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More Non-Help for Africa, Courtesy of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

by: Jill Richardson

Tue Mar 24, 2009 at 11:16:30 AM PDT


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The Senate Foreign Relations committee held an absolutely heinous hearing on global hunger today. It was very specifically focused on hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Here are the true things they said (most of the rest after this is B.S.):

  • There are 800mil to 1bil hungry people in the world and 2/3 of them are in Sub-Saharan Africa and S. Asia.
  • The world's population is growing
  • Many of the hungry are farmers in Africa, many of whom are women, uneducated, and powerless.
  • Farmers in Africa lack water for irrigation, petroleum-based fertilizer, GMO or hybrid seeds, pesticides, electricity, and any machinery whatsoever. 70% also live more than 30 minutes walking distance from the nearest road, effectively cutting them off from any markets.
  • Global hunger is not just a moral issue, it's also a national security risk.
  • White House leadership will be critical in any effort fighting global hunger.

After that, we started to get into chemical-ag-public-relationsland. More below the flip.

Jill Richardson :: More Non-Help for Africa, Courtesy of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Cast of Characters for the Hearing
Chair: Sen. John Kerry (D-MA)
Ranking Minority Member: Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN)
Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA)
Sen. Jean Shaheen (D-NH)
Sen. James Risch (R-ID)

The point of the hearing was to debate a bill put forward by Lugar and Casey. They were calling for it to pass quickly. I haven't read the bill but based on the hearing, I'd bet it's terrible.

Lugar has 604 acres of land in Indianapolis. He's farmed it since he was a kid, and he uses conventional methods and LOVES them. GMOs, pesticides, fertilizer, the whole bit. He cited the 18 herds of deer on his land and the presence of bald eagles as "proof" that his farm is "friendly to birds and animals." Over the course of his lifetime, since his Dad farmed the land, he's seen yields increase from 40 bushels per acre to 160 bushels per acre. To him this is also "proof" in the good of conventional agriculture.

Panel 1:
Dan Glickman, Former Secretary of Agriculture

Catherine A. Bertini, Former Executive Director
World Food Program

David Beckmann, President
Bread for the World

Robert Paarlberg, Professor of Political Science
Wellesley College

Panel 2:
Edwin C. Price, Associate Vice Chancellor and Director
Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture

Gebisa Ejeta, Professor of Agronomy
Purdue University

The first to speak was Kerry with an opening statement. I found it very reasonable, talking in general about the state of hunger in the world and our need to do something about it.

Next up was Lugar. He cited slower growth in farm yields and said this will "threaten the fundamental of a large share of the world's population." That's where I begin to differ from him. The truth as I've heard it from experts like Frances Moore Lappe is that the world HAS enough food already - we just don't distribute it to those who can't pay for it.

Lugar then went on to talk about increased demand for resource intensive meat and dairy in the developing world. Again, I take issue with his statement. Yes, the developing world may WANT those things but the entire world can't have them. Not if we're all going to survive.

Lugar said that climate change challenges farmers to deal with changing weather patterns, new pests, water shortages, etc. That much IS true. He said, "I have faith that human ingenuity can avert a Malthusian disaster." He said he wants to use all tools at our disposal. In other words, he's calling for GMOs, pesticides, and the like.

The first two to testify were Bertini and Glickman. They had worked together on a report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Bertini begn by saying that "It has been for too long that the U.S. government hasn't put agricultural development and small farmers in developing countries" high on list. She spoke of the need to first feed people so they can survive, but to (more importantly) help them become self-sufficient. I agree with that. But I disagree with her tactics to achieving it, as she then praised green revolution as example of how we can achieve her stated goals. Yikes!

Glickman spoke next. He didn't say anything too noteworthy that Bertini didn't say first, but he emphasized the importance of American leadership.

