Click here to go to the Home Page Cover Story - The World can be Fed with Seeds and Hard Work, But... - Solidarity America - By John Funiciello - Columnist

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The United Nations last month said that, if women farmers were given the right stuff, there would be from 100 million to 150 million fewer hungry people throughout the world.

BC Question: What will it take to bring Obama home?Josette Sheeran, executive director of the UN�s World Food Programme, headquartered in Rome, urged that women (who raise most of the food for human consumption across the globe) need the right tools and seed to improve nutrition for millions of rural peoples. The �right tools� include fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, and the like.

This month, the UN�s Commission on the Status of Women will meet in Rome, right after that body�s meeting of its Committee on World Food Security. As the earth�s climate continues to change at a fast pace, the production of enough food for everyone has been in the news and on the minds of those who think about those problems.

Decades ago, when news agencies reported on what was then commonly called the Third World, the presence of hungry people was very evident and there was an effort to determine what was causing hunger and starvation. This was particularly true in cities like Calcutta, India, but it was happening in other countries on most of the continents.

One of the things they discovered was that one of the prime causes of hunger was poverty. People did not have enough money to buy food. Of course, it was more complicated than that, but poverty was right up at the top of the list as a cause and, a few generations later, it seems that not much progress has been made. People are hungry in ever-greater numbers in most countries, including the U.S.

Since direct food aid is difficult to send across the world and make certain that it gets to the people who need it, and not find it for sale in the local market, those who are in the business of alleviating hunger and starvation have turned increasingly to making it easier for people to feed themselves. That is, making it easier and more productive to farm on a small scale.

For example, there is a UN organization called AGRA (the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa), headed by Kofi Annan, which �supports the use of science and technology�to aid Africa�s smallholder farmers in their urgent efforts to end widespread poverty and hunger.� The former secretary-general of the United Nations is chairman of the board of directors. There are several board members who came to AGRA by way of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has allied itself with Monsanto, the St. Louis-based chemical and seed company that is registering patents on as much crop seed and, even, livestock as is possible, in the U.S. and in other countries.

It would seem to be a good thing that giant chemical corporations and the foundation of one of the richest men on the planet are interested in supporting what they describe as �smallholder farmers.� That is, farmers who grow enough to feed themselves and their families and some neighbors, and still have enough to sell for the money they need to live. But, this kind of help and support bears watching and the past performances of the �helping� organizations need to be examined closely.

About a year ago, The Seattle Times reported on the collaboration of the Gates Foundation and Monsanto and that the foundation had invested $27.6 million to buy 500,000 shares of Monsanto stock. The investment was a drop in the bucket, compared with the billions that the foundation has available for such programs and projects, but, for most people, it was significant. In October 2006, the paper reported that the Gates Foundation had hired Robert Horsch, a scientist who led genetic engineering for plants at Monsanto. At that time, the paper reported: �As senior program officer, Horsch will apply the technology toward improving crop yields in regions including sub-Saharan Africa, where the foundation recently launched a major drive with the Rockefeller Foundation.� While the Gates Foundation was a funder of AGRA, the Rockefeller Foundation also was one of the original funders.

Monsanto, for years, has been buying up seed companies in the U.S. and in other countries, while it has been genetically modifying seeds so that they can be patented. This assures the company of control of seeds. One of the major modifications has been developing seeds for crops that will be resistant to glyphosate, an herbicide Monsanto markets around the world as �Roundup� (the trademarked name). A field can be sprayed one or more times to kill the weeds and the GM crop will grow because it isn�t killed by the glyphosate. Glyphosate�s effect on humans is not well studied.

For farmers, there is one significant problem. They are prohibited by Monsanto from saving seeds of their patented crops from one year to another, as they have done for thousands of years. Farmers must buy their seeds, each year, from the company, and they buy their glyphosate from Monsanto. For small farmers, that is a cost of doing business that is not sustainable. In India, for example, as many as 100,000 smallholder farmers are reported to have committed suicide over the past decade because once they were caught in the cycle of the use of genetically modified seeds and required chemicals, they saw no other way out. Other factors might have contributed, but the main one was the tight control over seeds, chemicals, and therefore, their crops.

