Agriculture, Hunger and Biotechnology: What Role Do Genetically Engineered Crops Have in Developing Countries? June 23rd 2003

Anuradha Mittal is the founder and executive director of the Oakland Institute, a policy think tank whose mission is to increase public participation in and promote fair debate on critical social, economic, and environmental issues in both national and international forums.

Agriculture, Hunger and Biotechnology: What Role Do Genetically Engineered Crops  Have in Developing Countries? June 23rd 2003

Mittal and the Institute recently received the United Nations Association (UNA) East Bay’s 2007 Global Citizen Award, in recognition of the Institute’s work to promote social and economic justice globally.

Mittal previously worked for 10 years at the Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First. She is a native of India with college degrees from the University of Delhi and Oxford Brookes University (U.K.), and is an internationally renowned expert on trade, development, human rights, poverty, hunger, and agriculture issues.

Mittal has given several hundred keynote addresses including invitational events from governments and universities, and has appeared on television and radio shows around the world.

Her writing credits include author of, editor of, and contributor to numerous books and reports including America Needs Human Rights; Voices From the South: Third World Speaks Out Against Genetic Engineering; and Sahel: A Prisoner of Starvation? A Case Study of the 2005 Food Crisis in Niger. Her articles and opinion pieces have been published in widely circulated newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Bangkok Post, Houston Chronicle, and The Nation.

I interviewed Mittal in a cafe in Oakland on a crisp January morning. I focused my questions on U.S. food aid, in light of the Farm Bill which is now being debated in Congress. During our introductions, she was soft-spoken and unassuming. But once we began the interview, her whole manner changed as she launched into the subject with skill, authority, and passion.

You have said, “Hunger is not caused by a shortage of food.”

Yes, contrary to what most people believe, hunger is not caused by a shortage of food. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (2002), this is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories per person per day.

Then what does cause hunger?

A lack of purchasing power. And in a larger sense, policies that promote poverty.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, over 36 million Americans are living in food-insecure households. Surely we cannot blame nature or scarcity for hunger in the richest nation on earth.
The problem is the scarcity of democracy and the denial of human rights. Hunger is linked to the denial of a living wage to the working poor which forces people to make a choice between having a roof over their heads and food on the table. It is about the denial of land to the landless. While, right now, the resources exist to end hunger worldwide, those resources continue to be exploited by the few to the detriment of the many.

What about hunger in India?

According to the World Food Programme’s country page, India is home to nearly 50 percent of the world’s hungry population. 350 million Indians—about 35 percent of India’s population—are considered food-insecure, consuming less than 80 percent of minimum energy requirements. Nutritional and health indicators are extremely low. Nationally, nearly nine out of 10 pregnant women between the ages of 15 and 49 suffer from malnutrition and/or anemia. And more than half of Indian children under five are moderately or severely malnourished, or suffer from stunting.

Amidst reports of gnawing hunger and even starvation deaths in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Orissa in 2002, granaries of the Food Corporation of India were overflowing with more than 60 million tons of surplus. Instead of relieving the hungry, the Indian government was looking for markets.

But people persist in incorrectly assuming that hunger in India is caused by a food shortage which is a result of its dense population. Brazil, a country that has good weather for food production, and plentiful land, and is not densely populated, also has hunger. Nearly 40,000 Brazilians die from hunger-related causes each year. But that has nothing to do with food shortages—it has to do with inequities. Much of the arable land is controlled by a handful of wealthy families—with three percent of landowners owning two-thirds of all land on which food crops could be grown.

So hunger is really caused by socio-economic policies that deny people their right to food. It’s a result of man-made policies. And that’s good news. Because we can change these policies and end hunger.

What’s wrong with U.S. food aid?

Each year millions of tons of food are shipped from the United States as food aid to respond to crises resulting from droughts, conflicts, and severe poverty. While this aid has saved lives, it is also clear that the U.S. program—under which most food aid is purchased and bagged by U.S. agribusinesses and shipped by U.S. shipping firms—and which was designed over 50 years ago when the U.S. had abundant food surpluses to dispose of—is enormously inefficient and often detrimental to poor countries and their farmers.

How could giving food to other countries be harmful?

The U.S. food aid program, unfortunately, has really been about helping the U.S. agribusiness corporations find foreign markets for their surpluses. The U.S. food aid program requires that all food aid be procured in the U.S. and then shipped to the recipient country. Deliveries of in-kind food aid can undercut local farmers’ crop sales, especially when they arrive late, after a new harvest. In this way, the food aid actually exacerbates the problem that it purports to reduce. A recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that rising business and shipping costs have meant that the volume of food aid delivered over the last five years has fallen by more than 50 percent.

At the Oakland Institute we are campaigning to change the way the U.S. conducts its food aid program. We believe that whenever possible, food aid should be procured locally (in the recipient country) or regionally (near the receiving country). Local or regional procurement would have the added benefits of encouraging local farmers to build up production levels and support regional economic development as well.

More important, we believe that food aid should not only be procured locally, but also should be purchased from small family farmers—that way it reduces poverty. Rather than simply dumping food aid on crisis situations, the United States should work with local farmers in developing countries so they can provide for their own populations. More, not less, aid for rural development is necessary. Subsistence farmers—who make up 75 percent of the world’s poor—should be at the center of development policies. Policies that help affected countries develop their own agricultural sectors actually feed more people and decrease developing countries’ dependence on aid programs in the long run.

Also, purchasing available food in the country experiencing a crisis, or in a nearby country, could enable food aid providers to deliver more food more quickly. And it would mean that recipient governments would not be compelled to accept genetically modified (GM) or culturally inappropriate foods.