Next up was Beckmann. He spoke of a trip he took to Mozambique and Malawi in December. In Mozambique he was in a remote area, in a settlement of 40 mud huts, each with a cassava field. The fate of those 40 households rested upon the productivity of the cassava fields. In good years, they ate. In bad years, they didn't. He added that many were living with HIV/AIDS. And he praised foreign assistance for giving them the drugs they needed to stay alive and helping them educate their children. He fully endorsed the report presented by Glickman and Bertini.

Last to testify was Paarlberg. This guy is really evil. He first outlined the challenges faced by third world farmers. Their bodies are weakened by hunger and persistent malnutrition. Their yields are about 1/5 as high as in the U.S. One point he noted that I thought WAS a modern improvement we oughta help the developing nation with was veterinary medicine. He said they had no access. Whereas I am NOT for exporting all of our bad stuff like pesticides to other countries, veterinary care would be a good thing to share.

Paarlberg spoke about some people (like the UN, perhaps?) who want Africa to farm organically. He says right now they are de facto organic and that hasn't worked so "it's time to get beyond these rigid ideologies." I believe this plays into the idiotic notion that organics is merely the lack of using GMOs, pesticides, fertilizer, etc.

Organics, done right, means crop rotation, mulching, building up animal habitat to attract species that will eat pests, cover crops, and more. While current African agriculture may be certifiably organic according to our USDA, that doesn't mean it can't be improved using organic methods. I think it's telling that the farmers are uneducated and malnourished - could that be part of the reason for their low yields?

In the question and answer period, Kerry asked about organics and brought up the dead zone in the Gulf that is caused by fertilizer run-off. His idea for organics was promptly dismissed by the panel (and Lugar too), who told him that Africa would have no problem with fertilizer runoff because they would use less of it than the United States.

Kerry said, in asking his question about organics, "It seems to me, that's not something we oughta dismiss casually." He recognized the major organic movement in the U.S. and said, "You push that aside, is that wise in this battle not to honor and respect that movement... and fashion policies accordingly?"

Unfortunately, after Paarlberg shot him down, he replied, "So it's really the balance more than anything else?" Oh Senator Kerry.

So that's the hearing in a nutshell. I'm not including details on the second panel because I don't think it really enhances understanding on where they are going in terms of policy. I encourage everyone to give the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a call at 202-224-4651. I emailed in the following letter:

I just spoke to you on the phone about the hearing on global hunger. I'm hoping that the committee will consider information from a few sources in addition to those heard today in order to weigh opposing viewpoints to the ones expressed by those who testified.

First of all, Frances Moore Lappe and the Small Planet Institute have been saying for decades that our problem with hunger in the world is not one of supply. The overriding message in the hearing was that we need to increase yields and we need to do it faster than we are currently. Lappe's message - which I've heard from other sources too, like Eric Holt-Gimenez at Food First is that we actually have more than enough food to feed the world and the problem is a lack of democracy. We as a country and as a world population are not interested in feeding those who can't pay - we'd rather feed corn to cows or cars that the rich can buy to eat or drive.

Second, the UN recently released a report saying that Africa's best hope for the future is organic agriculture. Here is more information from The Oakland Institute saying that organic agriculture is productive enough to feed the world using only currently cultivated land (i.e. not plowing up the rainforests).

Third, I commend Senator Kerry for bringing up the dead zone in the Gulf and fertilizer run-off and I take issue with the responses he got encouraging "balance." Unfortunately, organic agriculture or chemical agriculture are all or nothing choices. In essence, you are choosing between nourishing the microbes in the soil and allowing them to do all the heavy lifting (organics) or killing them and replacing the functions they carry out with chemicals. Fertilizer kills these microbes. Thus, once the microbes are gone they are gone and you can't just replace half or a portion of what they do for you and still get the yields you want. (That said, American farmers DO tend to over-apply fertilizer so there IS an argument to be made that the Africans/S. Asians might apply less)

I'd refer you here to the work of the Rodale Institute - they know far more about this than I do from their scientific experiments over many decades. They found that when fertilizer was used on corn, the crops only used about half of the nitrogen provided - the rest leached out into the soil. The flip side is when you use soil life to provide nitrogen - the plants act like choreographers, keeping the microbes near their roots to provide nitrogen when and where they need it. Microbes are also able to transport nutrients to plants from long distances, and some nutrients are downright difficult or impossible for plants to obtain in sterile soil.

