Friday, July 06, 2012

Food Prizes and the Compromised Food Issue- the worry of not knowing.

By Gary Berg-Cross
There’s lots of prizes out there for good work, from the most well know Nobel prize, the MacArthur prizes, but also ones for special fields like architecture and mathematics or the Turing Award for Computer Science, all not covered by the Nobel; and even Grand Challenge prizes. One of my favorites is the Right Livelihood Award (aka the Alternative Nobel Prize ) established in 1980 by Jakob von Uexkull awarded in such fields as environmental protection, human rights, sustainable development, health, education, and peace.
It’s good to have a multiplication of prizes for noble work even if there are argments about winners. Raymond Damadian refuses to take his failure to win a Nobel Prize, for a prototype MRI machine as documented in Smithsonian Magazine. But he was not alone 
and I recently learned about a controversy around a prize called the World Food Prize, created by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug. This one comes with some a structural controversy.

Borlaug is a familiar name for his Green Revolution work. He was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 1970, In 1986 with help from General Foods.he created the Food Prize to recognize contributions that expanding the world food supply. Borlaug saw the prize as a means of establishing role models who would inspire others. since 1990 has been sponsored by businessman and philanthropist John Ruan.
This all sounds good. World Food Prize Laureates are formally honored each year at an Award Ceremony in mid October around the time that the UN celebrates World Food Day. Winners receive a healthy $250,000 prize in a televised award ceremony held in Des Moines, Iowa. The week-long World Food Prize attracts corporate leaders, farm interests, economists and academicians and scientists from all over the world who mostly discuss the latest issues in world agriculture. The Award Ceremony is accompanied by the Norman E. Borlaug International Symposium, known as the "Borlaug Dialogue," which addresses an issue related to hunger and food security each year.
What’s the controversy? Well Borlaug created a world Food Prize to recognize contributions in several fields that contribute to expanding the world food supply. The fields include food and agriculture science (agronomy) but also contributions from technology, manufacturing, marketing, nutrition, and economics, poverty alleviation, political leadership and the social sciences.
Included in this long list is a biotech component and thus Biotech seeds. This doesn’t play well with everyone and the Des Moines Register has published objections to what efforts are awarded prizes. On October 25, 2011 it published one objection that started by lauding the Register for presenting both sides on the issue of genetically modified seeds by:

“ including philanthropist Howard Buffett’s warning that we need to be cautious seeing U.S. style farming and genetically modified seeds as being the sole solution to food problems in Africa.
It is also wise to note that among the many sponsors of the World Food Prize activity are large corporations that are in the business of producing these seeds. The main purpose and goal of these corporations, like any company, is to make a profit, not to focus on humanitarian needs. These two factors may be at odds with each other.

There is still great controversy about the effect of these seeds and certain practices, and it is important to keep this in prospective while still giving credit to the efforts of the prize winners.”
More recently the 'Occupy' movement took on World Food Prize, again as reported in the Register and planned protests for the
week-long Food Prize event in October.
The Occupy movement will target what Occupy leader Cordaro called "the corporate ownership of the World Food Prize, especially its dominance by genetically modified seed interests."

"Our goal is to get rid of GMOs," said Cordaro, referencing the term for genetically-modified corn and soybean seeds now in widespread use in Iowa and elsewhere in the U.S.
"We've always supported biotechnology because Dr. Borlaug was a supporter of biotechnology," said Quinn, who added, "both Dr. Borlaug and the Prize are all about feeding hungry people."

Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize, responded that an annual feature of the World Food Prize week is the Hunger Summit, which features discussions on global hunger topics.

It seems to me that each side has a point. I don’t know enough about this to have an answer or a final position, but I’d like more balanced discussion of the facts and a related, but more general issue,  on compromise.  Or maybe the conversation should be about being compromised.
Is there any possible agreement with genetically modified (GM) foods and genetically modified organisms? Many are suspicious and worried by the danger of possibly reducing the quality of our food. Some argue that the epidemic of allergies, asthma, skin problems, and chronic ailments are partially due to GM foods. In the EU, if a GM product is .9 percent or more it must be labeled. In the US, labeling is not required. Why not have such labeling in the spirit of informed consumer choice? Maybe it is as Occupy argues that what is done is done for the 1% or the .01%.
Some of this was explored in the 2005 documentary 'The Future of Food’(by the widow of Grateful Dead star Jerry Garcia) which presented a selection of facts, legal cases, statistics, and shots of unconscionable scientific procedures as a depiction of a slippery slope for genetic modification in agriculture & the insidious homogenization of American farming. Given an 84% rating on Rotten Tomatoes it’s been described as takinf a complex subject and making it “digestible for anyone who cares about what they put into their stomachs.”
But what are the facts? Are they what activists tell us or corporate mouth pieces and compromised advocate scientists? I don’t know what the effects of adding new genes to organism is.  There is not convincing evidence that it is unsafe, but there also is not concrete convincing  evidence to say that it is safe. Its remains a grey area under investigation & species and human effects research could take a decade. But I worry about corporate lies and expediency. Why the rush to implement before we know the effects?  Who makes such decisions that could affect so many? It's a question a Japanese inquiry asked on Fukushema where there they found "a collusion of decision makers and a conformist culture that let them get away with policies and actions that betrayed the common safety. It would be one thing if this was just directed and evolving to save starving people. It would be one thing if this was just directed to save starving people. Is it just the drive for profit and wealth creation for the few?

The risk depends on what real Science tells us and the evidence is not yet all be in. Good research may not even be funded or fundable in the current atmosphere. So it may be decades and in the meaning we need to grow things and eat. 
So before we know more with certainly we might be prudent & worry that the seed train has left the station risking a crash down the road. In 2010, 93% of all soybeans planted in the US were GM versions. Is Big Ag is pushing to something that will be impossible to change?
Shades of climate change. By one estimate 80% of the American diet consists of processed food and 70% of packaged food is genetically modified in part because our corn and soy is largely GM.
The question remains why is it so hard to grow healthy food in a sustainable and transparently acceptable way? Until we know I will appreciate the thought of some safety in local and Amishly organic.

Image credits:
Pass the genetic corn:
World Food Prize Logo
Future of Food Poster
Food and Corporate lies:

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