Let’s Ask Marion: Is American-Style Agribiz The Solution to the Global Food Crisis?

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

Kat: Consumer panic in this country over a perceived rice crisis—or, as Jon Stewart dubbed it, C”rice”is—compelled U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer to declare last Thursday that good ol’ American ingenuity holds the solution to the world’s current food shortages. Shafer told Reuters:

(box)"Unless we can convince other nations to accept the biotechnology and the good farming practices and the precision farming methods that we use today in the United States to increase yields across the globe, we're going to continue to have these price structure and problems with food and hunger in the world today."(box)

Of course, a lot of folks are saying that our agricultural policies are, in fact, a big part of the problem, particularly the diversion of corn for ethanol. What’s your take?

Dr. Nestle: It's mantra time again! From their beginnings in the early 1990s, to head off critics, agricultural biotechnology companies intoned the agbiotech mantra: biotechnology--and only biotechnology--can produce enough food to feed the world. So far, the results have been less than impressive.

The industry has focused on temperate zone agriculture, rather than tropical agriculture, for two reasons: it's easier to do and people in developing countries don't have the money to buy expensive seeds every year. Temperate zone soybean producers love using genetically modified seeds because they don't have to apply pesticides as often and their yields are good.

But researchers who do such comparisons say yields on organic farms are lower, but only slightly. So now corn farmers are being encouraged to grow corn for ethanol? The nutritionist in me says that's better than growing it for high fructose corn syrup, but not much corn gets used for that purpose anyway. Most of it goes for animal feed.

All of this is unsustainable and needs a major re-think. Maybe it's time for everyone to start growing food, even if it's just in window boxes. In the meantime, we have a farm bill that still hasn't passed and gets worse by the minute. Our agriculture policies are a mess. I hate the idea that it will take a food crisis to bring on better agricultural policies but let's hope some good will come out of rising food prices.