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    Food Crises And Technological Phobia
    By Drew Kershen | September 5th 2012 04:01 PM | 2 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Drew Kershen is Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law (Emeritus), University of Oklahoma, College of Law, Norman, OK

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    Drought across the United States has reduced substantially the expected yield of corn and soybean fields for the fall 2012 U.S. harvests. With reduced yield, prices have risen rapidly for these crops that are widely-used food and feed ingredients, huge international agricultural trade commodities, and important food aid essentials.

    With the price increases, persons around the world have expressed concerns that a situation similar to 2008 is about to occur. In 2008, high food prices led to social, economic, and political instability – hunger, export restrictions, riots, and the overthrow of governments.

    In light of these concerns, commentators have expressed varying opinions about appropriate actions to prevent a 2008 food crisis from coming again in 2012 or 2013. Several commentators, including the FAO Director General and twenty-six United States Senators, urged the United States to waive its Renewable Fuel Standard that results in about 40% of U.S. corn being used for biofuel (ethanol) production. (Soybean, to a much lesser amount, is also used for biodiesel).

    Other commentators, including the Holy See’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva and several food aid NGOs, have expressed concern about commodity speculators. What these commentators have in common is a plea that the United States take actions to place food above fuel as the priority usage for its reduced crops.

    In counter to these pleas for food over fuel, the US Secretary of Agriculture, agricultural commodity processors and traders, representatives of the biofuel industry (refiners and farmers), and a Purdue agricultural economics report respond that the market is properly allocating corn and soybeans between food and fuel without needing drastic legal interventions or changes in energy policy. These commentators argue that a waiver of the Renewable Fuel Standard would have limited or no impact upon U.S. crop commodity prices.

    I do not write to enter the debate focused on fuel standards, markets and commodity speculators.  I acknowledge that other factors also contribute to food crises, particularly in developing nations – e.g., underfunded agricultural research and extension, inadequate infrastructure, and insecure land tenure. However, I write to highlight another often overlooked factor in the on-going food versus fuel debate: technological phobia that has either exacerbated the food versus fuel dilemma or doomed public policy that may have avoided a food versus fuel dilemma from arising.

    More specifically, politicians, governments, and many NGOs have adopted positions antagonistic to modern farming practices, especially agricultural biotechnology, that have proven their ability to increase both yield and farm income. Increased yield and increased farm income are more likely to prevent food crises than current prominent concerns about biofuel standards, commodity speculators, and market forces. Many examples of the impact of this technological phobia on yield, farm income, and food prices exist.

    In the United States, the Renewable Fuel Standard does not mandate the use of corn and soybeans. Rather the standard mandates renewable fuel sources that was expected to include fuels produced from non-food crops such as grasses, bushes, and trees. Due to regulatory resistance and hostility, genetically modified trees, grasses (e.g., switchgrass), and bushes have not gained timely and feasible approvals for field trials. None of these advanced biofuel sources are close to regulatory approval for commercial release.

    As a consequence, the United States is satisfying its renewable fuel standard from food crops, rather than from non-food plants. Unless the regulatory attitude at USDA and EPA changes, the situation will only get worse because, by law, the mandate for renewable fuel sources goes up each year. Two Thousand and Thirteen will put more pressure on the food versus fuel debate than two thousand twelve. Fortunately, the United States has approved several drought-tolerant genetically modified maize traits that show promise this summer in enhancing American farmers management of drought.

    In Europe the antagonism towards agricultural biotechnology has exacerbated food crises in three distinct ways.

    • The European Union and its member states have only approved one genetically modified crop for farmers to grow. Several countries even ban this one crop (a Bt maize) using bogus science to justify their technological phobia. Consequently, European farmers are not allowed to use the best available seeds to produce crops. In Romania, its farmers grew herbicide-tolerant soybeans from 1999 to 2006. But once Romania joined the EU, its farmers were prohibited from growing these genetically-modified soybeans and lost the 10% yield increase they had experienced. Thus Europe does not grow as much of its food and feed supply as it easily could if Europe abandoned its unjustified discrimination against genetically modified crops.

    • Europe, of course, does not go hungry. Rather Europe overcomes its reduced yields by importing foods from other countries. But European importers, reflecting the same technological phobia, often demand that the imported food be produced without genetically modified seeds. Thus farmers in other countries lose increased yields and, depending if a premium (and how large) is paid or not by European importers, additional income from growing modified crops. In other words, Europe exports its food deficit to other nations and then exacerbates the export by demanding these nations engage in food deficit agriculture too.

    • European technological phobia is most profound at the policy level. Europe funds, particularly through United Nations agencies such as the Global Environmental Facility, training programs relating to genetically modified crops that urges the adoption of the European regulatory model – a model of technological phobia and bogus science. Implied in this training is that developing nations will lose access to European food markets unless the developing nation does as Europe not too subtly commands. The foregone benefits for food security in developing nations is nigh incalculable.

