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Food security: Policies must include consultation
NewsNotes, May-June 2009

On April 15, British newspapers reported that 1,500 Indian farmers, driven by heavy debt and crop failure, committed “mass suicide.” While not occurring in a single incident on a single day, the article lifts up the fact that in India suicides among farmers are on the rise. This trend underscores serious problems with economic and development schemes implemented without consultation of impacted populations. Leaders in the U.S. should consider these issues critically since S. 384, the Global Food Security Act of 2009 passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, promotes some of the technologies that have failed in India.

Last year falling water levels caused crops to fail in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh. The drought was unbearable for many farmers already in debt due to previous crop losses. Many of Chhattisgarh’s 1,593 farmers who killed themselves within the past year did so by drinking the pesticides that they had bought for their crops.

Bharatendu Prakash, of the Organic Farming Association of India, was quoted as saying, “Farmers’ suicides are increasing due to a vicious circle created by money lenders. They lure farmers to take money but when the crops fail, they are left with no option other than death.”

In November 2008 a London Daily Mail article linked India’s farmer suicides to genetically modified (GM) technologies. The reporter, Andrew Malone, was following up on the fact that Prince Charles had called the issue of GM a “global moral question.” Prince Charles spoke via video link to a conference in Delhi condemning “the truly appalling and tragic rate of small farmer suicides in India, stemming ... from the failure of many GM crop varieties.”

Malone traveled to Maharashtra, one of India’s cotton producing states located in the “suicide belt,” and found that Indian government authorities promoted GM seeds thinking that the new technologies would help boost India’s economy. In two years, areas of India planted with GM seeds doubled, but rather than providing bumper crops, “GM pest-proof ‘breeds’ of cotton have been devastated by bollworms, a voracious parasite” and farmers were not told that “these seeds require double the amount of water. This has proved a matter of life and death.”

Malone quotes the brother of one suicide victim who said his brother “was strangled by these magic seeds. They sell us the seeds, saying they will not need expensive pesticides but they do. We have to buy the same seeds from the same company every year. It is killing us…”

Shifts in weather patterns and lowering water tables, like those experienced in India, are expected to increase globally as the world witnesses the real impact of rising global green house gas emissions. As part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process, countries are discussing both the need to lower emissions and make preparations to adapt to the adverse impact of global warming. While these discussions take place companies that promote GM technologies are trying to position themselves as a key part of the solution.

On April 1, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously passed the Global Food Security Act of 2009. While there are many positive aspects to the bill, including naming a food security “czar” and increasing funding, it will rewrite the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act to include “research on biotechnological advances appropriate to local ecological conditions, including genetically modified technology.” Many food security activists fear that this will pressure countries that have formally banned genetically modified crops to adopt them.

Farmers in India and African countries are some of the most vulnerable people on earth, weathering economic downturn, food price volatility shocks and coping with changes in land productivity brought on by global warming. Farmers themselves must be consulted in the process of designing agricultural research and technology that is affordable and causes the least amount of environmental damage.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development study concluded in 2008 found that small-scale farmers and agro-ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the current food crisis and meet the needs of local communities. (See NewsNotes March-April 2009) Likewise, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released a report focused on African farming that concluded “organic agriculture can increase agricultural productivity and can raise incomes with low-cost, locally available and appropriate technologies, without causing environmental damage.”

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