Food for Thought

Susan Melkisethian/Flickr Creative Commons

For three days in June, the Bush administration, the State of California and the City of Sacramento collectively spent millions of dollars pitching genetically engineered foods and industrial agricultural methods to some of the world’s poorest nations at the Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology, June 23-25.

No agreements were negotiated, nor did this U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) event have an official purpose. Rather, it was an opportunity for U.S. biotech and agribusiness corporations to pitch their wares and for the Bush administration to apply pressure to agriculture ministers just three months before the fifth World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial in Cancún, Mexico. The Cancún ministerial is poised to become the third failed WTO ministerial in a row due in large part to disagreements over agricultural trade rules.

Success in Cancún is at least partially dependent upon the Bush administration convincing the world that genetically engineered (GE) products are not only safe but also necessary to solve global hunger. If Sacramento is any guide, the Bush administration is poised to fail.

On Sunday, June 22, the day before the ministerial began, thousands of protestors filled the streets of Sacramento in colorful and vocal opposition to GE products, corporate control of the food supply, and the industrialized agriculture model. They demanded real solutions to hunger that address the distribution, cost and control of food and that focus on small, locally owned, biologically diverse, and sustainable farms.

The sentiment in Sacramento is consistent with polls in both the United States and Europe that show that over 90 percent of the public want GE foods to be labeled so they can choose to avoid them. In fact, the Sacramento conference took place less than a month after the Bush administration announced that it would launch a WTO challenge against the European Union’s (EU) five-year moratorium on GE products. The EU invoked the moratorium under intense public concern about the health and environmental risks of GE products.

Scientists, government regulators and consumer advocates around the world argue that we simply do not know enough about the impact of GE products on our environment and our health. It is a technology that is being promoted without either adequate research or regulation for one simple reason: it is yielding enormous profits for a handful of powerful corporations. Dr. Suzanne Wuerthele, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency toxicologist, has said that “the bottom line in my view is that we are confronted with the most powerful technology the world has ever known, and it is being rapidly deployed with almost no thought whatsoever to its consequences.”

The Bush administration’s argument that GE products will solve world hunger by increasing food yields was also rejected in Sacramento. The response was unfaltering and universal: the world has never grown as much food per capita as it is growing today. The problem is not food production, but distribution and cost. In fact, according to the United Nations, increases in food production in the last thirty-five years have outpaced the world’s population growth by about 16 percent. As the World Health Organization explains, “The problem is that food is neither produced nor distributed equitably. All too frequently, the poor in fertile developing countries stand by watching with empty hands—and empty stomachs—while ample harvest and bumper crops are exported for hard cash.” It is the rules of institutions like the WTO that force countries to produce food for export, rather than for hungry families. This is why in 1997, 78 percent of all malnourished children under five in the developing world lived in countries with food surpluses (United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization).

The Sacramento ministerial was a success for the advocates of healthy, sustainable, and accessible food. The EU ministers all boycotted the conference, and even the U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, who was scheduled to give an opening presentation, failed to attend. The public came out by the thousands to protest, the agriculture ministers sought alternative venues and materials, and the media did more questioning than reporting of Bush administration positions. Even the generally conservative Sacramento Bee editorial board argued that “the Bush administration’s Department of Agriculture is holding a meeting about what the world’s wealthiest country feels comfortable discussing—namely, some technologies that can increase food production. A conference focusing on the real obstacles to helping poor countries would make the weather hotter inside the conference center than out.”

The real test, however, will come at the WTO Ministerial in Cancún and at the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) negotiations in Miami in November. The Bush administration plans to use these ministerials to create legally binding agreements that force governments to eliminate barriers to GE products and implement the industrial agriculture model while simultaneously allowing U.S. multinational agribusiness corporations to maintain billions of dollars in government subsidies and protections. We must ensure that these plans are not fulfilled. The success of uniting developed and developing country critics of GE products and industrial agriculture in Sacramento must continue. The tide is turning; now it’s time for a tsunami.

Source Citation
Juhasz, Antonia. 2003. Food for Thought. Tikkun 18 (5): 40.