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The great Monsanto food prize fiasco

United States

Some controversy erupted in my home state of Iowa in recent months over the World Food Prize. The award, which fancies itself an agricultural Nobel and comes with $250,000 in cash, aims to recognize those who have helped to improve the global food system.

This year the Prize went to... prepare yourself... Monsanto.

Technically speaking, the Prize was shared by three scientists who have been leaders in genetically engineering crops. One of them, Robert T Fraley, is Monsanto’s chief technology officer. Another was an executive at biotech giant Syngenta.

This isn’t the first sign that something is amiss with the Food Prize. With its headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa’s capital, the award has become a source of local pride. Yet, from its origins, it has been linked to a model of industrial agribusiness that has driven countless farm families off the land – in America’s Midwest and beyond.

The World Food Prize was founded in 1986 by Norman Borlaug, the Iowa-bred Nobel peace laureate who is considered the godfather of the ‘Green Revolution’. According to the conventional narrative, this revolution saved millions of people in the Global South from starvation through the introduction of high-yield seeds, petrochemical fertilizers, and synthetic pesticides.

Overall yields have indeed increased. Yet famine and hunger persist as small farmers have been marginalized, local food systems disrupted, and social inequalities exacerbated. In truth, crop yields aren’t the primary issue. We produce enough food to feed the world. But poverty and socio-economic disparities prevent food from getting into the hands of the hungry. The increased dependence on agribusiness corporations brought by the Green Revolution has only worsened those problems.

Between its major donors and featured speakers, the World Food Prize has cozied up with many of the biggest brands in industrial agriculture, including Cargill, ADM and Nestlé. In 2008, Monsanto itself made a $5-million contribution, spawning accusations that it bought its award.

The Food Prize’s leadership insists that an independent committee, isolated from the organization’s fundraising, makes award decisions. Nevertheless, the apparent conflict of interest gave the prize an incestuous air that could be smelled even over the state’s notoriously noxious, mass-confinement hog lots – facilities which have proliferated in Iowa thanks to Big Ag’s influence over local government.

Whether or not you think genetically modified crops could some day have a role in sustainable agriculture (the question has been debated on this website), Monsanto’s abuses of corporate power deserve condemnation. Des Moines’ most courageous local columnist, Rekha Basu, took the Food Prize to task, criticizing Monsanto’s ‘iron-fisted policies and aggressive lawsuits for patent infringement’.

‘Even as organic farmers in the US find their crops threatened by cross-pollination from genetically modified seeds, which compromises their ability to sell them,’ Basu wrote, ‘Monsanto sues farmers to whom that happens for using its seeds without paying.’

Such criticisms were echoed in international Millions Against Monsanto demonstrations held in more than 400 cities on 12 October, the weekend before the Food Prize ceremony. Later that week, Iowan community groups and family farm advocates were joined in protests by two Haitians, Rosnel Jean-Baptiste and Rose Edith Germain, representatives of organizations that had just won the Food Sovereignty Prize.

Created in 2009 as an alternative to the World Food Prize, the Sovereignty Prize rejects the profit-driven model of corporate agriculture. It instead honours groups that recognize issues of power, such as land reform and women’s rights, as keys to ending hunger. This year the award went to four prominent peasant organizations in Haiti. United as the Group of 4/Dessalines Brigade, these groups have worked to rebuild Haitian agriculture in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, advocate for small farmers, and save Creole seeds.

Of course, Iowan organizers don’t expect efforts like these to be celebrated by the World Food Prize any time soon. They have started planning protests in Des Moines for next year.

Mark Engler, a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus, is currently writing a book about the evolution of political nonviolence. He can be reached via the website DemocracyUprising.com

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