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What the problem is

In a nutshell: people are starving. They can't feed themselves, for two basic reasons: incentives for others to prevent them, and lack of infrastructure. The incentives are easier to address, so I'll talk about that first.

To us, starvation is a tragedy. To others, it's a business opportunity. There is a strong strand of thought that views poverty and inequity as good things; they provide the motivation for improvement, and a motor for economic growth. This is a naïve view at best, so I'm not going to waste time refuting it here.

As far as infrastructure goes – well, let's think about what's needed to eat well. You need food, and the means to store & prepare it. The latter half of that can basically be modelled by poverty as a whole, and anything that increases prosperity will help with that. So that's a relatively generic development issue. Food, though, is a whole other kettle of- what? That's part of the issue. Nobody lives by bread alone, and a lot of us can't live on bread, or in many cases even eat it. In many parts of Africa, they eat sorghum as a staple; in Ethiopia, teff; in the Deccan, millet; in Goa and Kerala, rice; in Europe, wheat and potatoes. In Northern India, they cook in mustard oil; in Kerala, coconut oil; in the Mediterranean region, olive oil; and in much of Northern Europe, in butter or animal fat. Most people can eat most foods, but that doesn't mean we can thrive on anything we're given. We need the food of our own culture, the food of our childhood, the food that will satisfy the heart as well as the stomach.

So there isn't any one food that will work everywhere, and looking for one doesn't work very well – try looking for good Mexican food in London. It's just not going to work. Similarly, trying to feed the starving poor from a boardroom in Birmingham or New York doesn't work very well, because applying leverage so far from the problem, without local knowledge, is futile; and trying to apply economies of global scale makes the answers you find so broad as to be meaningless.

On the other hand, it's a popular “solution”, because it's easy to apply from a distance, on a large scale. For decades, the standard IMF/World Bank solution to food insecurity was to advise developing countries to concentrate on export crops, sell the crops, buy food from the developed countries with the proceeds, sell the food to the populace, and reinvest the profits into cash crops so they can grow their business. I'm sure this did, at some point, make sense to someone, on some basis other than transferring wealth from developing countries to rich countries; but I don't think I want to know what that person had been smoking.

This is, of course, not a problem confined to the developing world. Here in the UK, we suffer something very similar – we're so used, here in the developed countries, to the pervasive marketization of food that we forget there's any other way. It's been nearly six months since I last ate something nobody bought, and as a result I'm poorer, I've eaten less well, and I've caused a lot more carbon emissions.

But in much of the world, food isn't marketized at all; it's just something you do. And to a lot of organizations, this is utterly wrong. It's bad for business, and it's bad for people. If there's no money changing hands, that's a wasted opportunity for economic growth; if people are going to spend all their time grubbing in the dirt like peasants, they won't have any left over to work for prosperity, and everyone suffers. So a lot of developing-country economic policies, historically and today, have deliberately discouraged self-sufficiency – both under pressure from corporate lobbyists, and on principle.

I'm not setting up a dichotomy between the market and subsistence farming, of course – that would be stupid and inaccurate. In some parts of the world, it's quite possible to feed a family from their own land, and earn a wage besides, but those aren't all that common. So the optimal solution is almost always a mix of the two – but markets should still be supplied as locally as possible, because their best function is to discover the best way to make workable, sustainable relationships between producers & consumers. (Ideally, everyone should be both to some degree, but that isn't always possible, and there's no shame in not being able to produce.) Markets are also very useful as reservoirs – they can cushion supply chain problems, from not having anything in the cupboard today to not having anything in the fields this year.

This shouldn't need saying, but I'll say it anyway: the poor starve first. The elderly starve first. Children starve first. Women starve first. The disabled starve first. People who live far from the market starve first. And it's a feedback problem; if you aren't getting enough to eat, and don't have the psychological security of controlling your own food supply, then it's so much harder to get more.

Why people are pushing GM

The answer they'll give you is that we can't feed the world without it; we need the new super-yielding varieties to solve the global problems of food security. This is in fact complete bollocks.

