Seed aid, agribusiness and the food crisis
The world food crisis, rapidly defined by those in power as a problem of insufficient production, has become a trojan horse to get corporate seeds, fertilisers and, surreptitiously, market systems into poor countries. As past experience shows, what looks like “seed aid” in the short term can mask what is actually “agribusiness aid” in the long term. We look at what is going on.
Earlier this year, political and economic leaders, abetted by the corporate mass media, were quick to explain the current global food crisis as a “perfect storm” of several factors: weather problems, the diversion of crops into biofuels, oil price hikes and poor people becoming less poor and eating more animal produce. In short, they wanted us to believe that the food crisis was a problem of production. Many have shredded that argument and – while agreeing that production should be improved – have shown instead how current economic policies focused on global trade and deregulation are the real culprits.  Yet the supply-siders moved fast to promote their solution to the wrong problem: to boost production, mainly by getting higher-yielding seeds to farmers.
What seeds? Where from? With what impact on vulnerable communities and local biodiversity? It is hard to find reliable data, but there is a serious risk that this simplistic production-focused response to the food crisis, which avoids asking the really challenging policy questions, will result in a new wave of genetic erosion and livelihood insecurity by overriding communities’ local seed systems. The consequences for the survival of farming families around the world, and therefore for food production, could be extremely damaging.
The “perfect choir”
Large amounts of money have been pledged in the last few months to send seeds and fertilisers urgently to food-crisis-striken countries in the South. In May, the World Bank launched a US$1.2-billion emergency finance facility to provide funds for the “rapid provision of seeds and fertilisers to small farmers”. Addressing the Group of Eight (G8) summit of the world’s richest countries, held in Japan in early July, the president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, told these powerful people that one of the main priorities in fighting the global food crisis was “to give small farmers, especially in Africa, access to seeds, fertilisers and other basic inputs”. In the lead-up to that meeting, the European Commission’s President, José Manuel Barroso, proffered €1 billion to pay for “fertilisers and seeds to help poor farmers in developing countries”. Not to be outdone, US President George Bush announced US$1 billion in food crisis money and told the press that he would convince other world leaders that they should make moves to alleviate hunger by “increasing the shipments of food, fertilisers and seeds to countries in need”. Two weeks later, the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, took the message to the UN General Assembly in New York: “We must act immediately to boost agricultural production this year. We do this by providing urgently needed seeds and fertilisers for the upcoming planting cycles, especially for the world’s 450 million small-scale farmers.”  Imagine! Billions of dollars suddenly disbursed to distribute seeds to the poorest farmers on the planet – a group whose needs have never before ranked high in these leaders’ concerns.
Earlier the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) had launched its own “Initiative on Soaring Food Prices”, meant to “demonstrate that by increasing the supply of key agricultural inputs, such as seeds and fertilisers, small farmers will be able to rapidly increase their food production”. The FAO Initiative already covers 35 countries, to the tune of US$21 million, while another 54 countries are being similarly supported under its Technical Cooperation Programme at the cost of US$24 million. Apart from ensuring immediate seed and fertiliser supplies, the Initiative also aims to “encourage donors, financial institutions and national governments to support the provision of inputs on a much larger scale”.  It seems to be working, as organisations ranging from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the Red Cross are falling over each other to set up programmes to get seeds and fertilisers to farmers in response to today’s food crisis (see table).