Food aid should come without conditions; it should not be used as a political tool. We saw the whole fanfare at the G-8 meeting with promises of increasing aid to Africa. But in fact, aid comes attached to conditions, such as open your markets, or get rid of state support systems. Or when Zambia, among several other African nations, asked for food aid free of genetically modified foods, it was accused of starving its hungry population while Senator Frist threatened to take away AIDS medicines from African nations who said “no” to GM food aid.

It is also essential that food aid be culturally sensitive. The aid should consist of food that the people actually eat, and not just what a donor country wants to dump. When Indonesia faced a hunger crisis in the late 1990s, the U.S. saw an opportunity to unload its surplus wheat under the guise of food aid. It gave loans to Indonesia upon the condition that Indonesia buy wheat from the U.S. And Indonesians don’t even eat wheat.

All of the above mentioned principles are about ensuring food sovereignty. This means, in the long term, the question should be: How can we ensure that communities are able to feed themselves? As opposed to, how can we help huge agribusiness corporations make more money?

Our report, Sahel: A Prisoner of Starvation?, shows that it is actually the so-called well-intentioned development policies from the West, especially from the United States, which have been largely responsible for the persistence of the destitution and poverty in poor countries.

Describe the 25 percent initiative. Where does it stand now?

Pressure generated by groups like the Oakland Institute has resulted in support for a proposal to have at least 25 percent, or approximately $300 million, of annual emergency U.S. food aid procured locally and regionally (as opposed to the current 0 percent). This would be a huge and necessary step in U.S. food aid reform.

However, what is being considered is a watered-down pilot program that would allocate only $25 million a year for four years to “test” local and regional purchasing of food aid. The problem with this logic is that the virtues of purchasing food in recipient countries are self-evident and these policies are not untested.

The European Union procures a major share of its food aid—96 percent in 2007—in developing countries themselves. Canada increased local and regional purchases from 10 percent to 50 percent in 2005, and the World Food Program also has extensive experience providing food aid this way with positive results.

The U.S. is the only industrialized nation left that refuses to change its policy of procuring all of its food aid from the country granting the aid (the U.S.), packing it, and then shipping it via its own vessels.

This reflects the hypocrisy of the U.S. Congress and Senate, which refuse to change cost ineffective and inefficient U.S. aid policies, and which thereby insure that the policy can continue to cater to vested interests. It is time to expose the truth behind the proposed pilot program—a PR attempt to silence U.S. citizens and taxpayers who have been advocating for change to make U.S. aid an effective tool in the fight against global hunger.


Some say that this $25 million pilot program is an important step, but at the Oakland Institute, we believe that the standard must be set much higher than that.

It is shameful—there is no other way to say it—that the U.S. government is not willing to make a change that we know makes so much sense. It is a shame that this country holds on to “food aid” policies that we know actually harm the recipient countries, especially when it is so clear how the policies could be changed to benefit the poor.

How is India in particular affected by this?

After a devastating cyclone in India that killed 30,000 people, corn-soya blend was distributed as food aid even though the people of Orissa eat rice. More important, this food contained genetically modified organisms, in violation of GM laws in India. In 2002 and 2003, 10,000 tons of Genetically Engineered (GE) corn-soya blend from the U.S. was sent back by the government of India, despite pressure from the U.S. government, because it was suspected to be mixed with Starlink—a corn cleared only for animal feeding in the U.S. The two Aid agencies, CARE-India and Catholic Relief Services, who were trying to import this corn, had initially tried to challenge the government’s decision on banning these imports by bringing the case to Appellate Authority, but later withdrew the case.

The paradox of India importing increasing amounts of food for aid, while 65 million tons rot in storage, shows that hunger is a result of erosion of food sovereignty and the human right to food. GM foods do not represent technological success, but democratic failure.

The Oakland Institute is one of the central figures in a growing movement for U.S. food aid reform. Who else is involved?

CARE, one of the world’s biggest charities, announced in 2007 that it is turning down some $45 million a year in federal financing, saying American food aid is not only plagued with inefficiencies, but also hurts some of the very poor people it aims to help.

We have seen cover stories on the same in publications from Mother Jones to the New York Times. Groups such as Oxfam and Action Aid, as well as many faith-based groups, are working to change the way the U.S. conducts its food aid programs.

What will it take to get the policies changed?

The causes of hunger are many: war and conflict situations; recurring droughts caused by changing climatic patterns; declining support for agricultural production, particularly for small-scale agriculture; trade liberalization that compels developing country farmers to compete with low-cost imported goods, undermining local production; and other economic and political factors.

The solutions to these problems are complex, too, but really not out of the realm of possibility. We need to support developing countries’ rights to protect their own markets to advance rural livelihoods and food security. We need a commitment to more flexible resources for those programs and for the emergencies that arise from natural or man-made disasters. And, when all else fails, we need better food aid policies as a last resort to keep food crises from becoming human disasters.

As far as U.S. food aid is concerned, it is very important that Congress hear from the taxpayers who are greasing the food aid program. If taxpayers in this country don’t stand up and tell the Congress that they want their tax money to be used differently, and instead the Congress only hears from agribusiness, then the Congress will of course continue to cater to corporate interests.

The Indian-American community has been largely apolitical compared with other ethnic communities. This is especially striking since we have a strong socio-economic standing and yet this power has remained largely untapped. It is time that we exercise that power to effect real change.

It is time that we step outside our comfort zone and push for change that will promote socio-economic justice not just in the U.S. but internationally, and especially back in India where our extended families live.

Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.