They're selling GM seeds because they can make money from them. What, you knew that? Yes, but it's how they make money from it that's interesting. The big agro companies – Monsanto, Cargill, and all their kind – aren't content with selling seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides; they want to sell complete solutions, and lock in customers to their products. And they want to have exclusive brands. Anyone can sell soybeans; only Monsanto can sell Roundup Ready soybeans. So they got out their genetic engineering kits, and made a tiny little change, and patented the results. Roundup (a herbicide that kills everything) and Roundup Ready crops (a crop immune to Roundup) make a perfect pair, and come with some attractive discounts and impressively glossy literature. It will come as no surprise to anyone that Monsanto didn't develop this for anyone's benefit but their own.

Why GM isn't the answer

Basically, it's because the global food security problem is much, much more complex than there simply not being enough food. There is food, and the capacity to grow more; it's just not being produced in the right places, at the right time, at the right price. The economic incentives to grow healthy, nutritious food close to where it's needed are just not there in anything like the right quantity, and concentrated high-yield intensive farming exhausts the nutrition in the soil. (Not only that, but it does so while employing fewer people, enforcing the marketization of the food supply – which forces people to earn money in order to live – and increasing food miles due to centralization and transport.) So trying to solve the problem using a few specific crop varieties which produce higher yields per hectare – or, in the case of many varieties, such as the artificially dwarfed wheat strains, simply allow more chemical fertilizers to be used – does not help, because it just leads to even more concentrated high-yield intensive farming.

These crop varieties, from pure economic logic, constitute monocultures – and we know, from bitter experience, what happens to monocultures. But it's even worse than that, in the case of Monsanto's Roundup Ready crops – whether wheat, soy, corn, or anything else, they all share a few common genes. Which makes them potentially all vulnerable to the same disease strains.

In addition, many of the end-user agreements and restrictive practices involved are extremely unfair on farmers. The genetic modifications (which, incidentally, are extremely crude compared to traditional breeding techniques) are the agro firms' intellectual property, and saving seed to replant (rather than going back to the company for more) is forbidden under the EULA. Monsanto pledged, after public opposition, never to commercialise the “terminator gene” that would make this impossible – but that's only a grudging concession, and I have no words for how evil and wrong the idea is. So farmers using these seeds are forbidden to save them for another year; forbidden to give some to a neighbour who's having a poor harvest; forbidden to breed from them to improve her crop. And if they cross to someone else's field, as plants are wont to do, then the owner of that field can be sued for it.

The agro firms have been reassuring us for a long time now that their GM food is completely safe, but recent studies are saying otherwise. India has recently banned Bt brinjal (aubergine), and campaigns to ban other GM strains are gathering pace.

One of the issues that campaigning groups have raised a lot is the possibility of the transgenic characteristics hybridizing themselves with unmodified strains, wild relatives, or completely different plants; I'm not convinced so much of this one. It would be problematic if that happened, but it's by no means the worst effect of GM crops, and focusing on it specifically can mean that the huge social issues get swept aside.

What might actually help

This is a revolutionary idea, and won't make much of any money for anyone; but what would help would be just to support people in what they want to do. Local, regional, and national seed-saving and -sharing banks, farmers' cooperatives, grants to buy tools or set up tool production/repair businesses, sensible land use programs, official bodies to arbitrate claims to water rights fairly... all the “little” things that economic policy advisors tend to disdain. A focus on production as close to the point of use as possible (which also reduces food miles and therefore carbon emissions) actively militates against corporate interests, though, and it's a long term strategy which a lot of governments feel they can't afford. Fortunately, there are a lot of grassroots movements and bottom-up initiatives in developed as well as developing countries – farming cooperatives, education groups, lobbying groups, and many more.

So: Dig. Eat well. Share. Buy local, buy organic, buy from the person who grew it. And be seen to do so. That's all any of us can do, really – and in the end, it will work.

Further reading

I highly recommend Dr Vandana Shiva's work on this subject. The Navdanya website has a lot of information & links, and you can get a lot from her Wikipedia article as well.
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