Proposed US law to mandate GMOs?

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The Global Food Security Act of 2009, S.384 has a few clauses that have anti-biotech activists all worked up. What do the changes really mean? Is the US government really part of a Monsanto-led conspiracy to force the impoverished into a cycle of dependency on patented seed and pesticides?

The Pesticide Action Network of North America sums up their view of the situation in their newsletter:

After its introduction in the Senate a year ago, Bill Gates and Bill Clinton have been quietly pressing for this piece of legislation that aims to fight global hunger with one hand while orchestrating a giant taxpayer subsidy to pesticide and ag biotech companies with the other. The bill, also known as the Lugar-Casey Act — for Senators Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Robert Casey (D-PA) — would refocus aid programs on agricultural development, with a caveat: public funding of genetically engineered (GE) seeds is what this bill means by “agricultural development.”

I don’t know if PANNA actually read the Act, because there’s a lot in there about agricultural development that has nothing to do with genetic engineering, as you’ll see in this post.

Genetic engineering ≠ Corporations

One of the biggest arguments against improved seed, whether biotech or simply hybrid, is that it is developed by corporations. To be fair, this is often true in the United States. The US government decided decades ago to leave crop improvement to corporations. The USDA still does a little work in crop improvement, but this work doesn’t result in many released varieties.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In countries around the world, including Brazil, India, and China, much public funding goes into crop improvement. If you think that it’s dangerous to leave all seed improvement and production to a few companies, and if you want more public funding for crop improvement, then let your representatives know.

Ironically, the changes proposed in the Global Food Security Act of 2009 will lead to more public funding for crop improvement, genetically engineered and otherwise. It will also lead to funding of agricultural research in other countries, something that is very necessary if those countries are to ever stand on their own when it comes to food.

What the Act says

This is an amazing piece of legislation that has the potential to help a lot of people, so I hope you’ll take a moment to read the whole thing. I’m personally very excited about the funding for public agricultural research both in the US and in developing countries listed in Title III. I’m disappointed that it’s taking this long for the Act to be made into law.

In this post, I’ll just discuss Title II, where the controversial language appears. Titles I and III don’t mention biotechnology or any other specific farming or research methods, so they haven’t raised any controversy to my knowledge. Title II lists quite a few changes that most would argue are favorable for agriculture in developing nations.

Let’s actually look at the changes and try to determine what they really mean. Am I the only one who has noticed that the petitions and blog posts in uproar over the Act don’t actually show the Act or even link to it? It’s not that hard to find on websites such as Thomas. At the end of this post, you can find the relevant section of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (pdf, pages 40-42) with the changes made in red, then the proposed changes as they appear in the Global Food Security Act of 2009 (pdf).

The first set of edits in Title II of the Global Food Security Act of 2009 add three additional goals to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961:

1. Find ways for impoverished people who don’t have access to agriculture to improve their economic situation, while providing those persons health and nutrition assistance.
2. Fund development and implementation of sustainable agricultural techniques that work under the stresses of climate change, including drought.
3. Improve nutrition of the most vulnerable people, specifically “children under the age of two years old, and pregnant or lactating women.”

Sounds good so far.

The second section allocates funds for all of the aid activities in the Foreign Assistance Act. In billions of US dollars: 0.75 for 2010, 1 for 2011, 1.5 for 2012, 2 for 2013, and 2.5 for 2014.

Sounds expensive, but it’s not much when put in the perspective of military spending (more than $650 billion, not including additional funds for current overseas activities).

On to the controversial part.

The current Act states that agricultural research under the Act will do the following:

1. Take needs of small farmers into account when determining research priorities.
2. Include research on factors affecting small farms including interplay between technological, institutional, economic, social, environmental, and cultural factors.
3. Use field tests to adapt research to local conditions – in other words, don’t develop something that works in one country and expect it to work in another country!
4. Produce results that can be disseminated to small farms (both info and technology) and that can actually be used on small farms.

