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Hunger Reflects Inequality

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Mark Bittman, in hisbanner-res-dec-en June 25, New York Times Opinionator, asserts, “In this day hunger comes not because there is not enough food; it comes because some are unable to either buy it or produce it. Hunger represents inequality: there are no hungry people with money. Alleviating hunger, in part, is recognizing that the right to eat is equivalent to the right to breathe, which trumps the right to make profits. The real heroes in the world of food are those who recognize this, and who work to improve the kind of low-input agriculture upon which the majority of the world’s people — and the vast majority of farmers — rely.

To digress, briefly, Mark Bittman, in an earlier article on Monsanto and GMO’s and more broadly, big ag, summarizes his conversations with Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist and plant pathologist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.. Gurian-Sherman’s view is that Roundup Ready seeds allowed farmers to spend less time and energy controlling weeds. But the temporary nature of the gains was predictable: “There was no better way to create weeds tolerant to glyphosate (Roundup) than to spray all of them intensively for a few years, and that’s what was done.”

The result is that the biggest crisis in monocrop agriculture – something like 90 percent of all soybeans and 70 percent of corn is grown using Roundup Ready seed – lies in glyphosate’s inability to any longer provide total or even predictable control, because around a dozen weed species have developed resistance to it. “Any ecologist would have predicted this, and many did,” Gurian-Sherman said.

In the case of seeds containing the Bt toxin, insect resistance took longer to develop because breeders, knowing that insects evolve faster than new crop species can normally be generated, have deployed several variations of the Bt toxin in an effort to reduce the “selection pressure.” But, says Gurian-Sherman, “We’re starting to see that resistance now.”

In other words, GMO’s aren’t working; Bittman provides information on what is. He offers a useful synopsis of the “who’s who” of food policy wonks and activists who’ve made significant inroads in the study of sustainable food systems and food equity. Borrowing freely from Bittman’s article:

Doug Gurian-Sherman mentioned Zeyaur Khan, who developed the “push-pull” system of pest control in sub-Saharan Africa. The system uses a legume to “push” stem borers away from desired crops (mostly corn); at the same time, a “pull” crop is planted nearby, one that attracts the stem borers. “Input costs are low for farmers using this system,” says Gurian-Sherman, “while yields are often more than doubled.” Neither of those things can be said of the genetically modified Bt corn, which is designed to achieve the same results. [Planting legumes, of course, also fixes nitrogen in the soil, which means lowered use of chemical fertilizers.]

Raj Patel, author of “Stuffed and Starved” and a fellow at the Institute for Food and Development Policy, talked about the international peasant organization, La Via Campesina. A visit to their web site returns a passionate appeal to “put the aspirations, needs and livelihoods of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. Food sovereignty prioritizes local food production and consumption. It gives a country the right to protect its local producers from cheap imports and to control production.” See their moving call to action, the Jakharta Call.

bannerAnna Lappé, director of Food MythBusters and author, most recently, of Diet for a Hot Planet, nominates the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, who advocates the internationally recognized position on the “right to food” has visited dozens of countries to learn about and address food insecurity. “De Schutter’s promotion of agroecological solutions,” says Lappé, “is rooted in the understanding that the chemical approach breeds debt and dependency on costly inputs like fertilizer, chemicals or genetically engineered seeds. As he told me [Bittman] a few years ago, ‘We have failed to end hunger using the traditional recipe that saw hunger as a technical problem, requiring only that we produce more. We’ve failed because we’ve underestimated the need to empower people and hold governments accountable.’”

Speaking of Lappés, Tom Philpott, a food and agriculture writer at Mother Jones, brings up Anna’s mother, Frances Moore Lappé: “Her central insights in Diet for a Small Planet — that growing grain to feed animals for meat is grievously inefficient; that the world already produces more than enough calories and the real problem is economic inequality — have become so commonplace in alternative-ag circles, so accepted, that we forget where they came from. (Now if policy makers would only listen!) She is an unsung intellectual giant, and her work remains vital today.”

Finally, Michael Pollan, Knight professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and author, most recently, of Cooked, speaks about Miguel Altieri, an agronomist at Berkeley and one of the world’s leading proponents of agroecology.“Altieri has shown that casting the future of farming as either low-yield subsistence agriculture or export-oriented industrial farming is a false choice,” Pollan says. “Working with peasant farmers in Latin America, he has demonstrated that impressive increases in yield can be achieved by means of crop diversification, integrated pest management, and nutrient cycling. Small-holder farms currently produce half the world’s food, and Altieri’s work suggests that they could produce considerably more without shifting to capital-intensive export crops that often undermine rural economies and diminish food security. Altieri is also an eloquent advocate of ‘food sovereignty,’ the principle that localities and nations should be able to retain control of their food systems rather than leave them at the mercy of the global market.”

Bittman concludes by acknowledging Lester Brown, founder of both Worldwatch and the Earth Policy Institute; Matt Liebman of Iowa State and his pioneering work on sustainable agriculture; and Vandana Shiva, who has devoted her life to a long list of  progressive environmental and agricultural causes.

Many roads to travel and lessons to learn. Even though many of the thought provoking ideas about food production in Bittman’s article are about agriculture in impoverished countries, in many ways our system of agriculture is no healthier or no more under our control than is theirs. The Coop is a vision of empowerment, a path to food and health equity. I hope this article provides a jumping off place for your learning and growth. It did for mine.

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