Why is feeding the hungry so controversial?

A boy smiles after being fed by donated food in Sheikh Omar IDP camp in Jowhar, Somalia, September 2007.Hundreds of thousands of people are still on the verge of starvation.
(Manoocher Deghati/IRIN)

The US Senate is expected to pass the Global Food Security Act, new legislation that would significantly expand the government's commitment to combating hunger worldwide with a broad range of measures and more money, and a special coordinator, or "food czar", to oversee implementation of these provisions across agencies.

The legislation would also establish a US Emergency Rapid Response to Food Crises Fund that would authorize a $500 million appropriation for "local and regional purchase and distribution of food" and "provision of emergency non-food assistance, including vouchers or cash transfer, safety net programmes, or other appropriate non-food assistance".

The proposed fund would be "in addition, and complementary, to food aid provided through the US Department of Agriculture", most of which is not permitted to be purchased in the areas where a food crisis is occurring.

"The US, indeed all global donors, have been starving agricultural research funding for more than a decade," said Christopher Barrett, a food aid expert who teaches at Cornell University.

"A huge body of evidence demonstrates extremely high rates of return on agricultural investment ... in the form of poverty and hunger reduction globally and ... economic growth, including for US and other high-income country farmers who benefit ... from research aimed at stimulating agricultural development in poor countries," Barrett commented.

"It's a smarter way to approach hunger and development assistance," the ONE Campaign, a grassroots advocacy organization, said in a statement. "With targeted investments in solutions like proven farming techniques, seeds, improved soils and efficient use of water resources, we can not only end chronic hunger and food shortages, we can help poor farmers and their families earn their way out of poverty."

However, some organizations have objected to a sentence in the bill sponsored by Senators Richard Lugar and Robert Casey, which mandates funding for "research on biotechnical advances appropriate to local ecological conditions, including genetically modified [GM] technology".

A letter signed by more than a hundred advocacy groups, scientists and development experts claimed that "The current language mandates one highly controversial type of technology - transgenics - dominated by two or three companies (most notably Monsanto), to get both taxpayer cash and ... favoured treatment under a bill ostensibly designed to help the poor and hungry," and asked that this section be stricken from the bill.

A wheat field in Bamiyan Afghanistan

Akmal Dawi/IRIN
A wheat field in Bamiyan Afghanistan
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
The price of bread could rocket
A wheat field in Bamiyan Afghanistan

Photo: Akmal Dawi/IRIN
A green revolution is needed

If Congress "singles out one technology and attaches it to a pool of foreign aid money, the pressure on developing countries to ignore local priorities and other scientifically valid options – and to open their markets to that one technology – will be substantial", the letter noted.

Annie Shattuck, of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, commented in an email to IRIN: "The bill puts needed resources to long-term agricultural development, but the essential question is: who will ultimately benefit from the development?

She noted that "Both [the] State [Department] and USAID acknowledge that poverty, not scarcity, causes hunger, yet both focus on productivity and new green revolution technologies, to the exclusion of broader social factors like fairer trading arrangements, increasing the market power of small farmers, access to credit, stabilizing markets, rebuilding public extension, etc."

GM controversy

Lugar responded: "The bottom line is that a provision of the Lugar-Casey bill directs US assistance in developing local technological solutions to advance agricultural productivity in countries suffering from chronic hunger - it does not require that these solutions be GM, but it does not preclude it where appropriate."

He characterized as "gross misrepresentations" suggestions that "the bill would mandate that US assistance be used to promote genetically modified agricultural technologies, and that US food aid would be conditioned on recipient countries approving the use of GM products."

Robert Paarlberg, author of Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept out of Africa, told IRIN: "This is a deeper matter than GM crop research, since most of the organizations that oppose the Lugar-Casey bill on these grounds also oppose its emphasis on spreading more traditional science-based 'green revolution' farming technologies."

He pointed out that "There is not yet an example of any society lifting its farming populations out of hunger and poverty without introducing green revolution methods, such as the use of improved seeds and nitrogen fertilizers," and that using only organic and agro-ecological approaches had not yet worked anywhere.  

"It simply makes sense to keep all our arrows available in the quiver in the battle to reduce hunger and poverty," said Christopher Barrett. "It would make no more sense to exclude research based on genetic modification than to focus on it exclusively."

After passage in the senate, the bill will move on to the House of Representatives; once the lower house grants its approval, President Barack Obama's signature will make it law.


* This story was amended on 18 June to clarify the role of the proposed fund

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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