October 13, 2010

Agricultural Biotech and Chemical Industry Put on Greenwash Show at Iowa State University During World Food Prize Week

Dennis Keeney

Dennis Keeney

Visiting Scholar

Center for a Livable Future

In mid-October of every year, Iowa State and Central Iowa sees its fair share (or more) of dignitaries, current and former agricultural lobby folks, Farm Bureau top brass and even usually a cabinet officer or two. This is not the presidential primary, but the World Food Prize week. This year, over 1,000 policymakers, researchers and other experts will be involved in the programs, including the keynoter, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, now chair of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. A number of lectures and side events occur during this time. The award ceremony is modeled after the Nobel Prize ceremonies.

The award winners this year are perhaps the most deserving ever. The WFP laureates for 2010 are David Beckman, who is head of the Christian-based Bread for the World, and Jo Luck, CEO of Heifer International. Both organizations have worked with small farmers in alleviating hunger and building incomes. A full description of Beckman’s and Luck’s activities are at the WFP webpage. Their lectures at the Borlaug dialogue were superb.

The World Food Prize has become a going concern. It was started about the time I came to Iowa State as director of the Leopold Center and over time grew from a luncheon in the Marriott Hotel in Des Moines to its present configuration and as the place to be seen if you are in agriculture. Norman Borlaug, the 1970 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, originated the prize and soon it was embraced by Iowa industrial leaders. It has been a good business model.

But beneath the gloss lurks the soul of industrial agriculture. After the glitter has settled one wonders if this is a classic greenwash for the biotechnology and pesticide industries, their associated lobbyists, and the ever-omnipotent Farm Bureau. Indeed, no better setting could be found than mid-Iowa and Iowa State University, the heart of industrial agriculture.

A prime example is the side-event I attended was the Biodiversity World Tour, October 12, on the Iowa State University campus “to bring together farmers around the world to discuss what they are doing on a daily basis to preserve our planet and how they see these practices improving in the future.” It featured U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, and a five-member panel including an vegetable farmer from India (who recently published in The Wall Street Journal on why India needs to participate in the “Gene Revolution”), a corn-soy farmer from Brazil, a corn-soybean farmer (and member of the National Corn Growers and the Iowa Corn Growers Board) from Iowa, a professor of entomology at the Seed Science Center  at ISU, and a staff person for the International Food Policy Research Institute.

The event was sponsored by Crop Life International. And here comes the greenwash. Crop Life is a member organization supported by the major chemical and biochemical companies worldwide including BASF,  Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, FMC, Monsanto, Sumitomo and Syngenta. According to SourceWatch, Crop Life America is an affiliate of Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment the lobbying and public relations arm of the agrichemical industry. These groups, while giving a green face, have long pursued an anti-regulatory agenda “to assure no pesticides would be removed from the market:” its trade association claims its aim is to “promote increasingly responsible, science-driven legislation and regulation.” (from the SourceWatch website).

The program was pretty weak, in spite of the billing. The moderator was Orin Samuelson, longtime host of the National Farm Report, and a solid supporter of status quo agriculture. Secretary Vilsack and others emphasized closing the gap between GMO’s and organics, and working together to enhance production and biodiversity. He pointed out that 100,000 new small farmers entered agriculture recently and this has enhanced the connection between the public and agriculture. Vilsack knows the landscape and the challenges, as well as the political pitfalls. He carefully skirted the big issues, saying all the right things, as any politician must. But at one point he indicated that the public needed better education on biotechnology and that USDA is prepared to help. GMO regulation should be science based.

The panel was a group of yes people, adding little diversity to a biodiversity panel; all had the same views on production agriculture. The panel had a hard time addressing and defining sustainability, and never really addressed biodiversity.

The design of the meeting was such that there were four satellite sites with cameras, and open lines for twitter and email discussion. Essentially this scheme flopped, perhaps because people outside ISU decided there was little to gain by sitting through a one-sided discussion. Questions from the ISU on site audience were taken, and some hit home. Most memorable was a comment from Dr. Kathleen Delate, an agronomist who directs the organic farming program at ISU. Kathleen described their 12-year field work showing that organic corn and soy yields were greater than conventional yields and promoted greater biodiversity. The panel comment was that comparing well-managed organic to poorly managed conventional agriculture was not fair. Ouch.

This experience shows how easy it is to “hoodwink” someone who should know better into thinking there might be some new policies that would promote biodiversity. I should have looked at the Crop Life website first. Still, it was an education.

– Dennis Keeney

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