I also oppose the idea that African agriculture is inherently organic and that therefore proves that it doesn't work. Organics (done properly) is more than just a matter of removing all of the industrialized crop inputs and calling it a day. Organic farmers make efforts to plant cover crops to fix nitrogen in the soil,  plus mulches to suppress weeds, compost or manure as fertilizer, crop rotation, etc. It's not a sit back and do nothing approach. I noted the emphasis on how many farmers are uneducated women with little to now power in their countries. Perhaps that is the reason for their failure at sustaining themselves more than their lack of agricultural chemicals?

And last, I ask the committee to consider Indian farmer suicides. I'd recommend perhaps consulting an expert like Vandana Shiva on this. From what I have heard, India had tremendous success in the Green Revolution by transitioning from sustainable techniques to unsustainable ones. When they began growing food in a way that depleted the air, water, and soil, they did well for a while - until the unsustainability of those practices were felt (just like we are feeling today in this country with the water shortages, soil erosion, etc.). Before exporting a Western technology to Africa, I'd like to know that the Senate committee considered the effects our technologies have had on farmers in India and what role, if any, those technologies played in the epidemic of farmer suicides.

Thanks,
Jill Richardson
http://www.lavidalocavore.org

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Balance? (4.00 / 3)
We've had hurricanes increasing in frequency and severity due to these dead zones. Balance is bullshit. I understand compromise, but it's not for every situation, and it's not always wise. It's funny I never heard a thing about balance, or compromise the last eight years. Now it's a daily utterance. We even have pundits criticizing the amount of Republican ideas incorporated into our plans. Be happy with what you got! We had nothing for years.

Great stuff Jill! I can see you aren't interested in balance or compromise when it comes to GMOs, Pesticides and the like. I know little about them but am looking forward to learning more at this site, and the other food sites and from your book.  


Thanks for posting! (4.00 / 1)
Excellent article and corresponding letter, Jill. I completely agree with your questions, corrections, and concerns. It really is sad that there is this entire sustainable food movement mobilizing in America (and elsewhere) and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee refuses to consider or even acknowledge the validity and effectiveness of truly organic agriculture.

But it is really no surprise that Sen. Lugar would roundly reject anything organic, and spread inaccurate claims about the "wonders" of industrial agriculture. His "604-acre farm" grows corn and soybeans, and I'm sure receives considerable subsidies. He also helped his brother manage their family's farm machinery manufacturing business before becoming involved in politics. So his views make sense. I admittedly know nothing about Robert Paarlberg besides he has written a few books about the wonders of biotechnology - he sounds like a complete nut-job haha.

But, in relation to Lugar and his interests, I think that one of the duties of the journalists in this country is to disclose these sorts of connections, promptly correct any false statements made by any politician or "industry/policy expert," and ask the real questions: why is a major part of our agricultural story being ignored, or when noticed, marginalized? Who shapes public opinion about our food systems? How did we become so removed from our food that we don't know how its grown, where it comes from, or really, what's in it? Who benefits from this? And who doesn't?  


Totally fantastic comment (0.00 / 0)
There's probably a lot about Lugar that I don't know. I'm a little bit new at this game. I've been tracking sustainable ag news for 3 years now but this is really the first year I've gotten this active in trying to parse out what individual politicians are for or against.

They really managed to put together a panel made up of people who entirely agree. That is a) not a good idea and b) very different from other hearings I've watched. Usually even if they are leaning one way or another they bring in people with differing opinions so they can really challenge their assumptions and beliefs. Not in this case AT ALL. Very irresponsible, in my opinion.  

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman


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