Updated at 3:10 pacific to include the full language of the relevant section of the bill. Thanks, IM.
Things have been busy around here lately, but that's no excuse. We've just been reminded that, like time, Monsanto stops for no man.
Yesterday, eliciting not a ripple from the blogosphere, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved - by unanimous vote - the innocuously-titled Global Food Security Act of 2009. How will it bring food security to the hungry (and now largely out of work) masses? By increasing U.S. investment in global agricultural research... and by requiring that the agenda include "research on biotechnological advances appropriate to local ecological conditions, including genetically modified technology."
Um. I wish this were an April Fools joke, but no such luck.
Though this may sound like the same old biotech machine grinding its gears, it is actually a major, major shift from past protocol. In previous bills funding ag research abroad, the money targeted projects that considered "the special needs of small farmers, the interrelation between technology, institutional capacity, the environment and cultural factors, and extensive field testing of technology." Hmm. Last time I checked, patented seeds that must be purchased and cannot be saved were not considerate of "the special needs of small farmers." The fact that most developing countries have no legal framework in place to govern GMO seed planting or use means that when researchers considered "the interrelation between technology [and] institutional capacity," GMO technology was a non-starter.
I suppose we could say that GMOs have been extensively field-tested in the United States, if by field-tested you mean allowed to take hold around the country despite widespread evidence that the crops cross-pollinate and contaminate non-GM plantings. (See this example of pharmaceutical crops from the Union of Concerned Scientists.)
This one slipped under the radar screen, but the good news is that we now have the opportunity to write our senators to ask them to vote against the bill when it comes before the full Senate for a vote. The indefatigable Jill Richardson of La Vida Locavore broke this story this morning and provides great talking points on why the passage of this bill - which would in essence shift U.S. investment in global food security toward encouraging countries to adopt genetically engineered crops - is a really, really bad move. To her comments, I will add just one of my own.
There's no question that for years, the U.S. and the rest of the world have seriously underinvested in agricultural research. I've ruined many a dinner party with my soapbox speech on why we need more public investment in research and educational outreach to farmers. Many readers would agree, I'd reckon, that the research agenda at U.S. land-grant universities has been comandeered by deep-pocketed biotech companies able to offer the support university labs can't get anywhere else. If all the money that's gone to researching and promoting GMO crops over the last 30 years had gone towards, say, organic agriculture or local food-production infrastructure, well -- we'd be in a pretty different place than we are now. We could have been investing in food systems that work for our communities and our health and that shore up local food security. Instead, research dollars have been invested in systems that work for Monsanto and Smithfield and Kraft and very few others.
The U.S. trend of woeful public investment in the ag sector has been mirrored around the world, where beginning under Reagan/Thatcher leadership, the World Bank and IMF required developing-country borrowers to reduce public support for agriculture, including public research, credit, and policies that protected small producers. Over the next 25 years, government support for local farmers and food systems was systematically dismantled globally. Now largely dependent on food imports, consumers in developing countries are at the whim of a global market that in turn is at the whim of a few giant agribusinesses and Wall Street speculators.
So normally, confronted with a bill that increased U.S. public investment in agricultural research abroad, I would have felt hopeful, and when that bill was introduced under a Democratic Congress and administration, I would maybe even have let out a cheer. But this bipartisan bill shoots a big, genetically-modified arrow in my wonky heart.
We need to tell our senators that we need more public investment in research that actually benefits the public. What we don't need is our taxpayer dollars being used to advance the agenda of a few already privileged and wealthy companies.
A U.S. research program that prioritizes GMO technology spells major trouble for countries that currently prohibit GM seeds and crops, as many Asian and African and some Latin American countries currently do - mainly because they don't have any way of controlling or regulating them. In the worst case scenario, this bill could force these countries to choose between accepting genetically engineered technology or forgoeing food aid. At a time of widespread hunger and economic recession, what kind of a choice is that?
See Jill's excellent post for more talking points, and then write your senators ASAP.