The proposed changes would add one additional clause, requiring research to include “biotechnological advances appropriate to local ecological conditions, including genetically modified technology.” Frankly, I don’t know why the authors enumerated any specific technologies or methods. They could have left out that last clause, still considered biotechnology as an option, and everyone would have been happy. However, Senator Lugar has seen the potential that biotechnology has to help people and wants to move that forward.

There are already examples of public-private partnerships that have been making great progress toward developing crops specifically for farmers in developing countries. Two of them were discussed by Marianne Bänziger, Director for CIMMYT’s Global Maize Program, at the Maize Genetics Conference in March: WEMA (water efficient maize for Africa) and IMAS (improved maize for African soils). Publicly funded flood tolerant rice is already out there helping farmers, with help from Biofortified editor Pam Ronald. What more could be accomplished with additional funds?

What the Act doesn’t say

The Act does not say “include genetic engineering to the exclusion of anything else”. It doesn’t even say “include biotechnology to the exclusion of anything else” (biotechnology includes marker assisted selection (pdf) as well as genetic engineering and other techniques). That means breeding remains a funded means of crop improvement, and leaves in the goal of improvement of farming methods as well. The Act specifically states that any biotech research will be appropriate to local environmental conditions, as well as taking needs of small farmers into account. That does leave out funding for any crop or method development that would be too expensive for small farmers to use, so royalty-free releases would presumably be required.

Looking at GM crops currently on the market, this excludes Roundup Ready crops because small farmers in impoverished countries often can’t afford Roundup and/or don’t have access to markets that carry pesticides. However, it includes Bt crops because they require no additional inputs and have been shown to be safe for people and safe for non-target organisms while reducing yield loss due to insect pests. It would also include traits that improve nutrition and environmental traits such as drought tolerance or salt tolerance. These are careful, thoughtful distinctions, ones that must be made before biotech is even considered, according to the Act.

While conspiracy theorists are happy to put words in Senator Lugar’s mouth, no where does the Act claim that genetic engineering is a silver bullet to solve the food crisis (on the contrary, the Act emphasizes small, locally adapted solutions – the opposite of a silver bullet). No where does the Act propose that seeds with biotech traits be forced on countries that do not want them (on the contrary, the Act aims to improve the economic situation of impoverished farmers, which obviously can’t be done by encouraging farmers to plant seed that they can’t sell). No where does the Act ask for short term technological fixes (on the contrary, the Act aims for long term self-sustainability for impoverished farmers and countries).    …you get the idea.

The language of the Act is clear

Farmers in developing countries need changes that will work for them and that will work long term. While most of us admire the great accomplishments of the Green Revolution, most of us know that those same strategies of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides can’t be used again. To truly help the farmers, we must work with them to develop appropriate farming improvements for their situation – exactly what this bill says.

Don’t want to take my word for it? Ask Senator Lugar. He’s listed his goals for the legislation in full on his website: Lugar Clarifies Food Security Bill for Colleagues (or see pdf in case the post has moved). In the Senator’s own words: “Hungry people are desperate people, and desperation often sows the seeds of conflict and extremism.” Not only do we have a moral imperative to help impoverished people, but it is in the interests of peace to help ensure that every person has the ability to feed themselves and their families.

He’s taken time to spell out why the biotech clause is in the Act:

The research would include work on the appropriate uses of GM technologies in different environments. While much research has already been done on the development of GM seeds, with profound benefits for agricultural productivity in developed countries, there is a dearth of research on its development and applicability in developing countries. Those countries may have environmental and other challenges that differ from those encountered in the United States. The bill advocates strengthening the local capacity of university and research institutions to find localized solutions to agricultural productivity and food security.

