Timothy A. Wise

Triple Crisis contributor Timothy A. Wise’s analysis of genetically modified maize and the risks to Mexico, the world’s cradle of maize cultivation, continues. His previous posts on the topic can be read here and here.

I had come to Mexico to investigate the ongoing controversy over the proposed introduction of genetically modified (GM) maize into the birthplace of this important global food crop. The issue was hot, because last October a Mexican judge had issued an injunction halting all experimental and commercial planting of GM maize, a process that was well underway in six northern states. The ruling cited the need for precaution to ensure that Mexico’s rich diversity of maize varieties were protected from inadvertent “gene flow” from GM maize.

As I began to investigate this most controversial of biotech initiatives, the question that most puzzled me was: why anyone in Mexico thinks the country needs anything that transgenic maize has to offer?

Monsanto, of course, had an answer to that question. I met with a group of company officials in their high-rise offices in Mexico City’s transnational business district of Santa Fe. They offered their “Vision 2020,” in which transgenic maize is key to feeding the world. In Mexico, they argued, it would help double Mexican maize production, reduce persistent rural poverty among the country’s small-scale maize farmers, restore the country’s self-sufficiency in its key food staple and reduce the negative environmental impacts of maize farming. They even used the term “food sovereignty” to describe their goal for Mexico. This was more than a vision; this was a hallucination.

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Sylvia Kay, Guest Blogger

Sylvia Kay is a researcher at Transnational Institute (TNI). She works on a wide range of issues including land grabbing, water, and agricultural investment.

South Africa’s most famous cleric, Desmond Tutu, in his inimitable style, once said, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” His blunt speaking has particular relevance to important negotiations taking place in Rome this week at the United Nations Committee on World Food Security, which will define principles for “responsible agricultural investment” (known as RAI) in the context of an ongoing food crisis and an unprecedented wave of land grabbing.

When it comes to agriculture and food, the elephant is agribusiness. Just three companies control 50% of the commercial seed market; only four companies control 75% of the global trade in grains and soya. Their argument is that the state’s role should be that of a neutral broker, encouraging primarily private investment in agriculture. They are willing to accept guidelines for “responsible investment,” but within a model that sees ever increasing levels of foreign direct investment and the deepening and further integration of national agricultural sectors into global commodity chains and markets. Theirs is essentially a business-as-usual approach which seeks to retrofit the RAI principles to existing agribusiness initiatives.

While such principles will boost the profits of some corporations, the evidence shows that it will not deliver on the CFS mandate to realise the right to adequate food for all. One in eight people in the world are currently undernourished—and this has worsened in recent years. In fact, reliance on global markets led to global food prices in 2007 rising to levels in real terms not witnessed since 1846. This has not only added between 130 to 150 million people to those living in extreme poverty, it has also fueled an unprecedented wave of land grabbing across the global South by governments seeking security from food riots and corporations seeking profits from perceived scarcity.

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Timothy A. Wise

Regular Triple Crisis contributor Timothy A. Wise leads the Globalization and Sustainable Development Program at the Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE), Tufts University. This is the second installment in his series on Mexico, genetically modified organisms, and genetic contamination of native maize. See his earlier post on the subject here.

To listen to the current debates over the controversial requests by Monsanto and other biotech giants to grow genetically modified (GM) maize in Mexico, you’d think the danger to the country’s rich biodiversity in maize was hypothetical. It is anything but.

Studies have found the presence of transgenes in native maize in nearly half of Mexico’s states. A study of maize diversity within the confines of Mexico’s sprawling capital city revealed transgenic maize in 70 percent of the samples from the area of Xochimilco and 49 percent of those from Tlalpan.

Mexico is the “center of origin” where maize was first domesticated from its wild ancestor, teocinte. The country is arguably the last place you’d want to risk the possibility that its wide array of native seeds might be undermined by what indigenous people have called “genetic pollution” from GM maize.

Last October, a judge issued an injunction putting a halt to all experimental and commercial planting until it can be proven that native maize varieties are not threatened by “gene flow” from GM maize. The precautionary measure comes more than a decade too late.

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Timothy A. Wise

On April 21, a Mexican judge dealt a blow to the efforts of agricultural behemoth Monsanto and other biotech companies to open the country to the commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) maize. The ruling upheld the injunction issued last October that put a halt to further testing or commercial planting of the crop, citing “the risk of imminent harm to the environment.”

In a fitting tribute to Mexican surrealism, Monsanto had accused the judge who upheld the injunction of failing to be “impartial.” I don’t know if the presiding judge smiled when he denied Monsanto’s complaint, but I did.

I had just arrived in Mexico to look at the GM controversy, and I could tell it was going to be quite a visit.

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Jennifer Clapp

A recently published Oxfam briefing paper, Smallholders at Risk, challenges a number of mainstream assumptions about the role of private-sector investment in developing country agriculture. The conventional wisdom from the World Bank and other powerful actors is that private investment in the sector will benefit smallholders and enhance food security.

Oxfam’s research shows that, even in cases where private investors claim to be investing “responsibly”, the outcomes can nonetheless be harmful to food security and smallholder livelihoods. This happened in the cases the organization examined in Paraguay, Guatemala, and Colombia involving large-scale private investments in soy, oil palm, and maize that displaced farmers, degraded the environment, and contributed to hunger.

