Biotech Messages and Global Food Legislation

Two characteristics seem to be emerging from the Obama Administration's agriculture policy -- a global outlook and confidence in technology solutions.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack lately has been talking about the link between food security and global stability, warning that unless countries take immediate steps to sharply boost agricultural productivity and reduce hunger, the world risks fresh social instability.

Just how to do that is an important but controversial question.

Farmers in developing countries face price volatility, changing weather patterns and other pressures
With the challenge of feeding the world's population compounded by climate change, Vilsack called on G8 countries to back the use of science in agriculture, including genetically modified organisms, to boost productivity, according to the Financial Times and coverage of the issue on the Grist.org Web site.

Earlier this week, Vilsack nominated Gates Foundation agricultural development director Rajiv Shah as chief scientist and undersecretary for research, education and economics.

Shah, the bright star at the Gates Foundation who helped design the partnership for a new Green Revolution in Africa (and recruit Kofi Annan as its chair), will now be in a position to shape much of the research and science policy within the federal government.

The move was praised by the chairman of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, among others. William Danforth chairs the non-profit institute, which received a $3.3 million grant from the Gates Foundation to enhance the nutritional value of cassava through genetic engineering. This year the center received $5.4 million from the Gates Foundation to help secure the approval of African governments to allow field testing of genetically modified banana, rice, sorghum and cassava plants.

A rash of magazine ads for Monsanto in recent months also links the global food crisis with the potential of technology to solve it. But some governments are uneasy about the implications of crops like GM corn, which was banned in Germany this year.

A key piece of legislation, the Global Food Security Act of 2009 S.384 sponsored by Sen. Richard Lugar, would authorize appropriations through 2014 to provide assistance to foreign countries to promote food security, stimulate rural economies, and improve emergency response to food crises.

Part of the bill includes a provision to "include research on biotechnological advances appropriate to local ecological conditions, including genetically modified technology."

That clause is sparking vocal opposition by groups including Food First, the National Family Farm Coalition, Organic Consumers Association, Rainforest Action Network and others who say the bill's intentions are good but the approach is wrong.

"While the intentions behind the Global Food Security Act may be laudable, the question is whether poorer farmers left behind by the last Green Revolution will again be swept aside by a top-down approach that benefits mostly transnational corporations," said Andrew Kang Bartlett of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Instead, the coalition supports a number of actions to address the food crisis, including
regulating commodity futures markets to end excessive speculation, halting growth of industrial crops for fuel in developing countries, stabilizing commodity prices through food reserves, setting fair regional and global trade agreements and directing efforts toward ecological farming practices.

Seattle Times

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