Biotechnology and global food supply
The food business is far and away the most important business in the world. Everything else is luxury. Food is what you need to sustain life every day. You can’t run a tractor without fuel, and you can’t run a human being without it either. Food is the absolute beginning. (Dwayne Andreas, former chairman of Archer Daniels Midland Co., Reuters, Jan. 25, 1999.)In the 18th century, Thomas Malthus’s population theory linked the potential for population increase to the availability of subsistence through access to fertile, agricultural lands. Modern industrialized agriculture, epitomized by biotechnology, may, as its critics contend, be driven by profit motivations rather than environmental concerns; but even more importantly, it provides an essential link to the very survival and well-being of humankind through agricultural productivity.
In regard to these advances, however, three major concerns emerge:
Third, the politicization and secrecy of access to the food system at the global-national levels. It is not reassuring either to discover that the website of one of the major players, Archer Daniels Midland Co., is host to a “population clock,” an ideological tool used by those who would deliberately induce public fear concerning “overpopulation” among the peoples of the world, in addition to a follow-on link to the U.S. Census Bureau’s world population figures.
The concentration of ownership and control of the national-global food system impacts human survival and agricultural productivity, offsets national agricultural legislation, and affects the long term sustainability of the world’s food system. The changes which brought this about have not occurred as a result of the public dialogue normally associated with the democratic process, nor is the information relating to this concentration of interests readily available. In fact, it is reported that agricultural trade journals have been pressured not to publish this information and government agencies claim that the revelation of the proportion of a market controlled by a single firm is revealing proprietary information.
Miguel Altieri of the University of California at Berkeley argues that the biotechnology utilized in modern industrialist agriculture is “reductionist science and a multinational monopolistic industry” which treats “nature as a commodity.” He raises questions relating to biotechnology’s effects on social and economic conditions and religious and moral values. The further industrialization of agriculture threatens to “intensify farmers’ dependence on industrial inputs, aided by a ruthless system of intellectual property rights which legally inhibits the right of the farmer to reproduce, share, and store seeds (Busch and others, 1990) …. Because biotechnology is capital intensive, it will continue to deepen the pattern of change in U.S. agriculture, increasing the concentration of agricultural production in … large corporate farms.”
Furthermore, Altieri demands answers to questions. Should we alter the genetic structure of living things in the name of utility and profit? Is there something sacred about life? or should life forms, including humans, be viewed simply as commodities in the new biotechnological marketplace? Is the genetic makeup of all living things the common heritage of all, or can it be appropriated by corporations and become the private property of a few? (Fifth World Bank Conference on Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development, 1997.)
Part II of this article will appear next month.