Without advances in technologies that are adaptive to local and regional environmental conditions, the world’s farmers will be hard pressed to meet projected demand of the nearly 9.2 billion people that will inhabit the planet by the year 2050. The development and dissemination of technology, whether it be traditional, biotechnological, or GM, is vital to raising both farm productivity and incomes of poor farmers. Further, without the gains in production per acre that can come from advanced technology, it is likely we will only be able to meet future food demand by greatly expanding the amount of land under cultivation, a development which would necessarily involve substantial forest destruction as well as environmental degradation. GM represents one important tool in this endeavor, and we must do the research to determine where and when it works best.

The bottom line is that a provision of the Lugar-Casey bill directs U.S. assistance in developing local technological solutions to advance agricultural productivity in countries suffering from chronic hunger. It does not require that these solutions be GM, but it does not preclude it, where appropriate.

Widespread support

Don’t believe me or the Senator? Take a look at the groups supporting the Act (pdf) – no less than 25 well-known NGOs that work with impoverished people and/or environmental issues, most of which have a global reach. ONE, a prominent organization that works against hunger and AIDS in Africa, is positively enthusiastic about this potentially historic Act. The National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges has endorsed (pdf) the Act, likely due to it’s support for education and research. CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, Inc.) applauds the Act’s support for women and girls. Oxfam urges people to tell their members of Congress to co-sponsor the Act. The Friends of the World Food Program call the Act an essential part of the Roadmap to End Global Hunger. Dr. Thomas Lovejoy of Population Action International and Jim Harkness of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy argue that it’s time to stand up for people who are most in need, especially now that the health care debate is over. (IATP supports the House version of this legislation in this editorial, not the Senate version.)

The Act has also done something that few pieces of legislation can anymore: inspire bi-partisan cooperation.The authors of the bill are a Republican and a Democrat, and they have the support of people from both parties in the House and in the Senate. For example, the House version of the Act was introduced by Representative Betty McCollum (D) along with Donald Payne (D) and Jo Ann Emerson (R).

Follow the money

Finally, let’s look closely at the authors of the bill. Are they being paid off by Monsanto to push this legislation?

In short, no. Looking at Senator Lugar’s campaign contributors at OpenSecrets.org, there’s a striking lack of any biotech company donors later than 2002, when Monsanto contributed $14,250. Senator Lugar does have some donors from agribusiness, such as Archer Daniels Midland which donated $8,000 in 2008 and $6,000 in 2010 – hardly enough to buy special legislation for nefarious purposes, and completely unsurprising considering that he is a Senator for Indiana. Senator Casey doesn’t have any contributions from Monsanto or agribusiness. Any conspiracy theories regarding the authors of the bill fall flat as soon as you look at the data.

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Let’s see this Act for what it really is – an honest effort to make real changes in the way the US aids poor farmers in impoverished countries. Contact your elected officials to let them know what you think about the Act.

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proposed changes to Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (22 U.S.C. 2151a-1)

2151a. Agricultural development in rural areas

(a) Authorization to President to furnish assistance; appropriations

(1) In recognition of the fact that the great majority of the people of developing countries live in rural areas and are dependent on agriculture and agricultural-related pursuits for their livelihood, the President is authorized to furnish assistance, on such terms and conditions as he may determine, for agriculture, rural development, and nutrition—

(A) to alleviate starvation, hunger, and malnutrition;

(B) to expand significantly the provision of basic services to rural poor people to enhance their capacity for self-help; and

(C) to help create productive farm and off-farm employment in rural areas to provide a more viable economic base and enhance opportunities for improved incomes, living standards, and contributions by rural poor people to the economic and social development of their countries; and

(D) to expand the economic participation of people living in extreme poverty and those who lack access to agriculturally productive land, including through productive safety net programs and health and nutrition programs, and to integrate those living in extreme poverty into the economy;

(E) to support conservation farming and other sustainable agricultural techniques to respond to changing climatic conditions and water shortages; and

(F) to improve nutrition of vulnerable populations, such as children under the age of two years old, and pregnant or lactating women.

