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Zhe Yu

This year’s World Food Prize and Borlaug Dialogue, held from October 17–19, 2014 in Des Moines, Iowa once again brought together the big gun stakeholders in industrial agriculture, and provided many insights to the current framing on the global food security challenge.

Given the parallel celebration of the Borlaug Centennial marking 100 years since the birth of Norman Borlaug, it should come as no surprise that Sanjaya Rajaram was named this year’s World Food Prize Laureate. As Borlaug’s protege in terms of sustaining his legacy of wheat breeding, this award for Rajaram appears to reinforce the importance of remembering what Borlaug was said to have achieved, while also ensuring that current research efforts at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico, where Rajaram is based, continue to be perceived to play an important role in meeting global agricultural research needs. It is also noteworthy to acknowledge that Rajaram was born in India but has become a naturalized Mexican citizen given that Borlaug pioneered many Green Revolution ideas and technologies in Mexico in the mid 20th century before subsequently institutionalizing them in India’s post-independence agricultural sector. Indian agriculture continues to be geared towards a commitment to use “modern” and “improved” crop varieties and inputs even as many small farmers face a variety of severe social, environmental and economic challenges that fundamentally threaten production levels and livelihood security of a significant proportion of its population.     

In this vein, the plenary sessions that were held did not depart from what continues to be an overwhelmingly productivist paradigm, grounded in unceasing faith in what are framed as neutral approaches to scientific research, technological innovation and financial investment and financialization. It seems that recent criticisms implicit in the discussions of agroecology, food sovereignty, food justice and local foods have not been able to significantly disrupt this technocratic discourse. The dialogue seemed to be a self-congratulatory echo chamber, largely oblivious to questions of equity, large-scale environmental pollution, alternative forms of production as well as the historical baggage of how the development of industrial agriculture was linked to the highly politicized Cold War project of establishing capitalist economies around the world. While there was acknowledgment of problems such as chemical overuse and land degradation, many of the solutions that were proposed were couched in terms of increased productivity, efficiency and “sustainable intensification.”

Many, if not all of the plenary sessions invoked the 9 billion by 2050 statement to frame the food security problem merely as one of increasing production levels and reducing absolute hunger both through “better” crops, physical technologies and cropping methods and the forging of value-chain infrastructures that will allow small farmers increased access to markets. There was also a whole-hearted embrace of the use of big data and precision agriculture with stakeholders such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation massively investing in this area. On the one hand, this could lead to better understanding of local conditions with the intention of empowering farmers to appropriately adjust production techniques and use inputs more efficiently. One the other hand, this could further reinforce the notion that the food security challenge is merely a problem of management, not to mention the question of who will ultimately have control of the data and profit from it especially in the developing country context.

What stood out was a significant proportion of international delegates coming from various African countries, most of whom were relatively open to embracing what seems to be a concerted push to implement a New Green Revolution. Many desired to sustain the flow of “expertise” from Global North institutions into their respective countries. The absence of discussion about local agroecological solutions was palpable. There was also a considerable presence of high school students who participated through the parallel Global Youth Institute initiative that desires to get young people interested in working in the agricultural sector. The recent emphasis of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields (STEM) in education has an explicit agricultural focus, given the recent founding of the STEM Food & Ag Council with the Lieutenant Governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds and the President of Dupont Pioneer, Paul E. Schickler as Chair and Vice Chair respectively.  

Lastly, many speakers including the US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack discussed the importance of better communicating the merits of biotechnology to the general population. This could be seen as an implicit acknowledgement of the resonance of concerns expressed by various civil society groups criticizing the development of genetically modified crops (GMOs). He also noted that there continues to be stark differences between the European Union and the United States on GMOs in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) free trade negotiations, desiring that EU policies would be more open to accepting such crops by conforming more closely to the US regulatory framework.

Overall, this technocratic and seemingly depoliticized discourse did not come as a surprise. Despite mounting evidence around the world of the negative socio-economic and ecological impacts of dominant, industrial modes of agriculture, the stakeholders at the “dialogue” double-downed on their continued faith in top-down technological and capital-centric solutions. Unless social, consumer and farmer movements continue to put pressure at different policy processes to alter the framing of the global food security challenge and forcefully put forth alternatives, the approaches and strategies that were discussed at the Borlaug Dialogue will go unchallenged. The stakes are as high as ever and continue to mount, and therefore the necessity of imagining and enacting radically different futures remains as relevant as ever.

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