    Developing nations have responded to the technological phobia emanating from Europe and the United States, by being extremely slow to adopt genetically modified seeds and crops. China has not commercialized genetically modified rice despite studies showing that trials of genetically modified rice resulted in significant productivity improvements for farmers (modified yield and reduced costs). Kenya refused entry to genetically modified maize — perfectly safe for humans, animals and the environment and grown in South Africa — even though Kenyans were facing maize shortages and escalating prices. Kenya has not authorized their farmers to have access to these modified crops despite favorable information from South Africa.

    According to one study, South African farmers growing this genetically modified crop (Bt maize) experienced an 11% increase in effective yield and a 42% increase in gross margin. In the Philippines according to the same study, farmers growing Bt maize had a 34% increase in effective yield and a 53 % increase in gross margin.

    Increased yields means a larger supply and thus lower prices on the demand side of the equation. Increased gross margins for farmers mean that they have greater income to access food that they must purchase, reducing the poverty that is at the root of food insecurity in developing nations.

    For the sixteen years these crops have been in commercial release, studies have consistently shown that genetically modified crops are either scale neutral for poor farmers or, in fact, scale positive for poor farmers – i.e., meaning that poor farmers benefit as well as or more than other farmers. Farmers in country after country – Burkina Faso, Honduras, India, Pakistan, Paraguay, Uruguay – have proven that they adopt these crops very rapidly if they are allowed access to these modified crops.

    Unfortunately, the technological phobia of the well-fed and wealthy imposes itself upon the poor farmers of the world. When we engage in discussions of food crises we should also engage in discussion about technological phobia that exacerbates or causes food crises.

    If we addressed this technological phobia, we would be giving proper attention to the Statement of the Study Week of the Pontifical Academy of Science, 15-19 May 2009, especially conclusion #15 that states:

    Given these scientific findings, there is a moral imperative to make the benefits of G(enetic) E(ngineering) technology available on a larger scale to poor and vulnerable populations who want them and on terms that will enable them to raise their standards of living, improve their health and protect their environments.

    We would also more likely be averting a repetition of the 2008 food crisis in 2012, 2013 and the years beyond.

    Originally posted on Biofortified.org http://www.biofortified.org/2012/09/food-crises-and-tech-phobia/

    Comments

    Thor Russell
    Why do people give too much attention to GM? Sure it can help but it is only part of the major problem. You obviously can't grow food without water so drought resistant strains can only do so much. Studies I have seen have shown that proper water management is critical and if you get that wrong there is no recovering no matter what kind of plant you grow. With increased floods/droughts you need to build up the water management infrastructure, technology and systems. Increasing multi-year storage has great benefits in many regions. There are many other obvious things that are not done right in developing countries that would make a huge difference but they don't get the attention they deserve because they are not controversial. I read somewhere that in a town next to productive farmland a whole heap of product went to waste simply because there was no road to transport it to that town. 
    Yes its undeniable if everyone was rational about GM the world would be better off, but that is the case about almost everything. If you spend a whole lot of money and effort to get a 15% increase in yield with GM when you could get a 50% increase by building a reservoir then surely that is a better idea. Surely also there is a moral imperative to stop using food crops for biofuel as it seems there is a massive amount of food wasted there. The main difficulty with using grass etc for biofuel is to do with breaking down cellulose, not GM per say. In order to be cost effective you must be able to do this cheaply and GM cannot be used to grow plants without cellulose.  
    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    I would also like to see an actual breakdown of the benefits touted for GMO foods.  I have a growing suspicion that the numbers aren't nearly as attractive as the PR folks would have one believe.  In other words, I would like to see the actual difference in cost of production [including licensing fees and impact on saving seeds].  I would also like to see some comparisons regarding pesticide usage, fertilizer, etc.

    I would also like to know why a food crisis is automatically a U.S. problem?  Why is it that voters in California or other states are supposed to accept all these technologies despite having no requirement for them? 

    I'm also annoyed that we never talk about the real problem; too large of a population.  It's one thing to help people in need, it's quite another to support a pattern of unsustainable growth in a population that simply leads from one crisis to another.

    I'm beginning to think that this entire issue with GMO foods is a big con.  If all these "free market" advocates would actually follow their own advice, then the reduced costs of producing GMO foods would result in lower prices on the store shelf.  People would buy cheaper products if they were of the same or better quality.  The "market" would regulate itself.  Labeling would occur naturally because many would want to take advantage of this market.

    Instead, we hear how no one wants to label their food, for no better reason that they are afraid they will lose sales because of GMO bias.  Yet, this bias exists precisely because the industry has been less than forthcoming.  Time and again, they have demonstrated an unimaginable failure of PR, that leads me to believe that there may not actually be anything good to say.
    Unfortunately, the technological phobia of the well-fed and wealthy imposes itself upon the poor farmers of the world.
    I'm sorry, but I don't accept the notion that I must engage in some activity else I am responsible for how the poor of the world live.

    We do NOT live under one world government, and there is absolutely no reason for me to accept the rationale that other governments cannot take responsibility for their own politics and their own people.  All this, so that the food producers can ship goods to corrupt governments and watch it rot before it gets to the poor anyway.
    Mundus vult decipi