Let’s Ask Marion: Can A Free Market Feed The World?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics:)

Kat: You ruffled some high-powered plumage earlier this month when you spoke at the Global Food Systems forum hosted by Jeffrey Sach’s Earth Institute. After listening to executives from Monsanto, Pespsico, Nestlé, Unilever, and Syngenta declare their intention to help solve the world hunger and obesity crises (oh, and climate change, while they’re at it), you expressed the belief that these are social problems that can’t truly be addressed through technological fixes or marketing.

But the agronomists who spoke at the forum insisted that Africa’s soil is so poor, so depleted, that our only hope for eradicating hunger there lies in increasing crop yields via the patented biotech seeds and chemical fertilizers proffered by Monsanto, Syngenta, et. al. OK, so if agricultural conditions are so lousy in Africa, why, then—as this article in Sunday’s Los Angeles TImes reveals—are wealthy nations like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait snapping up Africa’s cropland “hoping to turn the global epicenter of malnutrition into a breadbasket for themselves?”

According to the Times, the Saudis are so worried about insufficient irrigation in their own country that they’re leasing land from Sudan, whose government is waving export taxes and granting low-cost 99-year leases to foreign investors on the grounds that “the new deals will help, not exploit, their country by creating jobs, promoting commercialization, and pumping much-needed investment into its agricultural industry.”

But what about pumping out Africa’s finite water resources onto crops for export when its own people are starving? Many African nations are facing the specter of water shortages and drought along with much of the rest of the world. Presumably, this isn’t what Jeffrey Sachs had in mind when he called for “increased food production in Africa.” What good do genetically modified drought-resistant seeds do for the world’s poor if the resulting crops are grown for the benefit of the affluent?

Dr. Nestle: Ruffling plumage was not my intention and, as usual, I just thought I was stating the obvious: American and European food and agriculture companies that exist for the purpose of earning profits for stockholders are not going to be able to do much to help poor farmers in Africa make a living. For one thing, Western companies depend on government subsidies to keep the prices of their products down and this undermines the ability of African farmers to sell crops at a decent price. For another, political instability and extreme poverty in Africa make it difficult to establish the conditions necessary for agricultural production.

Poverty means that people won’t have enough money to buy the seeds, fertilizer, and farm equipment that are required to make the “green revolution” work. That is why biotechnology companies spend most of their resources developing—and patenting—seeds designed for temperate zone agriculture and invest so little in research on crops that can grow under harsh tropical conditions. Mind you, genetically engineering crops that can grow in hot climates with poor soils and little water present difficult scientific problems that will not be solved easily. But no agricultural biotechnology company of which I am aware is putting much money into this kind of research quite simply because it has no obvious payoff other than public relations. Hence: Golden Rice.

I do not claim to know how to solve Africa’s need for agricultural development but I applaud efforts to help its farmers grow enough food to feed themselves and their families—and to have enough left over to sell at a profit. I thought the absence of Vandana Shiva at the conference was a big gap. It would have been interesting to see how its audience reacted to a report on what her Navdanya Center is doing to help small farmers in India grow multiple crops under sustainable conditions appropriate to their particular location. This approach seems to be working well to raise farmers out of dire poverty and is a model that I would think deserves serious consideration. Its one major drawback? It only helps farmers help themselves and will do little in the short run to raise the profits of the food and agriculture corporations represented at that meeting.

In the long run, of course, a population that is better off economically will be interested in buying better food and more consumer goods, which is what we see happening in China. China invested in its own agriculture right from the start of its economic development, but it has a stable government. All I was saying was that government stability and poverty are social problems unlikely to be solvable by genetically engineered crops, at least as currently managed.

Can A Free Market Feed The World?

With food accounting for a large and volatile share of tight family budgets in the poorest countries, rising prices are re-emerging as a threat to global growth and social stability.

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