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Whose World Food Prize?

Marcia Ishii-Eiteman's picture
Marcia Ishii-Eiteman
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Last month, the 2013 World Food Prize was bestowed on Monsanto and Syngenta in recognition of their development of genetically engineered seed technologies. The news shocked the sustainable food and farming community — driving farmers, people’s movement leaders, reknowned scientists and development experts the world over to express their outrage and dismay.

Many excellent responses blasting the decision have been published (here, here and here). Perhaps the most powerful rebuke came from 81 laureates of the Right Livelihood Award and members of the prestigious World Food Council, who shredded the Prize organizers’ argument that GE seeds are feeding the world.

The possible silver lining in this whole farcical affair is that the interests behind the Prize have finally come to light — what they are and who they represent. Just follow the money, my colleague Doug Gurian-Sherman at Union of Concerned Scientists urges. The list of Prize corporate sponsors reads like a who’s who of the world’s largest industrial agribusiness interests: Walmart, Cargill, various corn, soy, beef and pork industry associations, and three of the Big 6 pesticide/biotech companies — Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta (Foundation). No wonder they can’t help but reward one of their own.

The corporate ag leanings of the Prize and its chosen recipients has long been a fact (with a few notable exceptions), but here’s what’s new: ordinary people — like the software developer neighbor of my co-worker, who had never heard of Monsanto a few years ago — are now exclaiming in disgust, “What, the World Food Prize went to Monsanto?”

By abandoning pretenses of being independent, the Prize may have finally burst its own bubble.

Real solutions to world hunger

Vanquishing hunger requires understanding its underlying causes. Here the World Food Prize falls short. As I’ve previously explained (here and here), global hunger and poverty persist today due to a host of complex political, social, economic and environmental factors — most having to do with the destruction of local food systems and extraordinary imbalances of power in national and global food systems.

GE seeds, and the pesticides that most have been engineered for use with, offer little in the way of solutions for the poor and hungry. But they do generate enormous benefits for their corporate manufacturers. In 2012, Monsanto reaped over $7 billion in gross profits, up nearly 50% since the $5 billion it gained in 2010.

Meeting the food needs of future generations — in the face of today’s severe climate, water and energy challenges — requires a swift and decisive transition towards ecological and organic farming practices, along with the democratization and dismantling of structural oppression within our national, regional and global food systems.

These were among the key findings of the four-year World Bank and U.N.-sponsored International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Scientific and Technology for Development (IAASTD), authored by 400 scientists and development experts from over 80 countries. The IAASTD report — the most comprehensive global assessment of agriculture to date — was published in seven massive volumes in 2008, with the endorsement of 59 governments.

New evidence in 2013

The IAASTD's release was followed by a raft of expert papers from U.N. agencies, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and independent scientists. They affirm that agroecological production can double food production; increase household income; save our soil; protect biodiversity; reduce dependence on fossil fuels; help farmers adapt to climate change; and safeguard rural communities’ health from the harms of chemical pesticides. 

In June, the High Level Panel of Experts on Nutrition and Food Security issued its 2013 report, emphasizing interventions to protect farmers’ rights and ability to save and freely exchange seeds. These rights are directly violated by Monsanto and Syngenta, with every new release of their patented GE seeds.

Also last month, a new International Journal of Sustainability paper by molecular biologist, Professor Jack Heineman, skewered the argument that GE crops are either sustainable or more productive when compared with non-GE systems. The paper compared U.S. and European farms, and GE and non-GE cropping systems, and concluded that Europe’s non-GE farms were both more productive and more successful at reducing environmental harms than corresponding U.S. GE farms. Heineman says:

"GM cropping systems have not contributed to yield gains, are not necessary for yield gains, and appear to be eroding yields."

Who should win the World Food Prize?

The World Food Prize could and should be an inspiring beacon drawing attention to the injustice of global hunger in an age of plenty, and celebrating those who fight for real solutions. It has largely failed to do so.

The good news is that there is such a beacon. Established as an alternative to the World Food Prize, the Food Sovereignty Prize “champions solutions coming from those most impacted by the injustices of the global food system.” This prize “affirms that nothing short of the true democratization of our food system will enable us to end hunger once and for all.”

While the World Food Prize honors individuals, most of whom promote chemical and capital-intensive technological tools, the Food Sovereignty Prize honors grassroots organizations that engage in collective action to achieve transformative change. Past honorees include La Via Campesina, the Korean Women Peasants Association, the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement and Wisconsin-based Family Farm Defenders. This year’s honorees will be announced in July — so stay tuned!

Meanwhile, New York Times writer Mark Bittman has spotlighted luminaries in the global food movement who would be far more deserving recipients of the World Food Prize than Monsanto and Syngenta.  

Perhaps alongside those visionary leaders, we could add as Prize recipients the 2.5 billion small-scale family farmers who already provide over 80% of the developing world’s food. After all, these are the folks who are feeding the world. They’d get my vote. Wouldn’t that be a fitting acknowledgement?

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