Rejecting GMOs and supporting small-scale organic farming is a cheap vote winner but it’s not sustainable

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Biosciences for Farming in Africa, an organization that promotes conversation around agricultural productivity in Ghana, Tanzania, Nigeria and Uganda, has recently produced a collection of essays titled Insights focused on “the grand challenge facing the best brains and entrepreneurs alike, whether in laboratories, farms, in businesses or partnerships – how will we be able to produce 70% more food sustainably, sufficient to feed a predicted population of 9 billion in 2050.”

Below is an edited excerpt from an essay titled “The great misunderstanding of the global food crisis” (PDF)  by Philipp Aerni, the director of the Center for Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability (CCRS) at the University of Zürich:

Even though the global situation improved following another peak in food prices in 2011, the increase in global stocks and the globally traded food supply has largely been achieved through a massive expansion of land under cultivation by large corporate and sovereign investment funds. This is not sustainable because colonising new land often takes place at the expense of forests and other precious ecosystems, and it does nothing to address the challenges of the informal rural population who already suffered from hunger and malnutrition even before the global food crisis. More helpful would be international and domestic institutional reforms that encourage home-grown agricultural innovation, rural off-farm employment and structural change. This would enable poor rural people to move out of precarious semisubsistence farming by becoming productive farmers who supply the growing formal markets or by finding work in the growing formal manufacturing or service economy.

This insight stands in strong contrast to the attention that many foreign donor agencies, international organisations and NGOs give to the protection and preservation of low-input small-scale farming in Africa, which they tend to consider as a freely chosen lifestyle rather than an unfortunate destiny, as the increasingly educated offspring of these poor farm households see it. Small-scale farming as a sort of idealistic pursuit of life in harmony with nature and traditional culture is a persistent attitude in affluent non-farming societies, one which explains the willingness of taxpayers to support costly agricultural subsidies and trade protection. Since overseas development assistance and foreign NGOs must primarily please taxpayers and donors back home, it is quite clear from a political economy point of view that pleasing the stereotypical views in donor countries matters more than effectively addressing the agricultural challenges in recipient countries.

The patronizing attitude of the food sovereignty movement is well disguised in an anti-imperialist language. For example, by sponsoring local activist groups in developing countries that fight agricultural trade and foreign investment in agriculture, the call for food sovereignty could be framed as an expression of cultural self-defence. This helps to explain why the food sovereignty movement proved to be as popular on the far political right (for example nationalist concerns about potential dependence on agricultural imports) as it is on the far political left (rejection of agricultural modernisation as  a Western project). Both sides belong to affluent urban elites who have developed a purist ethic which considers all things that have been imported to be a source of contamination of local culture and the environment. Ironically, they them selves are a product of globalisation and most of the things they eat stem from global industrial agriculture, including the organic agriculture industry.

The political alliances that have merged under the umbrella of food sovereignty have made the intergovernmental IAASTD Report (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) their flagship report, partially sponsored by the World Bank. The report was criticised for being unbalanced and for not making the politics of knowledge more explicit, and particularly came under fire for its claim that NGOs represent local farmers in developing countries.

Yet, the popularity of the report in the Western mass media made even pragmatic politicians realise that rejecting the use of genetic modification and supporting small-scale organic farming initiatives at home and abroad is a cheap vote winner. It also felt good to affluent urban consumers who consider sustainability to be a lifestyle that con tributes to personal wellness. “Wellness sustainability” is about feeling right with regard to what we eat, say, read or think. Clever marketing strategies by global retailers are increasingly focused on selling goodness rather than just goods, ensuring that we are never exposed to contra dictions that could make shopping a less pleasant and reassuring experience.

Read the full original article: The great misunderstanding of the global food crisis (PDF)

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