(2) There are authorized to be appropriated to the President for purposes of this section, in addition to funds otherwise available for such purposes, $760,000,000 for fiscal year 1986 and $760,000,000 for fiscal year 1987. Of these amounts, the President may use such amounts as he deems appropriate to carry out the provisions of section 316 of the International Security and Development Cooperation Act of 1980. Amounts appropriated under this section are authorized to remain available until expended.

Authorization of Appropriations- There is authorized to be appropriated to the President to provide assistance under section 103 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (22 U.S.C. 2151a) for the purpose of carrying out activities under this section, in addition to funds otherwise available for such purpose–

(1) $750,000,000 for fiscal year 2010; (2) $1,000,000,000 for fiscal year 2011; (3) $1,500,000,000 for fiscal year 2012; (4) $2,000,000,000 for fiscal year 2013; and (5) $2,500,000,000 for fiscal year 2014.

*Note – I’m not sure where the above belongs, but it seems to fit well here.*

(3) Of the amounts authorized to be appropriated in paragraph (2) for the fiscal year 1987, not less than $2,000,000 shall be available only for the purpose of controlling and eradicating amblyomma variegatum (heartwater) in bovine animals in the Caribbean.

(b) Use of assistance primarily in aid of rural poor; multilateral infrastructure projects; forestry projects

(1) Assistance provided under this section shall be used primarily for activities which are specifically designed to increase the productivity and income of the rural poor, through such means as creation and strengthening of local institutions linked to the regional and national levels; organization of a system of financial institutions which provide both savings and credit services to the poor; stimulation of small, labor-intensive enterprises in rural towns; improvement of marketing facilities and systems; expansion of rural infrastructure and utilities such as farm-to-market roads, water management systems, land improvement, energy, and storage facilities; establishment of more equitable and more secure land tenure arrangements; and creation and strengthening of systems to provide other services and supplies needed by farmers, such as extension, research, training, fertilizer, water, forestry, soil conservation, and improved seed, in ways which assure access to them by small farmers.

(2) In circumstances where development of major infrastructure is necessary to achieve the objectives set forth in this section, assistance for that purpose should be furnished under this part in association with significant contributions from other countries working together in a multilateral framework. Infrastructure proj ects so assisted should be complemented by other measures to ensure that the benefits of the infrastructure reach the poor.

(3) The Congress recognizes that the accelerating loss of forests and tree cover in developing countries undermines and offsets efforts to improve agricultural production and nutrition and otherwise to meet the basic human needs of the poor. Deforestation results in increased flooding, reduction in water supply for agricultural capacity, loss of firewood and needed wood products, and loss of valuable plants and animals. In order to maintain and increase forest resources, the President is authorized to provide assistance under this section for forestry projects which are essential to fulfill the fundamental purposes of this section. Emphasis shall be given to community woodlots, agroforestry, reforestation, protection of watershed forests, and more effective forest management.

(c) Increased agricultural production in least developed countries

The Congress finds that the greatest potential for significantly expanding availability of food for people in rural areas and augmenting world food production at relatively low cost lies in increasing the productivity of small farmers who constitute a majority of the agricultural producers in developing countries. Increasing the emphasis on rural development and expanded food production in the poorest nations of the developing world is a matter of social justice and a principal element contributing to broadly based economic growth, as well as an important factor in alleviating inflation in the industrialized countries. In the allocation of funds under this section, special attention shall be given to increasing agricultural production in countries which have been designated as “least developed” by the United Nations General Assembly.

(d) Coordination with population planning and health programs

Assistance provided under this section shall also be used in coordination with programs carried out under section 2151b of this title to help improve nutrition of the people of developing countries through encouragement of increased production of crops with greater nutritional value; improvement of planning, research, and education with respect to nutrition, particularly with reference to improvement and expanded use of indigenously produced foodstuffs; and the undertaking of pilot or demonstration programs explicitly addressing the problem of malnutrition of poor and vulnerable people. In particular, the President is encouraged—

(1) to devise and carry out in partnership with developing countries a strategy for programs of nutrition and health improvement for mothers and children, including breast feeding; and

(2) to provide technical, financial, and material support to individuals or groups at the local level for such programs.

