Lappe response: Think locally, starve globally

By JEFFREY R. BUNCH

Special to the News

Last Wednesday, Sept. 11, I attended a presentation titled “Food, Hunger, and the Politics of Hope” sponsored by the Columbia River Peace Organization at the Hood River Middle School.

I had hoped that Frances Moore Lappe’s talk would talk about great progress in the battle against hunger and poverty that has been made in the 30 years since her best selling book appeared. Instead, enthusiastic attendees were told “our species is on a death march.” Ms. Lappe went on to describe how mass media, and advertising create a collective belief system (what she calls a “mental map”) in each of us that ultimately spreads globally and is “life-destroying.” Lappe paints a picture that mankind is at war with nature, and plays upon our collective induced guilt to stop the ultimate evil: Genetically Modified (GM) Food.

Unfortunately, it appears that Ms. Lappe’s mental map has been warped by more than just mass media and ads. I suspect that her collective belief system has fallen victim to the environmentalist’s manta that the world is getting worse and worse. Bjorn Lomborg, author of the “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” calls this the “Litany”:

* Natural resources are running out.

* The population is an ever-growing ticking time bomb.

* Species are becoming extinct in vast numbers: forests are disappearing and fish stocks are collapsing.

* The planet’s air and water are becoming more polluted.

* Human activity is defiling the earth, and humanity will end up killing itself.

* First World wealth causes third world poverty.

The problem is that while the chant-like repetition of this litany seems to comfort members of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, World Wildlife Fund and other environmental Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) around the planet, there is little evidence to back these assertions, nor most of the statements uttered by Ms. Lappe during her talk.

First, energy and other natural resources have become more abundant, not scarcer since 1972 — when Ms. Lappe published her book and the Club of Rome published “The Limits to Growth.” Second, although species are indeed becoming extinct, only about 0.7 percent of them are expected to disappear in the next 50 years (not the 25-50 percent predicted by the green NGOs.) Most forms of pollution have been exaggerated, or are transient. Their existence goes hand-in-hand with the early stages of industrialization, and is best solved by increasing economic growth, not restricting it. The cure for global-warming is worse than the disease (indeed, for the cost of compliance with the Kyoto Treaty for one year, we could supply all of poor Africa with clean drinking water and proper sanitation.) Lastly, more food is now produced per capita (and fewer people are starving) in the world than at any other time in history.

This is not to say that Ms. Lappe did not make some valid points. Indeed, one of her first statements was to point out that our society mistakenly believes in scarcity. Though she did not distinguish between consumer goods in our country and the natural resources and food around the globe, she does seem to imply that it is not scarcity of food that causes hunger, but rather a scarcity of democracy. I enthusiastically agree with her on this point.

Where Ms. Lappe’s reasoning starts to falter is how she blames “our” presumption of food scarcity for the existence of GM food. She argues that large multinational agribusinesses greedily create the market for GM foodstuffs by hyping the need for more food. Nonsense. The demand for higher yielding agriculture is driven by farmers who want to produce more food with less land, using less pesticides, less gasoline, and creating less soil erosion. She never mentioned the fact that GM food has never been shown to be harmful.

She omitted how GM crops and high-yield farmer techniques have helped India and Pakistan to become self-sufficient. In the 30 years since Ms. Lappe wrote her book, India’s population has doubled, her crop production has tripled, and her economy has grown nine times. Those results, and the millions of lives saved from famine, could not have occurred with Lappe-endorsed farming techniques.

I suspect nirvana, in Ms. Lappe’s mental map, is a world where egalitarian land reform is combined with organic farming to create self-sufficient, eco-tourist-friendly countries. Thank goodness that most of the world’s farmers take such ideas as foolishness, as implementation would lead to massive famine and massive expansion of pristine land put into agricultural production. Organic farming, while certainly acceptable and desirable for wealthy countries like the U.S. where we have an abundance of food, simply cannot produce the same yields as modern farming techniques and GM food utilization.

Indeed, Kenyan scientist Florence Wambugu, who pioneered the first genetically modified sweet potato in sub-Saharan Africa in the early 1990s, says farmers growing tissue-cultured bananas in East Africa were able to triple income and double yields. A sample study of 500 farmers involved in the project in Kenya now earned $120 per month from $42 previously and yields rose to 45 tons per hectare from 20 tons per hectare. “We got 10,000 families out of abject poverty. It was good to realize what many anti-GM groups say can’t be done. That it won’t help small farmers, is only a myth,” she recently told reporters. Such success have been repeated the world over.

Statistics suggest that high-yield agriculture slows down population growth rather than accelerating it, by starting the progression from the high-birth-rate, high-death-rate societies of feudal cultures toward the low-birth-rate, low-death-rate societies of Western nations. In subsistence agriculture, children are viewed as manual labor, and thus large numbers are desired. In technical agriculture, knowledge becomes more important and parents thus have fewer children in order to devote resources to their education. Modern farming practices which chemical fertilizers, pesticides and genetic engineering rescued India from its eternal cycles of famine and huge debts from importing food. Perhaps the same techniques, if used in Southern Africa, could prevent the man-made and drought induced famine currently affecting 13 million people.

Ms. Lappe brought up a “recent USDA report that shows GMOs offer no economic advantage” several times, though no such report exists. Ms. Lappe mangled salient facts concerning a Canadian court’s recent decision against a canola farmer who illegally used GMO seeds without paying royalties to the manufacturer. Polar ice caps are not “melting faster than predicted,” as she claims.

She seemed only vaguely aware of the irony of the 13 million starving Africans being kept from 17,000 tons of corn shipped by the U.S. because Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have lobbied African governments to reject the food for fear it may contain GM grains. On this last issue the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) recently said it was despicable that environmental groups were playing games with the empty stomachs of starving people. I guess this is what Ms. Lappe meant when she repeatedly said the U.S. is “out of step” with the rest of the world.

There is hope for Ms. Lappe, however. She did rightly object to the massive agriculture subsidies paid to the American and European farmers by the US and the EU. Though Lappe struggled with economic consequences of such policies in North America, she accurately decried the brutal effects of those policies on third world farmers. Agriculture subsidies total about $300 billion annually, which cost farmers of poor nations about $50 billion in lost revenue. That, in turn, effectively negates the $50 billion in aid the world sends to the developing world every year. Perhaps in her next round of talks, Ms. Lappe will talk about how to really help the world’s poor by eliminating massive agricultural subsidies, and promoting wealth development with the rural poor.

But by currently advocating subsistence farming (and the resulting poverty it creates) for the poor world’s farmers, Ms. Lappe only serves to restrict their economic and democratic choices.

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Jeffrey R. Bunch is President of LVS Capital Management in Hood River.

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