While many countries starve, agribusiness profits

Record food and oil prices, biofuel fever, and shortages of staple grains are combining to create a world food crisis with millions of people going hungry. Meanwhile, agribusiness giants are seeing record profits, and the Bush administration is promoting genetically modified crops as a solution.

Soaring food prices are causing riots in many countries, including Mexico, China, Indonesia, Yemen, the Philippines, Cambodia, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Cameroon, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Peru, and Bolivia.

In Haiti, people eat “cookies” made from dried yellow dirt to relieve hunger. In Pakistan, army troops guard trucks carrying wheat and flour. Thai farmers sleep in shifts guarding their rice fields from thieves.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that 37 developing countries need food urgently. The World Bank says that 100 million more people are facing severe hunger.

Record profits
Meanwhile, multi-national agribusiness companies are seeing record profits. Monsanto Company saw its profits double in the last quarter. Archer-Daniels-Midland’s third-quarter profits increased 42%. Cargill, Inc.’s profits increased 86% in the latest quarter. John Deere, which builds tractors, combines and sprayers, saw a 55% rise in earnings in its latest quarter. Mosaic Co., which manufactures fertilizer, also reported a windfall in its latest quarter.

There’s something wrong with this picture.

Jim Goodman, a Wisconsin farmer, is not surprised. He told The Nation, “So they finally figured out, after all these years of pushing globalization and genetically modified seeds, that instead of feeding the world we’ve created a food system that leaves more people hungry.”

Prices at all time highs
Global food prices have increased by 43% over the past year. Commodity grain prices are at all time highs with corn over $6 per bushel, soybeans around $15 per bushel, and wheat above $12 per bushel.

Wheat is in short supply. The US Department of Agriculture predicts that global wheat stocks will fall to a 30-year low, while US wheat stocks will fall to the lowest level since 1948. Severe droughts in Australia and China, both major wheat producers, have contributed to the shortage.

Besides the high prices, experts point to other factors contributing to the crisis. Higher fuel costs are driving up the costs of agricultural inputs, such as petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers. Transporting foods also costs more due to higher fuel costs. Fast-growing countries like China and India, which combined have over 2 billion people, are eating more meat products, which is straining the grain supply for more animal feed.

Haven’t grasped concept of sustainability
Production of biofuels is siphoning crops such as corn, wheat, and sugarcane that would have ordinarily been used for food. FAO recently said that 100 million tons of cereals are going to produce biofuels each year. Nearly all of that is corn, 12% of the corn consumed in the world. As much as 25% of the US corn harvest is now going to make ethanol.

Dennis Keeney, professor of agronomy and agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University, believes that are too many people in the world to feed and that the current food system is failing. He writes, “Perhaps the time has come to realize that the Earth is close to being stressed beyond its ability to support the people inhabiting it. It is not just the food we grow, but the damage we are causing to the land by over-farming, the addition of pollutants to the atmosphere, bringing on rapid climate change, and the now-generation approach that we must have it all. We have not grasped the concept of sustainability.”

GMOs as a solution
The Bush administration’s proposed solution to the food crisis is more of the same problems that caused it in the first place. Let agribusiness introduce genetically modified crops worldwide. The administration’s proposed $770 million aid package to ease the world food crisis includes language that would promote the use of GM crops in food-deprived countries.

Dan Price, a food aid expert on the White House's National Security Council, told the Associated Press that it is an “established fact that a number of bio-engineered crops have shown themselves to increase yields through their drought resistance and pest resistance.”

The fact is that GM crops have not proven to increase yields, and while some Bt crops are genetically manipulated to resist certain pests, there are no drought resistance GM crops available—anywhere.

Solutions: Local food systems, fundamental changes
Other experts see different solutions. Keeney believes local food systems must be emphasized worldwide. “Instead of subsidizing the corporate takeover of food systems in needy countries, ways must be found for people to again grow their own food—and enough extra to earn a respectable income with fair-trade policies,” he writes.

Similarly, John Nichols, editor of the Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin), argues for “food sovereignty” in countries worldwide. “Congress should also embrace trade and development policies that help developing countries regulate markets with an eye to feeding the hungry rather than feeding corporate profits,” he states.

In April, the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) issued a report calling for a fundamental change in farming practices in order to address soaring food prices, hunger, social inequities, and environmental disasters. The report says industrial agriculture is unsustainable and that GM crops are not a solution. The report recommends small-scale farming and agro-ecological methods as solutions to the current food crisis and to meet the needs of local communities.

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report June 2008.