(e) Use of local currency proceeds from sales of commodities

Local currency proceeds from sales of commodities provided under the Food for Peace Act [7U.S.C. 1691 et seq.] which are owned by foreign governments shall be used whenever practicable to carry out the provisions of this section.

(f) National food security policies and programs; bilateral and multilateral assistance

The Congress finds that the efforts of developing countries to enhance their national food security deserves encouragement as a matter of United States development assistance policy. Measures complementary to assistance for expanding food production in developing countries are needed to help assure that food becomes increasingly available on a regular basis to the poor in such countries. Therefore, United States bilateral assistance under this chapter and the Food for Peace Act [7 U.S.C. 1691 et seq.], and United States participation in multilateral institutions, shall emphasize policies and programs which assist developing countries to increase their national food security by improving their food policies and management and by strengthening national food reserves, with particular concern for the needs of the poor, through measures encouraging domestic production, building national food reserves, expanding available storage facilities, reducing postharvest food losses, and improving food distribution.

(g) International Fund for Agricultural Development; participation and contributions; availability of appropriations

(1) In order to carry out the purposes of this section, the President may continue United States participation in and may make contributions to the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

(2) Of the aggregate amount authorized to be appropriated to carry out subchapter I of this chapter, up to $50,000,000 for fiscal year 1986 and up to $50,000,000 for fiscal year 1987 may be made available, by appropriation or by transfer, for United States contributions to the second replenishment of the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

2151a–1. Agricultural research

Agricultural research carried out under this chapter shall

(1) take account of the special needs of small farmers in the determination of research priorities,

(2) include research on the interrelationships among technology, institutions, and economic, social, environmental, and cultural factors affecting small-farm agriculture, and

(3) make extensive use of field testing to adapt basic research to local conditions. Special emphasis shall be placed on disseminating research results to the farms on which they can be put to use, and especially on institutional and other arrangements needed to assure that small farmers have effective access to both new and existing improved technology., and

(4) include research on biotechnological advances appropriate to local ecological conditions, including genetically modified technology.

Global Food Security Act of 2009, S.384

SEC. 201. AGRICULTURE, RURAL DEVELOPMENT, AND NUTRITION.

(a) Authority- Section 103(a)(1) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (22 U.S.C. 2151a(a)(1)) is amended–

(1) in subparagraph (B), by striking ‘; and’ and inserting a semicolon;

(2) in subparagraph (C), by striking the period at the end and inserting ‘; and’; and

(3) by adding at the end the following new subparagraphs:

‘(D) to expand the economic participation of people living in extreme poverty and those who lack access to agriculturally productive land, including through productive safety net programs and health and nutrition programs, and to integrate those living in extreme poverty into the economy;

‘(E) to support conservation farming and other sustainable agricultural techniques to respond to changing climatic conditions and water shortages; and

‘(F) to improve nutrition of vulnerable populations, such as children under the age of two years old, and pregnant or lactating women.’.

(b) Authorization of Appropriations- There is authorized to be appropriated to the President to provide assistance under section 103 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (22 U.S.C. 2151a) for the purpose of carrying out activities under this section, in addition to funds otherwise available for such purpose–

(1) $750,000,000 for fiscal year 2010; (2) $1,000,000,000 for fiscal year 2011; (3) $1,500,000,000 for fiscal year 2012; (4) $2,000,000,000 for fiscal year 2013; and (5) $2,500,000,000 for fiscal year 2014.

Sec. 202. Agricultural Research.

Section 103A of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (22 U.S.C. 2151a-1) is amended in the first sentence–

(1) by striking ‘, and (3) make’ and inserting ‘, (3) make’; and

(2) by striking the period at the end and inserting ‘, and (4) include research on biotechnological advances appropriate to local ecological conditions, including genetically modified technology.’.