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

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 greenmoney. 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. Read More >

A 50-Year Farm Bill?

The Washington Post’s Jane Black wrote a great Q & A piece in today’s paper with Farmer-Writer-Academic Wendell Berry; Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute,; and Fred Kirschenmann, Leopold Center fellow and president of the Stone Barns Center. The three had traveled to DC to promote an ambitious proposal to legislators for a new form of food policy in the shape of a 50-year farm bill.

“The plan asks for $50 million annually for plant breeding and genetics research,” and “puts forward a new vision of agriculture, one that values not only yields but also local ecosystems, healthy food and rural communities,” writes Black in the piece, “3 Wise Men, Planting Ideas Where It Counts.”

Says Jackson of the 50-year farm bill: “The idea begins with acknowledging that nature covers much of the land with perennials, and agriculture reversed that thousands of years ago. In our modern times, we’ve offset the consequences with management techniques and fossil fuels that are nonrenewable and contribute to greenhouse gases.”

Black asks Kirschenmann about the approach of using Genetically Modified Plants (GMOs) to feed a growing population. “If you think about it, that approach really isn’t working here,” he notes. “If it weren’t for subsidies, farmers wouldn’t be able to buy the technologies that are supposed to save us. How are African farmers going to afford the technologies?”

Could inside-the-beltway thinking grasp something in a 50-year interval? Both Jackson and Kirschenmann believe so, citing Washington’s apparent ability to tackle long-range issues like climate change and population growth. “They have to extend the horizon. So we think the time is right to add agriculture to that.”