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Engineering food for whom?

Marcia Ishii-Eiteman's picture
Marcia Ishii-Eiteman
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Genetic modified plantsWarning! Nina Federoff — former “Science and Technology Advisor” to the U.S. State Department and well-known genetic engineering apologist — is back on her soapbox. In an Op Ed published in the New York Times last week, Federoff strings together one blazing falsehood after another, extolling the virtues of a technology that much of the rest of the world has rightly rejected. What is behind her evangelical commitment to this particular technology? Let’s take a look.

Conflict of interest?

Thanks to Tom Philpott, we know that for the 5-year period before she joined the State Department, Federoff served on the scientific advisory board at Evogene. This Israeli agriculture-biotech firm works closely with Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Bayer CropScience, Syngenta and others. She also served on the board of Sigma-Aldrich, a transnational corporation that provides services and products — including transgenic animals — to agricultural biotech companies. And she herself was one of the early patent-holders on transgenic technologies, back in the 1980s.

Federoff was one of the early patent-holders on transgenic technologies, back in the 1980s.

These solid corporate credentials proved just the ticket into the G.W. Bush Administration’s State Department; tapped initially by Condoleeza Rice, she was kept on by Hillary Clinton. During the same period (2007-2010), Federoff also served as the Science and Technical Advisor to the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development. USAID works with Monsanto and other partners to develop and commercialize GE crops, advancing U.S. trade interests in opening new markets abroad for these products.

Feeding the world? Or feeding U.S. geopolitical interests?

Corporate connections aside, it is entirely possible that Federoff truly believes in the technologies and products associated with high external input, industrial agriculture as the panacea for the world’s woes. Unfortunately, many (though certainly not all) molecular biologists and geneticists have a disciplinary habit of thinking in such narrow, reductionist terms that they miss a lot of historical and political context.

For instance, often missed in such myopic preoccupations with what's on the other end of a microscopic gaze is the cold hard fact that the Green Revolution’s origins in 1940s Mexico were not really about feeding the world; Mexico was a food exporter at the time. Rather, the aims included stabilizing restive rural populations in our neighbor to the south, and making friends with a government that at the time was selling supplies to the World War II Axis powers and confiscating oil fields held by Standard Oil (a funding source for for the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the key architects of the Green Revolution).

The dark underbelly of the Green Revolution — how it was driven largely by the political, economic and trade agendas of the U.S., then taken up by key partners including the World Bank and international research centers, is brilliantly dissected by historian Nick Cullather in his new book, The Hungry World, recently reviewed by Tom Philpott in Mother Jones. (Note to self: send copy to Federoff.) 

Today, the geo-political agenda behind the first Green Revolution, combined with a blind preference for silver-bullet solutions to complex global problems, has led to what Sussex University researcher Sally Brooks calls a “lock in” of genetics-led strategies that fail to meet the diverse needs of people on the ground. And hence, we are forced to read too many ill-informed commercials for corporate technologies — like the one by Federoff — published by news outlets that one would hope might know better.

“Sorry, my dogma ate my homework”

As the kids say now, Federoff gets a FAIL for her latest rant. She provides no empirical evidence to back up her sweeping claims, and blithely ignores the abundance of reports from U.N. agencies and independent scientific studies that have — over the past several years — consistently concluded that GE technologies are unlikely to reduce either hunger or poverty, but do pose a serious threat to food and livelihood security. 

For the empirically inclined, here's a quick roundup of the evidence:

This is not the first time that the New York Times has completely missed the mark in identifying the causes of world hunger — which makes it awfully difficult to identify the solutions. 

Fed up with Federoff?

If you’re tired of being bombarded by pro-GE rants, and would rather get the real scoop on GE, food and ecological justice from leading thinkers, scientists and activists in CA, then join me next month at the Justice Begins with Seeds conference in San Francisco.

See you there!

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