do it” is, let us say, a very low level of scientific evidence. Especially since well-regarded researchers have presented strong evidence that in India, the Green Revolution “mainly led to the replacement of cut-rate American wheat with Indian-grown wheat… I’m thinking that India wouldn’t have starved even without the Green Revolution”*; and that “the [Indian] state could not rely on the GR [Green Revolution] for poverty reduction and thus started a ‘direct attack’ on poverty” (poverty being the primary cause of hunger). And, as I’ve previously written, India alone continues to be home to more malnourished people than the entire continent of Africa.
In fact, between 1970 and 1990, the number (though not proportion) of malnourished people in the world increased if you exclude China, even though world per capita food production went up. China, the exception, saw a decrease in the number of malnourished by 217 million. And the mechanism for this? Researchers from the FAO and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) found that land redistribution and education (for rural women in particular) had the biggest impact on rural poverty reduction and inequality. These improvements in distribution, equality and education themselves caused (not resulted from) additional increases in productivity.
It is uncontroversial among hunger researchers that more production (or productivity) does not decrease hunger (or poverty) by itself. Now, of course, this consensus may be wrong, or the Green Revolution an important exception to the rule. But I have seen little evidence for the “GR saved millions” narrative that is, frankly, much stronger than the Pirate Loss Theory of Climate Change. “This makes sense to me in my head” is NOT science. “I can’t imagine things working out differently” is NOT evidence. The GR and Dr. Norman Borlaug Fed the World narrative is over-simplistic and under-scientific.
The issues we’re dealing with in the food system are complex and challenging. And while the often heated scientific conversations about what to do about it are important, they need to go beyond (WAY beyond) production = hunger reduction. They need to go way beyond technology and science. Without a moral, ethical and social movement–based understanding of how equality and improvements actually come about, we could continue on into a future where we produce even more food, but just like today, throw away one-third of it; have one in seven people eating nutritionally empty food that hurts their health in the long run; and one in seven people without adequate agency and access to enough food to sustain their most basic health. Let’s commit to leave this kind of world behind us.
*This quote is from the blog of anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone. He is referencing for evidence, however, John Perkins’s Geopolitics and the Green Revolution, which was published by Oxford University Press in 1997 and reviewed here at IATP in 1999.