We live in a world rich with fertile soil, a world covered in croplands, a world that produces enough food to feed every man, woman, and child. We also live in a world in which nearly 870 million people suffer from chronic undernourishment, most of them in developing countries, and many of them children. Luckily however, we live in a world constantly striving to end hunger, and the World Food Prize recognizes the efforts of a few shining individuals in their efforts to “advance human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.” This year the illustrious prize was awarded to “three distinguished scientists… for their independent, individual breakthrough achievements in founding, developing, and applying modern agricultural biotechnology. Their research is making it possible for farmers to grow crops with: improved yields; resistance to insects and disease; and the ability to tolerate extreme variations in climate.”
Yes, it may come as a surprise, but The World Food Prize has embraced the promise of biotechnology’s ability to improve yields, increase resistance to disease and insects, and to increase tolerance of adverse conditions such as drought. It is surely no coincidence that the Food Prize’s list of sponsors includes such biotech and corporate agriculture luminaries as Monsanto, DuPont, Cargill, and Hormel, and these are just some of the names at the top of the list. Genetically modified (GM) crops have largely failed to fulfill their early promises, though research has been controversial and inconclusive. This is not to say that GM food has no place in the global food system—though many would argue that it doesn’t.
Let’s take the case of golden rice, which has the potential to drastically improve children’s health in impoverished regions. Though not without its own set of controversies (including how these genes will spread in the wild over centuries to come), golden rice demonstrates the potential for genetic modification. However, what the multi-billion dollar biotech agriculture industry and the World Food Prize are missing, is that hunger is not due to a lack of food but rather it is a consequence of unfair economic systems, prioritizing money over health and justice, and the unequal distribution of basic food stuffs.
Corporate biotech giants like Robert Fraley’s (one of the World Food Prize recipients) Monsanto and Mary-Dell Chilton’s (another winner) Syngenta are doing nothing to address the systemic issues of hunger, and in fact are likely perpetuating and exacerbating nutritional and financial inequalities. The major problem with GM food, in addition to the potential health risks (research has yet to determine the risks to human or ecological health), is the monopolization of agriculture around the world. Corporations like Monsanto lock farmers into contracts forcing them to use their seeds and spray with roundup, which leads to long-term soil toxicity and the inability to transition back to non-GM seeds. William Engdahl describes this business tactic as promoting a new kind of serfdom. Biotechnology firms patent their seeds, and thus collect royalties on their sales, providing huge incentive for raising seed prices. In India, the introduction of Monsanto cotton seeds precipitated a seed price increase of 8,000 percent, leading to huge numbers of farmers in debt.
It is clear that GM food needs to be more rigorously analyzed, and by independent researchers external to the biotech industry. Preliminary research, however, suggests that benefits from GM crops are temporary, as yields fall in the long run and crops build up resistance to the biotech-developed pesticides, prompting the growth of super weeds. Insects too, are starting to show resistance to the insect-resistant strains. The World Food Prize has shown its corporate dependence, angering citizens around the world.
The World Food Prize argues for economic and environmental sustainability in agriculture, yet undermines its very mission with this award. While GM food may have a role in a sustainable future, that role is difficult to envision at the current time. Much of the current GM crop is going towards animal feed or biofuel production, which is rife with its own set of issues. Instead of blindly following its corporate sponsors, the World Food Prize should have chosen from a host of other deserving recipients, and reinforced its dedication to food security through environmentally and culturally sustainable practices.