The general response to this kind of outcome has been to promote voluntary initiatives that encourage more responsible investment. A spate of recent initiatives explicitly seek to promote responsibility among investors in the sector: the responsible agricultural investment (RAI) principles currently being developed by the Committee on World Food Security, the Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment (PRAI) promoted by the World Bank and UNCTAD, as well as a range of other initiatives including commodity specific certification schemes.

These efforts aim to ensure that private sector investment avoids the kind of pitfalls that Oxfam’s research highlights. But voluntary initiatives alone are unlikely to make much of a difference, no matter how strongly they are worded.

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Sunita Narain

“There is nothing called junk food. The problem with obesity lies with children who do not exercise enough. What is needed is for them to run and jump, and to do this they need to consume high-calorie food. So, food high in salt, sugar and fat is good for them.” This is what was argued vehemently and rudely by representatives of the food industry in the committee, set up under directions from the Delhi High Court to frame guidelines for junk food in the country.

On the face of it there was no one from the junk food industry in the committee. In the early meetings, we only knew that there were members of two associations who were representing the food industry in the committee. But as discussions got under way, it became clear that the big junk food industry was present in the meeting. We learnt that the member representing the National Restaurant Association of India was a top official from Coca-Cola—the world’s most powerful beverage company that is at the centre of the junk food debate globally. The other grouping, All India Food Processors Association, was represented by Swiss food giant Nestle, which has commercial interest in instant noodles and other junk food.

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Timothy A. Wise, republished from Global Post

International food prices have fallen since 2008, when agricultural commodity prices doubled, pushing millions around the world from bare subsistence to hunger and raising the number of food insecure people to nearly one billion.

Is the crisis over, then? Far from it, according to Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. As he told the UN Human Rights Council earlier this month, global policymakers have yet to address the structural causes of the crisis. In particular, they have failed to recognize that industrial agriculture is not the ultimate solution to global hunger — and that it is, instead, part of the problem.

In part, De Schutter drew his conclusions from his official mission to Malawi last year. As I toured the country last month, it was easy to see what he saw: the promise and allure of hybrid seeds and synthetic fertilizer, as well as their limits.

De Schutter took over as Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food six years ago, as the global food crisis was breaking. His UN mandate is to advance the “progressive realization of the right to food,” and he has been a tireless advocate at a critical juncture for global agricultural and food policy. He will hand over his mandate to an as-yet-unnamed successor in April, and he used his final report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to deliver a sweeping assessment of the progress to date and the daunting challenges ahead.

His message was upbeat but firm: “The eradication of hunger and malnutrition is an achievable goal. Reaching it requires, however, that we move away from business as usual.”

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Timothy A. Wise

Cross-posted from Global Post.

LILONGWE, Malawi — Visit this small, landlocked country in late January and you will have a hard time believing its people often go hungry.

It is mid-rainy season, and in and around the capital city the landscape is lush and green.

Look more closely and you’ll notice that nearly every inch of unpaved space seems planted with maize (corn); the green stalks rise up to five feet above moist, rich soil. Outside of the city, along the road leading south toward the former colonial capital of Zomba, the hills roll with maize, not in vast tracts reminiscent of Iowa but in small, neatly bordered plots.

It certainly doesn’t seem like a land that cannot feed itself. But until recently, that is what Malawi has been.

Droughts often threaten the country’s one rainy season, and with per capita incomes at around $900 per year, hunger, and even starvation, stalk the countryside. The World Food Program has permanent offices here, and for good reason.

Even this season, when the rains have come strong but late, more than 10 percent of the country’s 16 million people face severe food insecurity. According to news reports, some have starved.

It is paradoxical only to outsiders that this greenest of seasons is also the hungriest. By planting time late in the year, many peasant farmers have consumed the last of their saved grain, even following a decent harvest like they had last year. Until the new crop comes in late March or April they have to rely on meager cash income to feed themselves and their families.

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Jennifer Clapp

After years of delay, the U.S. Senate voted yesterday in favor of the 2014 Farm Bill, which passed easily in the House or Representatives last week. President Obama is widely expected to sign the bill into law. The bill’s provisions on food aid, though not as far reaching in the end as many had hoped for a year ago, are being hailed as a first step toward more major reform in the future. But newly emerging donors mimicking outdated U.S. food aid practices may muddy the reform efforts.

U.S. food aid policy has seen remarkably few major changes since it was initiated 60 years ago, in 1954. Donated food is still required to be primarily grown in the United States, and at least half must still be transported on U.S. flag ships. The United States also remains by far the largest donor of food aid on the global stage, carrying significant weight in setting food aid trends.

But in these past 60 years, the world has changed a great deal, making U.S. food aid policy arcane and outdated. NGOs such as Oxfam and others pushing for reform have emphasized these points.

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Timothy A. Wise

This year’s World Food Prize went to three biotech engineers, all of whom have been instrumental in bringing genetically modified foods to your table.

Inside the Marriott Hotel in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, where the prize’s four-day program took place October 15-18, the message was clear: Technology is the answer to the world’s looming food shortages, and anyone who gets in the way isn’t putting farmers and the hungry first.

And you have to admire the laureates for their candor.

In their prepared press statements, they couldn’t have been clearer about what the prize means to them.

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