Agri-industry versus hunger

Germany is a powerful new player in arguments over how to tackle hunger in the developing world.

Agricultural output must be increased 70%-100% over the next 50 years to feed future populations.

With millions of lives at stake, nowhere is the conflict between environmentalists and agri-business more pointed.

Here in Europe, it is easy for us to reject American hormone treatment of livestock to produce extra meat more cheaply, or the cultivation in Europe of genetically modified crops.

However, it is not so easy in the Philippines, for example, where rice crops average only 3.8 tons per hectare, and the growing population and regular external shocks caused by natural disasters such as typhoons leave the country frequently depending on rice imports.

The solution is obvious to big agri-business companies — boost the share of hybrid seeds from 6% in the Philippines rice crop. They say hybrid rice yields 32% extra, and is more resistant to plant diseases.

But it is a measure of the distrust of big business that powerful environmentalist organisations reject such “agri-industrial” solutions, and call for traditional agricultural solutions which are environmentally compatible and which preserve genetic diversity and soil fertility.

For example, Oxfam says use of hybrid rice would create more problems than it solves, and that agri-business will make poor farmers financially dependent, instead of helping them.

Oxfam and other NGOs in the Environment and Development Forum warn against turning small farmers into “mere appendages of the business and agriculture models of agri-business”.

Some Irish farmers might agree, trying to get ahead of constantly rising input costs, and to wrestle a few more euro from processors. But Irish farmers can fall back on EU subsidies.

Now , EU intervention enters the fray in the developing world, in the shape of the German Food Partnership (GFP). It is the German federal government’s new plan to fight world hunger — and cooperation with big agri-business is an essential part.

The principle is that bigGerman agri-companies cooperate with government experts to expand food production in developing and emerging markets, with the aim of enhancing food security.

The first four projects are expected to begin soon, with €80m to be spent in two years, half of which comes from companies such as Bayer CropScience, BASF, Syngenta, Yara, plus €20m each from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the German government. It’s not a German charity effort.

On the contrary, the objective is that it pays off in the long run for the private companies. Oxfam spokespersons are furious that firms such as Bayer may achieve expansion in the developing world with the support of German taxpayer money.

However, it is about time to make some progress towards feeding the world. And increasing agricultural productivity looks like a better experiment than the low input methods environmentalists favour.

Part of their solution is that we eat less in Europe, America and the rest of the developed world. That isn’t going to happen.


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