According to AGRA, one of its important initiatives is the development of new crop varieties that will withstand pests and disease; cope with drought, marginal soils and other environment stresses, and �dramatically increase farmers� yields.� �Only with sustainable increases in farm productivity,� according to AGRA, �will smallholder farmers be able to feed themselves and their families, end widespread hunger, produce a marketable surplus, and stimulate economic growth.�

The stated goal of AGRA is to develop 1,000 new varieties as rapidly as possible, using conventional breeding and participatory methods, �in which plant breeders work closely with farmers to develop varieties with the traits farmers need.� AGRA said that, at this time, it is not funding the development of new varieties through the use of genetic engineering.

AGRA has stated: �We have chosen to focus on conventional breeding techniques - which can be quite technologically sophisticated - for two main reasons: We know that conventional methods of plant breeding can produce significant benefits in the near term at relatively low cost. Until now, however, conventional plant breeding has not received sufficient attention or investment in Africa, leaving untapped the inherent genetic potential available in African crops. With improved seeds produced through conventional breeding methods, plant scientists and farmers could readily raise average cereal yields from one ton to two tons per hectare - making a major contribution toward ending hunger and poverty in Africa.� (Note: one hectare is about 2.5 acres.)

Of course, there is a catch to AGRA�s seemingly well-intended program to bring increased yields to the vast number of smallholder farmers in the nearly four dozen countries on the African continent. Conventional breeding could do the job of providing for millions, but �we do not preclude future funding for genetic engineering as an approach to crop variety improvement when it is the most appropriate tool to address an important need of small-scale farmers and when it is consistent with government policy�Our mission is not to advocate for or against the use of genetic engineering. We believe it is up to governments, in partnership with their citizens, to use the best knowledge available to put in place policies and regulations that will guide the safe development and acceptable use of new technologies, as several African countries are in the process of doing. We will consider funding the development and deployment of such new technologies only after African governments have endorsed and provided for their safe use.�

Considering the power Monsanto and other corporations have over North American farmers and growers, through their control over seeds and crops, it seems inconceivable that such control will not be exercised over African farmers. Farmers in the U.S., if they use patented seeds, must buy the seeds every year from the corporation, and they must pay an annual per-acre �royalty� for using the patented seed. It is estimated that 80 percent of corn and 90 percent of soybeans in the U.S. are genetically modified and grown from patented seed. It�s no wonder that many farmers in this country feel they have been reduced to tenant farmers, even though they own the land, for the first cut of whatever profits there are will go to the corporation which holds the patent to their seeds and rights to their royalties. And this is in a country in which there is a rather high level of education (including agricultural institutions of higher learning) and one of the fastest communications systems in the world.

When AGRA says that they would only consider pushing GM crops on African farmers, when governments, �in partnership with their citizens,� believe it to be safe and prudent, watch out! It is unlikely that the farmers themselves will have much to say about it, just as farmers and growers elsewhere had little to say about it. GM crops have not been the answer to American farmers� prayers. So far, they have not been the answer to anyth ing as much as corporate profits, and they are not likely to be the answer to anything that African farmers need now or in the near future.

The primary goal of the entire process of genetic engineering is to make huge profits for a few global corporations and the bigger the farm (or �operation,� as Americans like to call them), the bigger the profits. Under circumstances like that, smallholder farmers are not likely to survive long in an African world of corporate control, aided by �helping� foundations like that of Bill and Melinda Gates.

When the authorities tell you (rightly) that, given the seeds and tools that are needed, women who are the bulk of the world�s farmers, can and will alleviate hunger and starvation, look a little deeper at who is claiming to provide the help and look at their track record in the rest of the world. Can African smallholder farmers withstand such assistance and help over the long haul? Columnist, John Funiciello, is a labor organizer and former union organizer. His union work started when he became a local president of The Newspaper Guild in the early 1970s. He was a reporter for 14 years for newspapers in New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Click here to contact Mr. Funiciello.

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Oct 6, 2011 - Issue 444
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