When “Feeding the World” Doesn’t Mean “Feeding the World”


Dan Hicks


December 8, 2014

A common lament in the GMO controversy is that both sides really want the same thing. As Ottoline Leyser puts it in a piece in PLoS Biology from this summer, “The most frustrating thing about this situation is that almost everyone wants the same outcome: a reliable, sustainable, equitable supply of nutritious food.” In other words, everyone wants to feed the world; given this, we should be able to reach something like a consensus on things like GM crops. Insofar as (specific) GM crops provide a safe and effective way to feed the world, everyone should find them acceptable.

However, in this post I want to suggest that proponents and opponents of GM crops generally work with two rather different and incompatible conceptions of “feeding the world.” If that suggestion is right, then we would expect the two sides to have different standards for assessing GM crops. With one set of assumptions about “feeding the world,” GM crops seem quite promising. With the other set of assumptions, GM crops seem to be questionable at best. So the generic “feeding the world” rhetoric is misleading: everyone wants to “feed the world,” but people have incompatible ideas about what this actually means, and so they come to very different conclusions about the potential of GM crops.

GM proponents — people in favor of using GM crops — generally assume what rural sociologist Philip McMichael calls the corporate food regime. Under the corporate food regime, food is treated like any other commodity — cars or clothes or iPhones — and as a commodity it is produced and traded in ways that generally serve to maximize wealth production. Since robust free trade and intellectual property harmonization serve to maximize wealth production, food is internationally regulated through more-or-less the same free trade and intellectual property regimes as cars, clothes, and iPhones. Insofar as GM crops are more economically efficient — producing more commodity food for lower input costs — they are a good way to feed the world under the corporate food regime. This is the status quo in our food system.

GM opponents — people who don’t want us to use GM crops — generally advocate the food sovereignty regime. Put very broadly, under a food sovereignty regime, decisions about the production and allocation of food would be made through decentralized, participatory, democratic institutions, rather than harmonized global markets. Food would be valued primarily in terms of nutrition, cultural value, and sustainability (the flourishing of the biotic communities in which it was produced and consumed), and only secondarily (if at all) in economic terms.

A food sovereignty perspective is not necessarily opposed to GM crops. It seems entirely possible that a local community somewhere might democratically decide that GM would be the best way to deal with, say, a nasty pathogen attacking an especially culturally valuable crop.

However, a food sovereignty perspective is likely to be skeptical of both actual GM crops and the scientific institutions that produce them. In terms of area under cultivation, almost all GM crops actually available today are designed for the corporate food regime, and are developed to be more economically efficient than the alternatives, with little regard to nutrition, cultural value, or the flourishing of biotic communities. GM proponents suggest that other kinds of GM crops (for things like drought or flood tolerance) are under development, but this has turned out to be much more difficult than originally anticipated. At the same time, scientists — even at public research universities — find themselves ensnared in a web of intellectual property restrictions and institutional mandates to produce patents and secure industry funding. Thus, even if some scientists would like to develop new crops for the food sovereignty regime, chances are their work will be appropriated and evaluated by the corporate food regime.

In short, by the lights of the food sovereignty regime, GM crops are produced by and for the corporate food regime. At the very least, this places the burden of proof on GM proponents: show us (say the opponents) how GM can be used to promote food sovereignty, and not just reinforce the corporate food regime. What are the live possibilities for using GM crops in, say, polycultures of indigenous plants and animals? What about labor-intensive “peasant’’ farming systems, where many farmers have limited or no access to irrigation (much less synthetic fertilizers or pesticides)? Is it legally possible to develop new GM crops in the public domain?

Note that all of these questions concern the effectiveness of GM crops — but only as seen from the perspective of food sovereignty. From the perspective of the corporate food regime, effectiveness is measured exclusively in terms of market productivity. Thus, insofar as proponents and opponents of GM crops are working with different food regime assumptions, they are working with very different ideas about effectiveness. That is, insofar as they don’t mean the same thing by “feeding the world,” they won’t evaluate GM crops in the same way.